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Subjectively Objective: Tenure and the Underrepresented Minority Faculty

As we start another fall, for a number of us young, underrepresented, minority faculty we wrestle with one decision: do I go up or not? Like many other disciplines, higher education has its own lexicon. The phrase “going up” is a crossdisciplinary term specific to the faculty side of academe. A number of us this month will have submitted our letters indicating our decision to go up or not. We will have decided to subject ourselves to the review of our peers, to thereby run the gantlet and see if we can be deemed worthy and of value to our respective universities.

Dr. Erin Lynch-AlexanderDr. Erin Lynch-Alexander

In a time period when the landscape of higher education has called for more color through diverse faces, one would think our high-achieving and underrepresented minorities would be invited to run the gantlet with strict supervision and mentorship to better prepare them. Such is not the case. Evidence can be seen in the most recent incident with Dr. Aimee Bangh’s tenure denial at Dartmouth last spring.

Forty years ago, Menges and Exum cited the institutionalized barriers to tenure for women and minority faculty. A generation later, Fenelon presented research that suggested tenure and promotion committees were used as vehicles to maintain dominant ideologies that perpetuated institutionally racist outcomes.

Perna, just 10 years ago, shed light on the disparagingly different rates of tenure for female faculty with families. Just this summer, Louis, Rawls, et al., illustrated trends like minority (specifically Black) faculty serving their universities in more mentoring, advising, and service roles on “committees that address minority issues and diversity initiatives.”

Labeled as cultural taxation by Padilla, these roles are recognized as a hindrance to our ability to focus on scholarship productivity, and that service not being valued by other faculty. As if not enough, NCES empirical data statistically support that, for every 10 early career underrepresented minority faculty joining academe, nine will not make it to full professor. We are embarking on nearly half a century of research that speaks to the microaggressively institutionalized practices that contribute to the lack of equitably tenured and promoted underrepresented minorities in academe.

While we have been able to address discriminatory hiring practices through the EEOC, we have not been fully able to remove them from the sacredly protected peer validation of tenure.

Even for institutions with less obscure probationary employment guidelines for tenure and promotion policies, there exists a double standard for underrepresented minorities. This double standard exists where the middle-(wo)men in our educational hierarchy are emboldened with the ability to circumvent policies with subjective perceptions on the quality of the contributions of young, underrepresented minority faculty.

In a world where online internationally juried conferences and webinar presentations are becoming commonplace in more innovative conferences, and where traditional academic-themed book sales are down, which has forced publishers to create more innovative and frequently published online blind-review journals, a shift in defining academic scholarship is occurring. It is a shift to which younger minority faculty are adapting.

Younger minority faculty are writing more frequently, disseminating their work more often and being less likely to publish with the major academic publishing houses of the 20th century. Yet those very policies that are designed to retain those deemed as worthy and valuable to the university are slow to adapt.

In a qualitative study I conducted last year, 25 Black faculty from diversely classified institutions across the country were asked to share their experiences with the tenure process. An overwhelming trend emerged from the responses.

First, a lack of meaningful mentorship discouraged faculty from being retained at their university, and secondly, tenure was a subjective process that was confusing to the Black faculty.

One participant indicated when they “went up” the committee questioned why the faculty members had not “gone up earlier.” Another participant indicated they were told by a mentor in their first year, “Just do the minimum and you’ll be okay.” Yet in their tenure-eligible year, the dean articulated they needed nearly 50 scholarly tasks to include publications, grants and presentations to even earn support for tenure.

Another participant articulated that, on their path to tenure, they were “warned” about the lack of annual publications, yet were tasked as a junior faculty member to coordinate an entire communications’ program for the college on top of their academic course load. The faculty member verbalized there was just no time to conduct meaningful research in their field.

Is it no wonder that young, underrepresented minority faculty flee the classrooms of higher education to high-paying administrative positions in student affairs to satiate their passion to serve minority student populations, or private corporations to serve as researchers to guide policy development, or the increasing trend to become independent consultants?

As we commence another exciting year, planning our scholarly endeavors, passionately seeking the opportunity for our scholarship to make changes in the world around us, we are faced with fear.

This fear is that what we seek to contribute is not “good enough” for our veteran-tenured peers and deans, despite the differences it makes in the lives of our students. Reviewing the subjectively objective process toward tenure is the first impactful and honest discussion academe can have in its attempt to diversify the ranks of the professoriate.

Dr. Erin Lynch-Alexander is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Specialties in the Martha Dickerson Eriksson College of Education at Austin Peay State University.

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