Dr. Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey's suicide on Jan. 8, has sparked a national conversation for higher education to dramatically improve its treatment of Black women.
In an email sent on the day of her death, Candia-Bailey, who served as vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University in Missouri, a historically Black university, accused Dr. John Moseley, the university's president, of harassment and bullying.
“You had no intention of retaining me as the (vice president of student affairs),” she wrote in the email. “It went downhill after the [Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act] documents were submitted due to my severe depression and anxiety. I requested to be removed under your leadership and from (the president’s advisory council) as this was causing significant attacks. This is all documented and emails sent.”
She also noted in the email about receiving a poor professional evaluation from Moseley.
In the days following her suicide, Moseley went on paid administrative leave while the school hired a a third party to review “potential personnel issues and concerns.” Students have protested, and some have called for Moseley, who is white, to be fired.
On Jan. 9, Dr. Sherman Bonds, president of Lincoln’s National Alumni Association, wrote to Victor Pasley, president of Lincoln’s Board of Curators, asking for a change in leadership.
"The ineffective leadership Dr. Moseley has demonstrated through his tenure, particularly in this situation with the lack of support alleged by Dr. [Candia-Bailey] and her death, impacts the institution's health, and that in itself, calls for a change in order for the mass group of people impacted to heal – students, faculty, and alumni,” said Bonds, in an interview with Diverse.
Bonds called for transparency from the school and said that his concern is for the well-being of Lincoln students.
“As the alumni association, we want to assure the students have the things that they need as best we can," he said. "They have the alumni association to work with them on clarifying, identifying, and presenting their voice."
Scholars nationwide have responded to Candia-Bailey’s death with sadness and heartbreak, but also said that this tragedy allows for a broader conversation about the plight of Black women in the academy.
"Bonnie has been a supporter, mentor, coach, and friend to so many,” said Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, vice provost and director of research for the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University. “And so, when you find someone who is so selfless and read about their own challenges and time when they really needed support themselves, it is certainly disheartening."
Though he did not have first-hand knowledge regarding the allegations against Moseley, his research into workplace belonging has shown that bullying, harassment, overburdening, and sabotage of Black women in higher ed does indeed exist, he said. And the results can be burnout, “silent resignation,” or even death.
Black women face hardship from multiple fronts because of their race and their gender, scholars told Diverse. This misogynoir – prejudice against Black women – is present in a number of settings, and higher ed is no exception.
"In pretty much every institution – whether it be medicine, politics, military, higher education – the experiences of Black women, while they're not the same, there are stories and similar narratives of experiencing being marginalized [and] discrimination based on those intersecting identities,” said Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique, dean of education, health, and human services at Benedict College.
Presumptions and stereotypes of Black women being angry, aggressive, and difficult to work with come up, and as a result, many women don’t get the chance to demonstrate their skills, and empathetic leadership, Carter-Francique said.
Many Black women also suffer intersectional discrimination out in the world, which can lead to trauma, mental health challenges, and “racial battle fatigue,” even before they step foot into academia. And when they do enter the ivory tower, these issues can be exacerbated, said Dr. Maia Hoskin, an assistant professor of counseling at Loyola Marymount University.
Once inside higher ed, they face issues of retention, microaggression, and unfair policies and procedures – among others – which are reflective of an institution that wasn’t originally built with them in mind, Hoskin said.
"Higher ed institutions were not designed or built with the intention to support Black women faculty, or women at all. They were intended to support white, elite males,” she said. “Higher ed institutions were not designed with nurturing and supporting the success of Black women or women overall."
She urges Black women in higher ed to prioritize themselves and ask for help when needed, though she noted that Candia-Bailey had asked for help but her requests were dismissed.
“Please be advised the Board of Curators does not engage in the management of personnel issues for Lincoln University and will not be taking further action related to this issue,” board president Pasley wrote in response to Candia-Bailey’s complaints about her treatment.
Some view Candia-Bailey’s tragedy as a sad wake-up call for higher ed.
“Higher education institutions have in recent years been called into accountability for ensuring the inclusion, safety, and well-being of students, especially those holding marginalized identities,” said Dr. Felecia Commodore. “I believe this tragedy rings the bell that it is beyond time for that same call of accountability to extend to institutions' relationships with their employees, especially those who have historically experienced harm in the workplace.”
Dr. Joy Lawson-Davis, a faculty member at the Bridges Graduate School for Cognitive Diversity, said she could relate to some of what she read about Candia-Bailey’s experiences. She said she hoped this death will actually lead to change.
"It has made the nation stand on edge for a moment, I think,” Lawson-Davis said. “I hope we stand on edge long enough so that we can begin to make a difference and change some conditions for Black female scholars."
Even if Lincoln’s third-party review does not find harassment and bullying in a strict sense, Candia-Bailey's feelings and concerns should not be ignored, Strayhorn said. Rather, schools can still do better to support their people and create more welcoming and equitable environments," he added.
“There was a Black woman in higher education who is no longer here because of what she perceived as workplace bullying, mistreatment, and psychological violence,” Strayhorn said. “And let's not do what we have done for far too long in this country: dismiss the story, silence the voice, or raise questions about issues of integrity and veracity that only muddy the water.
“Let's talk about what can we do to never experience this again.”