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The Impact of Whiteness on Higher Education Hiring

Many African-Americans grow up knowing that you must be “twice as good to get half as far.” I think that this structure and forced frame of thought is embedded with racism. Why aren’t there opportunities available for everyone based on your own merit and your qualifications for the role?

Dr. Frederick V. Engram, Jr.Dr. Frederick V. Engram, Jr.

I say this from the perspective of a higher education professional of color with 13 years of experience. Did I mention that I also hold a terminal degree? I guess I should have led with that.

The academy – as much as it pretends to welcome diversity, inclusion and equitable opportunities – is misleading. I consider myself like most of my peers to be a go-getter, self-starter, innovative, change agent and a profound leader. This might come across as controversial but, quite frankly, I do not care. The system of higher education is wired to promote those with a closer proximity to Whiteness while at the same time creating a barrier for men and women alike who look like me.

I am in month four of my post-graduation interview and application process. Quite frankly my peers and I are exhausted.

However, that isn’t what has my goat. The more demoralizing fact is that I am applying for roles led by individuals with less experience or education than myself. I like to consider myself to be a diligent professional. I have gone above and beyond in my work because I believe in it. In the roles that I have had, I worked at bettering the work space, but also bettering my own skills.

Before anyone dares to think it, I’m not a difficult employee or colleague. I just believe in being fair and just, and when that isn’t a card in play I call it out.

In the past few months, I have had the unpleasurable experience of interacting with two White males in leadership. Both individuals hold a bachelor’s degree (only), or a master’s in education. However, both were in a position to interview or hire me. What’s interesting is that the roles that both men occupy typically require a terminal degree and years of experience. Perhaps that’s only said to persons of color on the job market. There are roles that I would not be considered for due to lack of experience or education, previously. I did what most persons of color in this country do when faced with professional hurdles. I went back to school.

I have created a method that I employ to get beyond the hiring education guardians (human resources). Once I apply for a role, I also send my materials to the hiring manager. Many will advise against this, and I will emphatically push back. Why? Because scared money don’t make no money. You must (as a person of color) create a pathway to a potential hire for yourself. If that means attempting to gain access or providing an opportunity aside from HR, then I encourage it. The academy has not ever been fair to us, so why should we have to play fair in seeking out opportunities?

I applied for the role and then e-mailed the hiring manager, who stated: “Mr. Engram, please be sure to follow the submission instructions required by Human Resources for full consideration.”

There are two things wrong with this response: 1. In my signature, my credentials are listed. However, instead of calling me Dr. Engram he insisted on Mr. Engram. 2. Why would he assume that I wasn’t aware of submission instructions or how to adhere to them?

I’m sure someone is saying it is not that deep. However, I beg to differ.

This gentleman is a VP of enrollment management and marketing and holds a master’s in education degree. It is very common for White men in positions of authority to exhibit fragility as it pertains to interacting with persons of color. This typically occurs when persons of color have achieved higher levels of education or increased experience beyond that of the authoritative party.

Someone would ask, “How does he know that you’re African-American?” Answer: A simple Google search of my name will answer that question. Please don’t be fooled into thinking that this does not occur.

The second gentleman holds a bachelor’s degree and is the director of enrollment management at an R1 institution. Yes, you read that correctly. As an African-American man in higher education, this would never happen. There are too many barriers to hire for a role such as this. I would likely be laughed out of the room if I showed up with a bachelor’s degree for any role outside of entry level. What is more offensive is that he has been in higher education for only two years.

In a conversation with the second gentleman, he asked if I would be interested in working for him. I figured he meant as a director in his operation. Instead, he was looking to offer me a role as an “enrollment coach,” a fancy title for admissions counselor. This is after he e-mailed me about my “impressive background.” This is also after he asked about my detailed experiences in my previous two roles and said “Wow!” when he heard the abridged version of my duties, successes and achievements. To then offer me a role as his subordinate was beyond disrespectful, regardless of my availability.

Once I indicated what I was looking for and my salary requirements, he mentioned two additional roles. One as an associate director, and the other as an associate dean. He indicated that the associate dean role is more “work”. Not to say that I wasn’t able to perform the role, but that competition would be steep. This was also an assumption that someone like me would prefer the easy way out. I haven’t pursued and completed a doctorate while working as a director for the past three years to take the easy way out. In fact, I welcome the challenge of learning something new and exciting. More importantly I have amassed the skills and credentials for this work. Bring it on!

I have worked in higher education off and on for the better part of 13 years. If I were to apply for or contend for a role such as the aforementioned, I would be subject to an intense interview process. In addition to the interview process, I would likely have to wait months to hear back. This is a very real thing that I’m currently experiencing.

Why is it that the interview process and leadership opportunities seem so readily available for White men but not for persons of color and women? The answer is that privilege is afoot. Whiteness and privilege allow for individuals (who if they were of color would make them unfit to serve) to attain roles that they don’t qualify for.

There must be a way to upset and disrupt this hierarchical structure. I understand that this article might be an unpopular opinion for most and some might be turned off by it. This article, my research and my voice are not – nor will they ever be – intended to pacify those in oppressive authority. In fact, they are intended to provide a disruptive voice, stance and perspective on a system that is rigged and ruled by Whiteness as an advantage.

Higher education cannot continue to move forward and exist if it continues to create barriers for actual diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. Frederick V. Engram, Jr. is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Education at American University, a graduate enrollment expert and a critical race theorist. You can follow him on Twitter @VanCarlito2003  

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