Welcome to the Academy: A Plethora of ContradictionsI often tell my students of various races and backgrounds, “Be careful in selecting your careers because there will be times when you will question your sanity as to why you selected your chosen profession.” I also tell them they should never work in an environment if they do not feel good about getting out of bed and coming to work.
This is a credo I’ve held for nearly 20 years. One of the things I did not understand when I decided to live by this creed was that the academy can be a plethora of contradictions. On the one hand, “it” espouses to be one of the most liberal and democratic organizational enterprises. On the other hand, it is rarely challenged to the point of looking at its practices and seeing the constant injustices African Americans and other underrepresented groups face.
The highly profiled public debate surrounding former Harvard University professor Dr. Cornel West gives reason for pause and reflection on how far we’ve actually “not” come in the academy. Whether one agrees with West’s ideology, the mere fact he was challenged by the “establishment” to examine not only how he spends his time but also asked to acquiesce to the status quo is both mind-boggling and extremely discouraging. It’s discouraging because West represents the true essence of a scholar. What he postulates is sound and truly presents the opportunity for critical dialogue among “scholars” in myriad fields. In addition, his work consistently has been well-regarded and critically analyzed by some of the most renowned intellectuals in higher education.
The “Cornel West Debate” — as I respectfully call it — is also discouraging because West’s work is being attacked by those who not only refuse to see their own arrogance but also refuse to open up their lens to broaden the definition of scholarship.
As I travel around the country, African American and Latino students often ask me, “Why should I choose to pursue an advanced degree and teach at the collegiate level when one is not free to teach and produce scholarship that reflects one’s own experiences?” While I have very few answers to this question, my response is always fraught with hope that one day our persistent efforts to transform higher education into a “true” community of scholars will be realized. However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the diligence and hard work of Black, Brown and White scholars who have helped up to this point. I truly believe we have made significant progress in opening the doors to higher education.
Still, it would be nice to dedicate oneself to a profession in higher education where one’s day is occupied by activities such as teaching, research and service, as is often the case with our White counterparts. However, the truth of the matter is that whether African Americans choose to ignore the challenges or roll up their sleeves and actively participate to help to change the culture, we must continue to serve multiple roles. These multifarious duties include, but are not limited to, serving as mentors for many African American students and as an “experiential” group for many White students who, through their own isolation, never have been taught by an African American professor. So, not only are African Americans asked to participate in an academic setting whose ethos we have not helped to develop, but we are also asked to be the constant experts on African American issues.
I am sure our views on equity and equality in the academy are as diverse as we are as individuals. The bottom line, however, is results and anything else is rhetoric.— Dr. Lee Jones is associate dean for academic affairs and instruction and associate professor of educational leadership at Florida State University.
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