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Perspectives: Current Tenure Process Deters Minority Women Professors

It may appear to some like not much has changed in Ann Arbor since Proposal 2 was passed last November, but the ban on race- and sex-based affirmative action has already had devastating results at the University of Michigan. Despite administrative attempts to maintain racial parity, the university’s diversity initiative faces steep odds.

Enrollment of minority students has dropped since 2006. More recently, diversity efforts have been stalled by the denial of tenure to five female professors of color – Jayati Lal (Sociology and Women’s Studies), Maria Sanchez (English), Sarita See (American Culture and English), Andrea Smith (American Culture and Women’s Studies) and Jacqueline Francis (CAAS and Art History). As a female student of color, I am compelled to voice my support for these assistant professors.

As an undergraduate student at California State University at Northridge, I struggled to make my education more relevant to myself. I sought out an interdisciplinary academic environment by declaring a double major in Latin American Studies and Psychology. While Latin American Studies sparked my interest in graduate studies, professors of color sustained that interest and helped me reach my academic ambitions. Without such faculty as role models, instructors and mentors, I may not have fulfilled my potential. As a School of Social Work student at the University of Michigan, I actively seek out faculty of color, especially female scholars who share similar research interests.

Given the university’s stated commitment to diversity, it is unlikely that the denial of tenure is a result of blatant discrimination. Institutional barriers are more likely the culprits. According to former American Sociological President William Bielby, “Visible trace of bias lies in patterns of segregation within and across organizations.” Indeed, tenured positions at colleges nationwide are characterized by patterns of segregation.

In 1999, The New York Times reported that after the passage of Proposition 209, which banned race- and sex-based affirmative action in California, the percentage of new minority hires for tenure-track positions dropped by 50 percent, and the percentage of new female hires for tenure-track positions dropped by a third. Looking at the Faculty Census Report of 2001, the University of Michigan awarded only 28 percent of its tenured or tenure-track appointments to women. Women of color continue to be virtually invisible in the tenured and tenure-track jobs.

Broadening the criteria used during tenure evaluation may increase the advancement of women of color. Many speculate that the lack of prestigious publications is to blame for denial of tenure. In other words, because the work of women of color may be published in venues outside traditional academic journals, their research is perceived to have less academic validity. However, women of color may be addressing audiences other than those who head the traditional journals. If this is the case, I question whether the productivity of faculty should be measured solely by the exogenous recognition of renowned scholarly journals.

I’m not advocating for the promotion of certain faculty members simply because they are women of color. Instead, tenure criteria should reflect the university’s commitment to racial and academic diversity by acknowledging the social identity of such faculty members as an asset. The student body benefits greatly from faculty diversity. A homogenous faculty cannot meet the needs of a diverse student population, especially not minority students who seek faculty of color who they can relate to on personal and academic levels. If the university hopes to promote the academic achievement of minority students, it should also commit to advancing the careers of minority faculty.

The university thrives because of the diversity of its students and faculty. Should tenure continue to be denied for female scholars of color, the previous advances made toward diversity at the University will certainly be reversed. The university has much to lose if female scholars of color are discouraged from establishing academic careers here. President Gerald Ford, a university alum, eloquently illustrated the need for diversity when he stated that we must “offset past injustices by fashioning a campus population more truly reflective of Modern America.”

Adriana Aldana is a graduate student in the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a member of the school’s Multicultural & Gender Affairs Committee.

This column is reprinted with permission from The Michigan Daily,

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