The absence of mentorship for Black women scholars could ultimately result in a dwindling pipeline.
There’s some good news in the academy regarding Black women: They occupy a number of high-profile executive posts in higher education. Dr. Ruth Simmons is president of Brown University; Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson heads Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College. Furthermore, in recent months, Dr. Pamela Trotman Reid and Carmen Twillie Ambar assumed the presidencies of Saint Joseph College in Connecticut and Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, respectively.
But whether Black women scholars want to follow in their footsteps or continue in a teaching or research capacity, the bad news is that many feel they are left to navigate the personal and professional politics of the academy on their own. Such an experience makes for a lonely and frustrating road to travel, and circumstances that could already be resulting in a dwindling pipeline of scholars of color.
Take the case of Dr. Heather Tarleton. In 2006, she earned a doctorate in molecular biology from Princeton University at the age of 26. She was the only Black student in her program. The rigor of her doctoral program would ultimately pale in comparison to the difficulty she had charting a career path. Absent a mentor, she made career decisions without the guidance of a more senior scholar.
“When I finished my Ph.D. at Princeton, I really didn’t know what to do next,” says Tarleton. “I hadn’t received the mentorship that I needed to really understand academia.”
She was offered a job at the National Institutes of Health, but instead accepted a nontenure- track faculty position in the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I was enticed by it because it was still in academia, but I just didn’t know about the tenure-track route,” recalls Tarleton. “Unlike most lecturer positions, I was offered the opportunity to make up my own courses. So here I was 26 years old, just received a Ph.D., and I was given this opportunity to be creative and to be interdisciplinary — which had essentially been my training — to be able to merge the life sciences and the social sciences.”
Tarleton taught for a year, creating two courses from scratch — one on biomedical ethics, the other on stem cell biology and policy. Teaching gave her insight into life as a faculty member, but she also realized she wanted more.
After a year of teaching, the graduate division at UCLA offered her a position as director of diversity programs, the post she currently holds. Tarleton considers the past year one of professional development. A year in which she finally got the mentorship from faculty members and administrators of color that she did not receive in graduate school. It’s also made her future career path a little clearer.
“If I really want to do administration, and the teaching and the research, I have to go tenure-track faculty. So that’s what I’ve decided,” says Tarleton. “So now in order to go the tenure-track faculty route, I have to go do a post doc,” she says with some amusement. Tarleton says she’s applying for the University of California’s President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, which aims to increase diversity among the postdoctoral pool and thereby increase faculty diversity within the UC system’s top research institutions. She expects the postdoc to take two to three years to complete.
If only she had had a mentor to tell her there was a less circuitous route, “It would have completely changed my track,” Tarleton says. “I think I would’ve gone for the postdoc and been on my way to a faculty position by now.”
Avoiding the Pitfalls
Makeba L. Clay, director of Princeton University’s Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, knew Tarleton while she was a graduate student at Princeton and says her situation is not that uncommon. In her role as president of the Association of Black Women in Higher Education, Clay says the issue of mentorship comes up often.
“We talk about how sometimes our mentors don’t look like us and how to go about finding mentors that may look like you or may not. And how that’s OK, as long as this is going to help you tease out the things that you need to focus on for the advancement of your career,” Clay says. “Mentorship is a big piece that people talk about. Needing, wanting and having lack of.”
Dr. Koritha Mitchell, an assistant professor of English at The Ohio State University, was assigned two mentors when she joined OSU’s faculty. In addition, she says she actively cultivates her own mentors, but even with mentors Mitchell found out first hand that life in the academy for Black women scholars is not without unique challenges.
“When students are not used to seeing someone of color and a woman, and you walk into that classroom, they assume that you’re not qualified,” says Mitchell, who’s in her fourth year of teaching. “Even after all these years, it simply does not ring qualified to them. My skin, my gender, do not read to them ‘qualified.’”
Mitchell also discovered that such impressions from students can show up on teacher evaluations, but having a mentor in this case proved valuable.
“It was great because this young Black woman was able to share the same sort of teaching experiences she had with a small percentage of resistant students,” says Mitchell. “She had experienced both the different response from students and the refusal of colleagues to admit that those differences are impacting the evaluations.”
Despite being in such situations, Mitchell says she’s never entertained the idea that academia was not the place for her. Instead, she tries to put some of the negative things she’s experienced in perspective.
“The bottom line for me is recognizing how little I’m actually enduring compared with generations before me,” says Mitchell. “So for me … it’s always about the people who have paved the way for me, so I want to do good work. That’s truthfully how I navigate this terrain.”
The terrain that Mitchell references encompasses some of the experiences that Black faculty at majority institutions say are unique to them — including the assumption from students and colleagues that they are not qualified to teach at their respective institutions, the lack of mentorship and the feelings of isolation.
These factors and others cause some minorities to rethink their scholarly aspirations, some even before they land their first job in the academy.
“I see a lot of students of color just becoming so disheartened by the idea of going tenure-track faculty. I spend a lot of time mentoring as I’m trying to push myself,” Tarleton says. “Some of my students are just tired. My concern is that we’re losing a lot of talented scholars because they don’t have the support they need.”
JoAnne A. Epps, one of a handful of Black women heading a U.S. law school, says life in the academy is indeed “a different journey.”
“If you didn’t grow up in academia, with one or more parents navigating this, I think this is difficult to imagine,” says Epps, who was named dean of Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law earlier this year. “Many of us have an idea of what it would be like to be a physician or what it would be like to be a fireman, but you don’t really have an idea of what it would be like to be an academic. You can’t really know this profession from the outside.”
Epps says identifying a mentor is one of the first things junior faculty members should do. She recommends scholars first look at their home institution for a mentor, but says not to rule out seeking a mentor at another institution or someone in another academic discipline.
“What you’re looking for is somebody who understands how the academy works. And you’re not limited to just one mentor,” says Epps. “But as you pick the primary person, what you’re looking for is someone who wants you to succeed and who will give you some suggestions about how to avoid pitfalls.”
Tarleton hopes to be one of those mentors. She’s already making sure the graduate students she works with know about, for example, minority doctoral organizations.
She recently sent a group of students to Southern Regional Education Board’s Compact for Diversity’s Annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, a gathering of minority doctoral students she didn’t know existed when she was a graduate student.
“So many of them come back [from the SREB conference] refreshed,” Tarleton says. “They’re refreshed because they see hundreds of people of color all on the same path and they see that critical mass. This is the kind of support they need.”
Epps offers some words of encouragement to those junior scholars that Tarleton says are “flying in the wind and learning the hard way.”
“You are not alone. And don’t ever let yourself think you’re alone. It [the academy] really is different,” says Epps. “But it’s definitely something that can be handled and managed. And you can succeed. If you got in [the academy], you can succeed.”
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