When she was hired as a professor by Harvard University in 2013, Lorgia Garcia Pena was the only Black Latina on a tenure track in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But in 2019, she was denied tenure even though her department chair and two deans had told her that she should apply for early tenure. Her tenure committee also unanimously recommended she be promoted, and another committee above that endorsed its recommendation. About two years later, famed professor and public intellectual Cornel West announced that he, too, was leaving Harvard after the university refused to grant him tenure. And of course, this spring we learned that Pulitzer Prize-winning, MacArthur Fellowship recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina — after the university’s journalism school had recruited her to become its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. That decision was later reversed, but by that point, it was too late to convince her to stay.
These stories made headlines and sparked outrage, especially among academics, in part because they were some of the biggest “no-brainer” tenure cases — those three scholars are among the most famous and well-regarded in their respective fields. Denying them tenure is functionally equivalent to having MVP-caliber athletes on your roster but sending them to play for another team.
But the other reason these cases sparked outrage is that they shined a light on a larger problem that lurks beneath the surface of academia. It’s a problem that academia — like the rest of American society — doesn’t like to acknowledge: Academia has a problem with race.
This is one of higher education’s most insidious secrets. Academia is a place where, to use the language of sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, there is racism without racists. By that, we mean that although most people prefer to think that they or their colleagues are good people who would not intentionally discriminate, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that racism plays an important role in the structure and function of academic institutions. It affects what gets researched and taught in courses, the methods that are used to conduct that research and the topic we will primarily focus on today: The people who are included — or excluded — from academic institutions in the first place.
Let’s start by first looking at the demographics of academic institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics keeps detailed records of this in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). That database provides demographic breakdowns of students and faculty who work at colleges and universities in the U.S., which can be compared to the demographic makeup of the overall U.S. population.
One of the things you can see when looking at that database is that Black, Hispanic, American Indian and mutiracial faculty members are underrepresented in the faculty ranks, compared to not only their share of the U.S. population but also to the student bodies of colleges and universities.
But those statistics, though troubling in their own right, actually mask a bigger issue, given how the American academic system is set up. The word “faculty” is an umbrella term that obscures some important hierarchical divisions, including the difference between tenure-track and tenured professors versus untenured professors. It’s a pretty important distinction, too. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 21 percent of faculty are tenured.
Tenure is, admittedly, an unusual concept in most professions, but is an important feature of academia: Tenured positions are indefinite appointments that are designed to safeguard academic freedom. To use the language of the AAUP:
“When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge. Tenure provides the conditions for faculty to pursue research and innovation and draw evidence-based conclusions free from corporate or political pressure.”
In other words, it protects faculty, like Hannah-Jones, when they pursue questions and projects (like the 1619 project) that political actors might find objectionable. The ability to pursue knowledge freely has been one of the hallmarks of our higher education system. It’s worth asking, then, who does — and does not — get the opportunity to hold those coveted tenure-track and tenured positions at America’s universities. The answer to that question is even more sobering than the statistics we just shared.
Over the past decade, colleges and universities have been discussing the need to diversify their faculty: In particular, they’ve tried to increase the share of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous faculty members, all of whom have historically been underrepresented in the faculty ranks. Faculty diversity initiatives can be seen at universities around the country, including Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago. But despite all of the talk about increasing diversity, it does not seem like universities have made much progress — at least when it comes to the diversity of the tenure-track and tenured faculty.
According to the IPEDS database, underrepresented minority faculty (URM) comprised roughly 11 percent of tenure-track or tenured faculty in 2013 and increased to just 12 percent of tenure-track or tenured faculty in 2019. The numbers weren’t much better for universities looking to increase the gender diversity of their tenure-track or tenured faculty either. Over that same period of time, the share of tenure-track or tenured faculty who were women increased from roughly 41 percent to 43 percent.
Hispanic or Latino
Black or African American
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
American Indian or Alaska Native
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System
Why have colleges and universities struggled to diversify the upper ranks of their faculty even though they’ve publicly talked about increasing faculty diversity and in some cases even committed funding toward faculty diversity initiatives? One of the biggest reasons is that many universities still struggle to retain the women and people of color they hire as part of those initiatives.
For example, at Cornell University, where two of us work, a recent task-force report on the university’s faculty diversity efforts noted that the university had hired 37 professors from URM backgrounds and 97 female professors from 2011 to 2018. But despite those hiring gains, the university also failed to retain 19 URM and 64 female professors during that same time period. These retention struggles help explain why Cornell, despite being the “any person, any study” university, still has so few Black women who are tenured faculty.
There are, of course, many reasons that faculty leave institutions. Sometimes they get better offers at other institutions. Other times they move for family or other personal reasons. But there is a third set of reasons that tie back to the examples we opened with: While many academic institutions claim to want to have a diverse faculty, many of them engage in practices that ultimately push those faculty out.
First, consider who gets to make the rules. Tenured scholars who, as we’ve noted, are mostly white and male, largely make the rules that determine who else can join the tenured ranks. This involves what sociologists call “boundary work,” or the practice of a group setting rules to determine who is good enough to join. And as such, many of the rules established around tenure over the years work really well for white scholars, but don’t adequately capture the contributions of scholars of color. For instance, getting tenure often requires some combination of demonstrating excellence in research (measured by publication metrics and funding) and teaching (measured by teaching evaluations). It turns out though, that the topics that scholars of color often research are less likely to receive research funding and, at least in some fields, are less likely to be included in the very journals that are valued for promotion. Scholars of color are also less likely than white scholars to be cited when their work is published. And on the teaching front, women and people of color are often evaluated more poorly than white men, even when they are teaching identical content.
What this all adds up to is that when colleges and universities invite scholars of color to join their ranks and increase the diversity of their faculty, they are inviting them to play a game that’s set up for them to lose. Faculty of color come to an institution looking to teach bright students and conduct innovative research. Instead, they often face hostile work environments where their intellectual contributions are undervalued. Even among the faculty of color who do earn tenure, negative experiences repeatedly prompt them to search for jobs at different institutions.
This leads to an academic shuffle where universities convince the few tenured professors of color to change institutions instead of supporting more professors of color so that they get tenure. And some professors of color — both tenured and untenured — are leaving academia altogether. Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this year that a number of professors of color, especially women of color, have left their universities, citing racism as a primary motivator. We saw this play out at UNC with Hannah-Jones’s tenure case, too, where at least five women of color who were full professors or administrators left the university.
So, where do we go from here? Universities say they want to increase diversity among their faculty ranks, but as we’ve outlined in this article, they have very little to show for those intentions. Fortunately, many scholars of color have written extensively about ways to recruit and retain people of color in academia. For instance, we know that higher education must be clear and transparent about the qualifications for tenure and apply the rules fairly. We also know that it’s not enough for universities to hire just a handful of faculty of color: They must hire enough professors to create a welcoming environment for scholars of color, especially in geographic regions that may not provide social support outside of university life. And perhaps most importantly, colleges and universities must value faculty of color beyond their contributions to achieving the diversity goals of the university.
Higher education cannot look to faculty of color to do the heavy lifting of racial equity work and do their jobs. Otherwise, as we see in the trends above, nothing will change.
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