Monthly Archives: November 2012

Problem, Plan, Proposal (not necessarily related)

I described twitter to a former graduate student as the place I go to keep up with politics, see what black faculty from around the country are up to, and to keep track of whatever bad shit happens to black folks on any given day.  It’s also one of the best ways to keep up with the latest conversations about diversity and higher education.  There is never time enough to respond to it, especially during the semester, but a few essays, articles, and blog posts have made it to my bookmarks and are worth noting.

A Problem
At heart I’m a numbers girl.  They impress me. Statistics make me feel safe and secure. It doesn’t matter that we can make them say whatever we want them to say; I trust that, in the end, they will bear the truth out.  And so while I planned an anthology that would focus on personal narratives rather than numbers, I’ve been secretly hoping that a study like the one that Julia Jordan-Zachary posted on twitter would pop up.    It’s not news to me or anyone who is paying attention that faculty of color are tenured at a lower rate than their white counterparts, but it’s nice to have numbers.  This study out of USC does a rare thing—offers hard numbers on the tenure status of faculty of color.  While it’s relatively easy to track the demographics of the professoriate, finding numbers about individual institutions’ retentions rates are trickier.

Mai’a K. Davis Cross worked with Jane Junn, a political scientist, to bolster her discrimination suit against the University of Southern California through the magic of data collection and math. Here is what she and her colleague in political science found. From 1998 to 2012:

92 % of white men in the social sciences and humanities were awarded tenure
55% of women and faculty of color* were awarded tenure
81% of white junior faculty (this includes men and women) were awarded tenure
48% of faculty of color promoted to associate professor
66.7% of white women were awarded tenure compared to 40% of Asian-American women

For now, I’ll let the numbers stand for themselves, especially since Cross and Junn were careful to exclude those faculty members who left before coming up for tenure and because Cross’s tenure case sounds like Jane Iwamura’s tenure case. For some, the natural question will be to ask what’s wrong with the faculty of color at USC. In response I’d say that this is exactly the wrong question. The disparity is a clear sign that the problem is not with the faculty but with USC’s review process.

And speaking of allure of numbers and stastics…
It might be a coincidence that a week or so after I asked Jordan-Zachary if there were any hard facts about women in publishing, she posted a link to study that shows how much (or how little) women publish in various fields.

A Plan
Powerhouse Tressie McMillan Cottom edited a heartbreaking collection of stories by African-American women about health in the academy for the Feminist Wire. The essay that intrigued me most was the idea of The Frenemy Project. I’m not crazy about the name, but it does capture the tension that can poison the very necessary relationships between and among academics of color. In some academic utopia black women are natural allies with those who have a lot helping out those who have a little. Absent that, deliberate community building is a necessary and practical truth. I’m lucky to have a small circle of women I trust and rely on, readers who I can show my work to when it’s in its roughest form and sounding boards that keep me mostly balanced. We offer unvarnished critiques of each other’s writing without tearing one another down (even in that subtle way that so many women have mastered oh so well). We fell together in a way that’s possible in Brooklyn and a few other enclaves, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting some smart somebody. It’s tricky in other areas where writers and academics find themselves mostly alone or far from peers and allies. And while this is not a problem that is unique to black women, or women, or academics, or writers, or even people, the stakes are much higher given how poorly women of color are treated in the academy. What I like most about this idea is that women can support one another primarily through a shared interest in their research and teaching. I much prefer this model to the myth of some warm-fuzzy community that requires us all to be friends and “sisters” (or, god forbid, “sistahs”).

A Proposal
Over at the SIUE blog a post considers an interesting question: “The Ta-Nehisi Coats Model; or, What if Universities & Companies had Diversity Plans like The Atlantic?” I don’t know if Coates’ position at The Atlantic is the result of a systematic attempt to diversify the magazine, but it’s important that, as SIUE points out, Coates’ is not only the only black senior editor at the magazine but the only one who doesn’t hail from an elite institution (though they rightly note that he is a product of Howard University’s best traditions):

When elite or high profile universities and companies seek to diversify or practice some form of affirmative action, they often seek out elite people of color to join them.

Some years ago when a leading administrator at a major university was criticized for not hiring any senior black professors in African American literature, the official became defensive and said “No, but we really tried to get Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was just unwilling to leave Harvard.” The official seemed oblivious to the facts that Gates was hardly the only senior black professor in the country and that searches for black faculty could extend beyond Harvard. Unfortunately, institutions too often compete for only a select group of students and employees with elite credentials.

There’s a whole conversation to be had about the different ways writers are culturally and institutionally credentialed , and hiring someone to teach writing is different than hiring someone to teach history. But the idea that institutions need to broaden where they look for the best and the brightest just makes good sense. It might even lead to lasting diversity if a professor’s training was an actual fit with the hiring department. There’s no use bringing in someone trained for a Research I into a department with a mission that focuses on undergraduate teaching.

Part of the problem is that often institutions are only looking for diversity in the narrowest sense. To put it bluntly, they are looking for colored versions of what they already have. This can certainly lead to diversity of a kind, but it would seem that any organization committed to rigorous intellectual discourse would want as many smart voices at the table as possible and that the definition of “smart” would be flexible and that those voices wouldn’t only come from the Ivies and the Big Tens.

The USC stats are depressing, the need for the Frenemy Project points to a serious problem in the academy, and the truth of it is that few institutions are willing to do the work it takes to find the next big Coates, but what I’m struck by is how, especially in the USC study, the critiques of the academy are coming from within its ranks, using tools learned in its classrooms and tested in its peer-reviewed venues to show its shortcomings. It’s not as exciting or sexy as making revolutionary statements, but it will probably do more to dismantle some persistent barriers.

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