Category Archives: Race

Lessons from the Collection; or, My 2013 Diversity To Do List

I don’t go in much for New Year’s resolutions (who does anymore?), but I do love making “To Do” lists. I read once that we are more likely to finish tasks if we write them down, and so here is my 2013 Diversity To Do List.

I’ve culled it from the conversations I had in 2012 with faculty and administrators from different parts of the country about diversity and tenure.   These discussions move beyond the challenges (and successes) in the personal narratives collected in the anthology and towards possible strategies and solutions.  They usually started with an invitation to give a talk about diversity and higher education and then meandered a bit as we discussed what such a talk might offer in practical terms (I want do more than preach to the choir or offer trite platitudes).

So, from time to time in the coming year, I’ll be taking up the issues listed below in this space.  I hope they will offer thoughts and suggestions along the lines of this post I wrote about double-diversity and Derrick Bell last year.  I certainly don’t have all of the answers (especially about geographic obstacles to diversity), but I list them now with the hopes that those with more experience and expertise will make recommendations about how to approach these topics, suggest relevant readings, or comment on my thoughts and suggestions:

• Improving the Post-Doc Diversity Fellowship

• How to prepare a search committee to (actually) hire for diversity

• What faculty of color want and need from their white colleagues

• Geographic obstacles—how to build diversity outside of cities where faculty of color tendcluster

• Most common mistakes departments make when hiring faculty of color

• What does good mentoring look like? Or, more specifically, what do junior faculty of color need?

• Diversity through curricular revision; or, the yeoman’s work of bringing in a specialist in ethnic studies (of any kind)

• How to use social media to bolster diversity (does Digital Humanities as a discipline offer a useful model to adapt?)

• How to start a conversation about diversity in your department


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Filed under Race, Race and Tenure Op-Ed, Race and Tenure Reporting

Diversty Round-up: The 2012 List of Books on Diversity

I’ll confess that I always feel a little pit in my stomach when I see that a new book about diversity in higher education goes to print.  I started this project several years ago, and it was slow, difficult work getting it all together, and now it is making the slow journey to publication. It’s difficult to hurry up and wait.  I worry that the narratives I’ve compiled will seem like old news.

Then I remember that an issue as complex and deeply entrenched as this one requires multiple essays, articles, anthologies, and special journal issues.  The goal isn’t to be first but to expand and extend the discussion (it should probably be this in all areas of research but this is especially the case when it comes to diversity).   And I remind myself that more than professional advancement or ego boosts, we need as broad a community as possible to be as informed as possible about this issue.

This is not only a list books that came out this year (Presumed Incompetent) but of books that are important to this conversation that I returned to this year as I finished writing the introduction to the collection.  These are books I looked to as I planned the anthology, and they are books that I think everyone should read—especially white academics who want to do more than just say that they value diversity (or offer the earnest head nod whenever the issue comes up).    And I should say that I am very glad that colleagues in my home department are reading some of these books with me and doing the work to develop and maintain meaningful diversity.

If you know of more good books on the subject, please send the titles my way

(NB: Descriptions are from websites about the books where available).

If you’re going to start anywhere, start with: Deborah Gray White, ed. Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower.  Gender and American Culture Series. (U of North Caroline, P.,  2008).

Engagingly written, Telling Histories should appeal to multiple audiences. Taken together, these stories underscore the firm hold of racism, sexism, and classism within American society in general and the academy and history departments specifically. While presenting and often resolving theoretical and methodological questions, the book not only is valuable for graduate students but is also a significant contribution to the field and should facilitate bringing down barriers, both within and outside the academy, that constrain the professorial ranks, stifle voices, and preclude diverse academicians and scholars from writing and teaching without restraint. The contributors’ content is largely descriptive but it also provides analysis about the progression of scholarly trends and instruction in historiography to historians at all professional stages.

Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs, et al, eds.
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Utah State UP, 2012)

Presumed Incompetent is a pathbreaking account of the intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color. Through personal narratives and qualitative empirical studies, more than 40 authors expose the daunting challenges faced by academic women of color as they navigate the often hostile terrain of higher education, including hiring, promotion, tenure, and relations with students, colleagues, and administrators. The narratives are filled with wit, wisdom, and concrete recommendations, and provide a window into the struggles of professional women in a racially stratified but increasingly multicultural America.

Evans, Stephanie.
Black Women in the Ivory Tower: 1850-1954
(UP Florida 2007).

Evans chronicles the stories of African American women who struggled for and won access to formal education, beginning in 1850, when Lucy Stanton, a student at Oberlin College, earned the first college diploma conferred on an African American woman. In the century between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, a critical increase in black women’s educational attainment mirrored unprecedented national growth in American education. Evans reveals how black women demanded space as students and asserted their voices as educators–despite such barriers as violence, discrimination, and oppressive campus policies–contributing in significant ways to higher education in the United States. She argues that their experiences, ideas, and practices can inspire contemporary educators to create an intellectual democracy in which all people have a voice.

Janis Fay, et al, eds.
Racism in the Academy: The New Millennium.  American Anthropological Association. (2012)

The starting point for this study was through the auspices of our professional scholarly society, the American Anthropological Association. In 2007, then-president Alan Goodman appointed a commission charged with two primary responsibilities:
“(1) to collect information in order to better expose how privilege has been maintained in anthropology and the AAA, including but not limited to departments and the academic pipeline and

(2) to develop a comprehensive plan for the Association and for the field of anthropology to increase the ethnic, racial, gender and class diversity of the discipline and organization.”

Baez, Benjamin. 
Affirmative Action, Hate Speech, and Tenure: Narratives About Race and Law in the Academy
. Benjamin Baez (Routledge Falmer 2002).

I like everything that Baez has written on race in higher education. Everything.

Geok-Lin Lim, Shirley et al, eds.
Power, Race, and Gender in  Academe: Strangers in the Tower.  New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991)

My favorite chapter from this collection is Gunning, Sandra. “Now That They Have Us, What’s the Point?” The Challenge of Hiring to Create Diversity.”

Matthew, Patricia A., ed. 
Written/Unwritten: Tenure and Race in the Humanities (not yet, but I couldn’t resist…)



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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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In which I panic

I was put the finishing touches on the introduction to the collection when I saw an article in the June 1st New York Times that gave me chills.  It’s about how the already financially beleaguered university systems in California (University of California, California State University, and the community colleges) are facing even more budget cuts if the governor’s tax plan is not passed by voters.

In response to the idiotic screed the Chronicle of Higher Education let Naomi Schaefer Riley post on their website, I had written a sentence that felt a bit strident and panicked:

“I predict that the increased scrutiny on how higher education spends it resources will dovetail with the increasing backlash against ethnic studies and put such programs at risk as institutions determine that they can no longer afford diversity.”

More than being upset by her rant (she has virtually no institutional power and I figured she’d be held to sharp account for being careless and unthinking), I viewed it as an id-ridden version of more muted resistances to ethnic studies.  It seemed to me an expression of the attitudes that threaten the stability of ethnic studies and, by extension, a pretty large swath of faculty of color by people who do have institutional power: faculty who vote on what kind of specialists to hire, personnel committees, deans, provosts, etc.

I was deciding whether or not to leave the strident sentence in when I read The NYTimes piece and, in particular, this sentence:

Jon Coupal, the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which strongly opposes the proposed tax increase, said the colleges should do more to show they are cutting spending, like reducing pay for top administrators or closing programs that do not directly benefit the state.

“We’ve had the luxury in prior years of heavily subsidizing colleges,” Mr. Coupal said. “But like anything in California, the delivery of higher education is not performance based. They’ve created new campuses and programs based on politics and not need.”

Almost everything about the statement is anxiety producing.

First Jon Coupal is listed as, “the principal drafter of Proposition 218.”  Here’s a summary of its goals:

Proposition 218 is a major measure with significant implications for local governments, property owners, businesses, and California residents.

The measure would restrict local government’s ability to raise most forms of revenue. This restriction would result in lower payments by individuals and businesses to local government–and less spending for local public services.

Proposition 218’s (1) requirement that many existing fees, assessments and taxes be recalculated and submitted to a vote, (2) expansion of the initiative powers, and (3) shift of burden of proof in lawsuits challenging fee and assessment amounts all serve to increase local residents’ direct control over local government finances, but decrease the certainty in local government finance.

“Public services” include public schools and universities.  Coupal talks about the “luxury” of subsidizing higher education and then he gets to the heart of it: “They’ve created new campuses and programs based on politics and not need.”

That statement should make anyone who cares about diversity in higher education–in the composition of the faculty and in its curriculum very nervous.  “Directly benefit the state” is the kind of language that all humanities professor should be nervous about.  It’s the kind of language that led to the dismantling of several humanities departments at the State University of New York, Albany.

“Programs based on politics” is usually code for ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and GLBT studies.

It was particularly unnerving to read the article as read Nathan I. Huggins essay in Inclusive Scholarship: Developing Black Studies in the United States (A 25th Anniversary Retrospective of Ford Foundation Grant Making 1982-2007). In it he explains how a focus on higher education primarily as training for professions threatened the stability of humanities curriculum:

Public institutions, most having land-grant origins, from the beginning had appealed to their legislatures for funds by citing their immediate contribution to agriculture, mining, and business.  They had always found it easy to design undergraduate curricula that allowed students to avoid “useless” courses in the humanities.  In the postwar period, however, even prestigious universities tolerated an erosion of the liberal arts core.” (21)

He is describing the late 60s and early 70s, a time that marks the rise of Black Studies.  This notion of utility is cropping up again, and this time the protests will happen in the voting booth, at a time when the country is particularly anxious about anything that reflects, represents, or refers to race.

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Bits and Pieces

If you get a chance, be sure to read Christine A. Stanley’s excellent essay “Coloring the Academic Landscape: Faculty of Color Breaking the Silence in Predominately White Colleges and Universities” (American Educational Research Journal. 43:4 (Winter 2006): 701-736). It’s an impressive, wide-ranging report based on a more comprehensive authoethnographic qualitative research project. It’s affirming for those who fear they alone might be facing hostility as faculty of color and useful for those who want concrete suggestions about how to develop and maintain diversity at their home institutions.

So read the whole thing. But click (in your own way), if you resemble these remarks:

I wonder if I were a White male tenured faculty member, would I have been approached like this? (African American associate professor, health and kinesiology)

As do all institutions of higher education, the university I joined reflects the majority culture. Historically excluded from the academy, minority faculty have been admitted as guests within the majority culture’s house…expected to honor their hosts’ customs without question…keep out of certain rooms…and…always be on their best behavior.(American Indian associate professor, educational leadership and policy analysis).

Told to a candidate during an interview:

“While we’d like to diversify the department, we will make an appointment on merit, and will look for the best candidate.” (African [South African] assistant professor, psychology)

While walking with another colleague of color to a faculty meeting, a colleague said in jest, “This side of the hallway sure is looking darker lately.” My colleague and I exchange[d] glances with each other. This same colleague observe[d] the noticeable exchange and trie[d] to make light of the comment. “You ladies know I was just kidding, don’t you?” (Black associate professor, higher education administration)

I remember when doing my psychology internship at a major New York hospital that my natural impulse was to talk about my being from India, and to refer to myself as an Indian….Instead, I was met with a wall of silence as if I had broken an unspoken taboo of never calling attention to your own or other people’s difference” (Indian associate professor, psychology)


Filed under Diversity Reporting, Politics, Resources, Uncategorized

A Different Kind of “O”ther: University of Kansas

Although the collection focuses on the experiences of faculty of color, this tenure case seems to center around the sexual orientation of the candidate. Dr. Albert Romkes is openly gay, and he was denied tenure by the University of Kansas based on the application of a rule that, according to the website developed in his defense, has never been formerly approved or used in any other tenure cases in the university’s 145-year history.

Don’t let yourself be distracted by the formatting and colors for the website. This is a compelling, troubling case.

Local reporting is available here

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Clicks and Cliques: Part II

As I read Michelle Moravec’s response to my “Clicks and Cliques post,” I felt something—not a thrill up my leg since she’s not Obama and I’m not Chris Matthews—but something. Dare I call it a click?

It’s different than the click that Sansell refers to. Our eyes did not meet across a faculty meeting or at a conference. In fact, we’ve never met at all. An African-American academic I follow on twitter follows her, and since Moravec describes herself as a “lover of feminism” I thought she might read my blog entry. I didn’t know if she (or anyone) would even read it, but she did, and told other people to read it too.

The “click” I felt is different, but it seems different in exactly the right way.

•  She is, to borrow her phrase, “blogging her book” and so am I. Click.

•  Her post begins by describing a particularly successful day in the archives. I know that (in)tense pleasure oh so well. Click.

•  Excellent use of metaphor. Click.

•  She appreciates and acknowledges that my thoughts about feminism and diversity in the academy lead to tough questions and she’s ready to engage. Click.

• The answer she offers to my final question has prompted me to refine my questions. Click.

To put it another way, I didn’t feel a connection because we have a shared sense of oppression; in fact, it’s entirely possible that if we continue the conversation we’ll have sharp disagreements. I am interested, feel a click because the research she describes is intriguing and she expresses a clarity about her own subject position. Most importantly, her answer to my questions reminds me that many academic feminists don’t work in academic institutions with official programs and departments.

She answers:

I know my response offers nothing by way of what to do institutionally, and I suppose that it is one of the reasons I’m attracted to my extraordinarily small college (400 students, less than 40 faculty). I really do deal with things on a case by case basis and by continuing to ask the hard questions, which for me, emerge more around interactions with students than with colleagues because I have so very few colleagues.

She also agrees with me (and, yes, that’s one reason why I felt a click) that there is a dominant power structure in the feminist academy: “I do think the ‘old girls’ club is real and that it is largely white, and that creates a climate in which homogenous expectations are established (4: This footnote links to Notes From an “Angry Woman of Color”: Academic Policing and Disciplining Women of Color in a Post (Fill in the blank) Era).”

And so I would like to expand the question by making clear that while the thoughts and questions in the original post imagined larger institutions with Women and Gender Studies programs and departments, I think the different dynamic at smaller colleges needs to be considered as well. The collection as a whole has essays by scholars of color from different kinds of institutions, and I’d like this essay to reflect a similar diversity. The stakes are different at smaller schools (higher or lower, I honestly don’t know or if that measurement even works). I’m also wondering about the generational shift Moravec’s own research reflects and what it suggests about how feminist scholars interact with one another more broadly. Years ago, when I was a very new assistant professor, my colleague, the film critic and scholar Paul Arthur, introduced me to feminist film critic Amy Taubin. The three of us had dinner, and the conversation turned to the different instances of tensions (of all kinds) among academic feminists that I’d seen, heard, and been a part of since graduate school. She summed it all up rather neatly in a way I’ve never forgotten. She proposed that it’s sometimes easier to talk to your grandmother than it is to talk to your mother. It seems an apt metaphor and a useful way to think in a more nuanced way about the state of the academic feminist union in this current moment, when we have multiple generations of feminist scholars at different levels of success in academe.

Finally, while I am happy to have Moravec’s response, I am happy to hear about bits and pieces of people’s experiences, thoughts, and ideas.

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Lesson III: Double Diversity and Derrick Bell

It’s become fashionable to call for the end of tenure, to claim that it is costly, doesn’t actually result in “intellectual freedom” and rewards unproductive faculty who atrophy after they reach this professional milestone, hanging up their scholarly and pedagogical hats and easing into inertia.

Most of the people arguing for its abolition are white. And tenured.
Given that faculty of color are disproportionally clustered among the contingent ranks, most of the people who work without the security and benefits of tenure are not white. There’s something wrong with the math here and there is definitely something wrong with this picture.


Just look at the pictures of the five-person panel The New York Times assembled for one of its “Room for Debate” virtual roundtables to take up the question “What if College Tenure Dies?” The debate held only passing interest to me when it was first published, but it came to mind with the recent death of the brilliant Derrick Bell.

Bell is famous for, among other things, being fired from Harvard after he protested the lack of women of color on the law faculty. At the time he was the Weld Professor of Law and could easily have rested on his laurels, but rather than bend, rather than yield he pushed back. Or, to be more precise, he refused to come back at the end of his sabbatical until Harvard addressed this deficit.

Considered a foundational voice in Critical Race Theory, Bell is the author of And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1987) and Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992). Students who sat in his lectures and seminars speak of him in worshipful tones, and in the days after his death, I couldn’t look at my twitter feed, my facebook page, or my favorite blogs without seeing someone mourning his passing. I know Bell primarily for his work in Critical Race Theory, but given what I’m steeped in these days, I couldn’t help but see his passing in the context of the current debates about the role of tenure in the twenty-first century academy.

The two biggest names in the Times debate were Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Presidents and Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University—two men comfortably settled into the privileges of academic seniority. Nelson is an ardent supporter of tenure while Taylor argues vociferously against it. He begins his contribution to the debate: “Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible.”

I know we live in an age when rhetorical thunderbolts abound, but it makes me queasy to see an intellectual, especially one firmly and safely ensconced in the academy, doing the dirty work for administrators who are all too willing to use economics as a way to explain why they are doing away with tenure lines and replacing those positions with the cheap labor that is contingency faculty. It’s particularly galling to have that thunderbolt from a scholar who I am sure is costing Columbia a pretty penny. I could go on about all the ways in which Taylor is wrong—particularly when it comes to thinking about how tenure makes it possible for institutions of all kinds to meet their obligations to society—but what really sticks out in light of Bell’s passing is the kind of diversity that will be left unprotected if tenure is abolished. Bell and others like him represent an ideal kind of diversity that wise, ethical, and long-sighted academics would be wise to protect.

Bell embodies what I’m calling double diversity. It is the opposite of the diversity ethos that I fear pervades humanities departments today–simple, crude diversity that tends to reduce faculty to their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. It’s the approach that has a department saying something like, “we need a Hispanic person” and then putting out an ad for Latino/a studies, conflating the scholar (and the scholarship) with someone’s identity. Double Diversity doesn’t just mean hiring brown faces or teaching texts by colored folks. Instead, it acknowledges that the academy works best when different teaching models, different research questions, different interactions with the world are equally valued and preserved.

Take, for instance, Bell’s approach to explaining critical-race theory by relating legal concepts through allegory. He does this with Geneva Crenshaw, a character he created for And We Are Not Saved. The dialogue he builds between Crenshaw and the narrator allows Bell to explore multiple sides of a complex issue in a mode that made often dry legal analysis interesting and accessible. The responses to this model were mixed, but the critique that stands out most sharply comes from legal scholar and judge Richard Posner. Posner, who currently sits as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, is described as conservative, but his dismissal of Bell’s approach is a critique that could easily have come either from a conservative or a well meaning but wrong headed liberal. According to the Times article on Bell’s passing he dismissed Bell’s approach, claiming that it “repudiat[ed] reasoned argumentation,” and that it “reinforce[d] stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.” Posner’s assessment appeared in The New Republic, and the whole piece is infused with carefully masked anxiety, hitting all of the high points of conservative terror. It begins:

“The postmodern left is defined by its opposition to the values, the beliefs, and the culture of the ‘West,’ the ‘West’ being conceived as the domain of nondisabled heterosexual white males of European extraction and their east Asian and west Asian ‘imitators,’ such as the Japanese (Hitler’s ‘honorary Aryans’) and the Jews. The postmodern left is radically multiculturalist, but it is more, for the “West” that it denigrates is not historically specific; it encompasses liberalism, capitalism, individualism, the Enlightenment, logic, and science, the values associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, the concept of personal merit, and the possibility of objective knowledge.”

Bell is among others Posner names, as “ensconced in American universities” and who even have “a foothold in the law schools.” And, he continues, it’s this postmodern left that has “demolished to its satisfaction universal values and criteria…”


I’ve been an academic of some sort for more than fifteen years, and this terror is what guides many decisions in the humanities from admissions decisions to how job advertisements are written to hiring and retention practices. Given that those who rise to power tend to be those who subscribe to the “universal values and criteria” model of what is and isn’t “good” scholarship, it behooves the rest of us to push as hard as possible to protect scholars whose scholarship aims to stretch the academy’s rigid boundaries. The tension in the academy is often between the old and the new. So, while scholars and administrators alike claim they value new contributions to scholarship, often “new” actually only means a slight variation of what people in positions of authority view as acceptable. Anyone invested in whole new areas of scholarship or new ways of engaging with old areas of criticism needs the protection that comes with tenure.

It goes too far to say that the most diverse academics I know are people of color. That’s a generalization too broad to make, but I know what I see and I see it because I move in a world of academic/activists of color, and the truth of it is even those who may have been intellectually trained in the most traditional of methodologies always occupy two worlds, and fact of this truth means that we bring a double-view to the table. This, in turn, means that we have learned to look at whatever is in front of us from texts to statistics to students with a complexity that benefits the academy in myriad ways.

And the only way to insure that the academy doesn’t fold in under the weight of sameness is to protect us with tenure.

Tenured, I don’t think we atrophy. I know we blossom. This suggests that the problem isn’t with tenure but with those who abuse its privileges, and, cynic though I am, I believe those are more the exception than the rule.

Bell begins his popular work with the following claim:

“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down at us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintaining their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.”

I can’t help but think that those who seek to abandon tenure, whether they realize it or not, are pulling up rather than letting down the ropes, and I worry that if they succeed future Derrick Bells will be left at the bottom of the well.


Filed under Race and Tenure Op-Ed, Uncategorized


*************Update:  Kiese Laymon was awarded tenure*************

Vassar: A Question of Documentation and Process

Kiese Laymon is an assistant professor at Vassar who has written a post on his blog Cold Drank about his tenure review. Colleges and universities have tenure processes developed by the administration in consultation with the faculty and, when applicable, through negotiations with the union. Each institution handles the process in slightly different ways. At Vassar, candidates are reviewed twice before a final tenure review. According to Laymon’s blog post, his department voted 15 to 1 to award him tenure. The next stage of the review with the Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee (FASC) is where things get complicated…

A few weeks ago, Vassar’s Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee (FASC) recused itself from my tenure case. As rumors of my “bullying President Hill to get FASC off of my tenure case” limp around campus, I figured I should make it clear what my responses to FASC have been.

In February, FASC (The Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee) made the unprecedented request of asking for “documentation” on one of my unredacted book contracts, though they had proof of a contract. After giving them the contract, I wrote the following email…

The details he shares are troubling, and a few things about his post set off my “unwritten” alarm. Why would the committee request additional information when a candidate has provided documented evidence that he has fulfilled all of the terms of the contract? Is this common practice? Why was the evidence that was acceptable in his fourth-year review not sufficient for his tenure review?

What happened between the fourth-year review and the moment he recounts in his blog?

I don’t want to put Laymon on trial, and no one else who is not part of his tenure process should either. I also don’t want to put Vassar on trial (as if such a thing were even possible), but my alarm bells are ringing. I’ve heard versions of the “documentation request” too many times.

To be clear, I think institutions are right to confirm the claims of faculty members, but the question I’ve been asking myself for the last two weeks is whether or not Laymon is being subject to additional scrutiny because he’s African-American and/or because he works in a field that is not yet comfortably within the academic tradition. When challenged by Laymon, the FASC recused itself from his tenure review. I’m curious to know if it is common practice for a committee comprised of faculty members to opt out of the tenure review process.

So, I’ll be following this case (I hear it may end well for him). The institution has put teeth behind it’s diversity goals by hiring a significant number of faculty of color, but, as everyone in the academy knows, hiring and tenuring are two very different things.

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Lessons from the Collection I: The Missing Cohort

As I edit the stories and interviews for the collection and talk to people about their own experiences seeking tenure in the humanities, I’ve noticed patterns that I think we’d all be wise to pay attention to. I’ve been thinking of them as “Lessons from the Collection.”

Lesson I: The Missing Cohort

In story after story, in conversation after conversation I’ve heard some version of this sentiment: “I can’t believe how backwards my colleagues/department/school is/are about race.”

While I’m sure there are colleagues, departments, and schools that are astonishingly backwards about issues of race, I suspect the exceptionally advanced view that faculty of color have about the topic makes it difficult to judge what “backwards” really is; or, to put it another way, it’s all relative. Maddening and disturbing but relative.

Perhaps the most jarring part of the transition from graduate school to full-time employment is that we’ve left behind people (of all hues) who share, on a deep level, our attitudes about race, diversity, and ethnicity. The dry, gallows humor that bounced around conversations over drinks in graduate school as we coped with racism in all its forms can hit a false note with new colleagues who may or may not share our sensibilities about an issue that is more controversial than we realize.

Over the time it takes to finish the doctorate, we are drawn to people who “get it” and shy away from those whose colorblindness make them annoying or downright difficult. Our search for people who share our ideas and sensibilities about issues related to race often moves us outside of our departments and colleges. We develop a shorthand to talk about the realities of racism and our cultural quirks. Yes, we know that there are racial minefields to be navigated, but we have a built support group to help us step carefully and to comfort us when things blow up.

We choose our dissertation advisors and committee members. We attend conferences and share our work with largely sympathetic audiences. We narrow our world to those scholars, professors, and friends who reflect our worldview back to us.

And while we know that the academy is not some rainbow-colored love fest, we don’t always realize how much we’ve shaped the world to suit us. This is especially the case once we move out of our course work and can, generally speaking, choose who we spend our time with 90% of the time. We choose our dissertation advisors and committee members. We attend conferences and share our work with largely sympathetic audiences. We narrow our world to those scholars, professors, and friends who reflect our worldview back to us. When we encounter people who disagree with us, especially about our research, it can be jarring but there is still some common ground underneath that intellectual tension.

I don’t mean to portray this period as idyllic. Sexism, homophobia, and good old fashioned, universal jealousy are ever present. But we know who we know, who our friends are, who we should avoid, and where to turn when things go pearshaped.

All of that fades away when we join a department. Perhaps there are other people of color in the department, and, if you’re lucky, you can connect. But this isn’t always the case. And while you might find allies among white colleagues, it’s a long process to know who really gets it, and, in the common parlance, who will have your back. Every new faculty member has to make this transition, but there’s an added layer of personal vetting that goes both ways for faculty of color. When moments of casual racism occur, it’s not entirely clear whom we can turn to for comfort, guidance, or just a bit of a rant. Your colleagues are trying to figure out how you will move as a person of color in their professional world, and you are trying to suss out whom among your colleagues you can trust.

In some instances, we’re not only called upon to justify our specific research agendas but see our whole fields (especially those who work in ethnic studies) subject to skepticism. In practical terms, this can be the difference between courses that are required and courses that are considered electives.

I think that things are better now, perhaps. All of the ways we have of keeping in better touch with one another means that we don’t have to leave our grad school cohorts behind, but the hallways of a new department can be incredibly isolating and the stakes are unbelievably high.

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