Category Archives: Race and Tenure Op-Ed

Protecting Academic Freedom: Resources and Readings

I’ve been working with a small group to come up with strategies that will help faculty and their institutions respond to challenges to academic freedom.  These challenges aren’t particularly new, but things move at the speed of Twitter, and so these challenges have increased and seem to follow a pattern, a professor (often but not always a member of an underrepresented minority) offers a comment on some controversial issue using unflinching rhetoric, and the rhetoric is used by different groups to pressure university administrators to discipline or fire the faculty member.  The Steve Salita case is the one many of us know about.  The reaction to these challenges tend to be performative–strongly worded letters of support, petitions, and, sometimes hashtags.  Those are all well and good, but, as Tressie McMillan Cottom sighed on a Twitter, we need to do more than this.  I wrote about social media in Written/Unwritten and in a special journal issue of the CLAJ, but I’ve felt helpless as I’ve seen the uptick in attacks.  So I asked a group of people I trust and admire to help me think about what the academy and academics can do, particularly in this current moment when the stakes are so high.  I’ve been working with Jessie Daniels, Kim F. Hall, Laura Jones, and McMillan Cottom to work out what those institutions and their faculty need. I’ve been happy to find that groups of people across multiple disciplines are doing similar work.

Here is the first part of our work–a list I’m sure will need revision as we learn more.
Next up: advice for, well, everyone.

General Information and Resoruces

AAUP Academic Freedom Tool Kit
MLA Academic Freedom Tool Kit

“1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.” American Association
of University Professors. AAUP, 1970.

“MLA Statement on Academic Freedom (2009).” Modern Language Association. MLA,

Blog Posts

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. Everything But The Burden: Publics, Public Scholarship, And Institutions.
Academic Outrage: When The Culture Wars Go Digital.

Zevallos, Zuleyka. Protecting Activist Academics Against Public Harassment.
Sociology of Public Harassment Prevention Policies.

Op-Eds and Reporting

Allred, Kevin. “Trump’s Weaponized Base Is Going After Academics–I Know Because I Was Targeted.The Establishment.

Daniels, Jessie and Arlene Stein. “Protect Scholars Against Attacks From the Right.” Inside Higher Ed.

Kamola, Isaac A. “Crashing the Academic Conversation.The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywalled).

Morris, Catherine. “Professor Durden’s Firing Highlights Adjuncts’ Shaky Footing.Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Strauss, Valerie. “New Conservative ‘Watch List’ Targets Professors for Advancing ‘Leftist Propaganda’.” Washington Post.

West Savali, Kirsten. “For Black Scholars at PWIs, Speaking Truth to Power on Social Media Can Be ‘Professional Suicide.’The Root.

Zeiser, John W.W. “Don’t Expect Liberalism to Come to the Defense of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.” Los Angeles Review of Books.


Bilgrami, Akeel, and Jonathan R. Cole, eds. Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? New York: Columbia UP, 2015. Print.

Carvalho, Edward J., and David B. Downing, eds. Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Cloud, Robert C. “Keyishian v. Board of Regents.Education Law. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

“Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances.” 1964. Rev. 1989. AAUP Policy Documents and Reports. 10th ed. Washington: AAUP, 2006. 32. Print.

Daniels, Jessie, and Joe R. Feagin. “The (coming) social media revolution in the academy.” Fast Capitalism 8, no. 2 (2011).

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. “Scholarship in public: Knowledge creation and tenure policy in the engaged university.

Finkin, Matthew W., and Robert C. Post. For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. Print

Grundy, Saida. “A History of White Violence Tells Us Attacks on Black Academics are Not Ending (I Know Because it Happened to Me).” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40.11 (2017)

Hofstadter, Richard, and Walter P. Metzger. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York: Columbia UP, 1955. Print.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie.  “Who Do You Think You Are?”: When Marginality Meets Academic Microcelebrity. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.7.

Marwick, Alice E. “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience.” New Media & Society 13, no. 1 (2011): 114-133.

Menand, Louis, ed. The Future of Academic Freedom. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.

Matthew, Patricia A. “Tweeting Diversity: Race and Tenure in the Age of Social Media” in Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. Patricia A. Matthew ed, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2016. Print.

Nelson, Cary. No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

“Ramifications of the Supreme Court’s Ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos.” Modern Language Association. MLA, Feb. 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Schrecker, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: New, 2010. Print.

___, Ellen. 2010. “The Roots of Right-Wing Attacks on Higher Education.” The NEA Higher Education Journal: 71–82.

Shavisi, Arianne. 2015. “Epistemic Injustice in the Academy: An Analysis of the Saida Grundy Witch Hunt.” Academe Blog, May 20.

Tufecki, Zeynep ““Not This One” Social Movements, the Attention Economy, and Microcelebrity Networked Activism.” American Behavioral Scientist 57.7 (2013): 848-870.





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Written/Unwritten is out!…..STILL!!

I mean it is out and about where people can just walk into places and events and buy it

book pics
I had this cute idea that I would write a monthly update about how things are going with Written/Unwritten—as if the rest of the world would stop just because this book is out in the world.
That’s not the way it works. Papers must be graded, forms must be filled out, walking pneumonia must be had, and, it turns out, if I’m going to a conference I still actually have to get myself there, with something useful to say.

But it’s all the good kind of busy, and I’m thankful to be busy.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when the book was published. I certainly had fantasies about what would happen (still waiting for the Brooklyn Public Library to add it to its shelves and for that one line from that one critic), but I didn’t know what people would do it with. It also wasn’t clear to me how people would read it after the election, or, to be honest, whether they would read it at all or not. I’m happy to report that they have read it. They are reading it! REALLY reading it! They’re reading it on their own, in groups at colleges and corporations, and giving it to their deans and provosts. I heard a rumor that one dean bought copies for the 2017 incoming faculty at his college (BTW & FYI: for group discounts contact Dino Batista at UNC Press)

As I mentioned at the end of the first month, it was great to see The Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed feature articles and reviews about it. Colin Dicky makes the case that in this particular political moment the narratives in Written/Unwritten or more necessary than ever in this interview we did for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Diverse Issues in Higher Ed’s thoughtful review highlights an important, prescient point in the essay by Lisa Sánchez González: “Academic freedom has been and continues to be an endangered species in our post-9/11 era, which only compounds the risks that have always existed for the most vulnerable intellectuals in academe.”
diverse review pic
Monica Mercado hosted a live TwitterChat that left us both breathless. I paid her in books, but really her work for this could never be adequately compensated.

A wise friend has forbidden me from reading the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, but if you look, you’ll see that we have some stars, and I’m happy about that…thrilled. My dad and I went through the WorldCatalog together to see which libraries carry the book. You’d think I’d be happy to see how many libraries have it on their shelves, but I’m giving side-eye to the holdouts. #neversatisfied.

After Barnard hosted the book’s first official event, I was asked to be this year’s keynote speaker for Indiana State’s annual recruitment webinar. I’m figuring this out as I go, but I’ve learned that the best talks and webinars are a result of a collaboration, and so I’m thankful to Josh Powers at Indiana State and my colleague Milton Fuentes at Montclair for brainstorming with me ahead of my talk. There’s a lot packed in Written/Unwritten, so it’s helpful in these talks to know what people find helpful.

Next up for Written/Unwritten is a June talk with the NEH’s Next Gen Humanities PhD Consortium about doctoral education, diversity, and life outside/beyond the tenure-track, and in September I’ll be at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, hosted by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

As for me:

I’m on to my next book (more about that soon). In June I’ll be doing some work with the National Humanities Center and am on a panel talking Mary Shelley and Felicia Hemans at the British Women Writers Conference.

If all goes well, in July I’m planning to disappear with friends to work on the next books. Then in August, the week before my birthday (August 14th…and it’s never too early to start shopping) I’ll be one of the 2017 Fellows at the Digital Pedagogy Lab. I’m excited and nervous, but I’m also hopeful that my workshop will be a collaborative one with ideas and strategies and hope the participants can take with them.

These first months have been busy and more than a little dizzying, but the circle of people who care for me is strong and solid, showing up just when I need them. I’m so thankful to all of them, so grateful to have folks who celebrate with me, celebrate me, shake some sense into me when I need it, and travel with me as I go about this work.

More….when I next take a breath.

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On “Merit,” Processes, and Faculty Governance

The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanism of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy”—from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Chris Hayes)

My favorite non-fiction book of 2012 was Twilight of the Elites. I liked it enough to brave the crowds at the Brooklyn Book Festival to see Hayes talk about it with a few other people. When I read Hard Times with my students, I urged/begged/challenged them to spend time thinking about the second chapter (“Meritocracy and its Discontents”). Just my summary of the chapter got them all worked up. Its arguments come to mind on a fairly regular basis (it’s too soon to know yet, but it might eventually rival The Alchemy of Race and Rights in the space it occupies in my brain), so when I tweeted this last week:

and then this


I had it in mind.  And I had it in mind when I read“The Tenure Code” a post about a tenure case that fell apart because the word “solid” was used by an external reviewer to describe the candidate’s scholarship.  Written by the ultimate insider, a 20-year veteran of an elite private school, the post both discusses and exemplifies the problems with twenty-first century notions of merit and shows just how absurd and arbitrary the tenure process, steeped as it is in the hocus pocus of meritocratic fantasy, can be. Ilan Stavans uses this tenure case to point out what is wrong with the process at Amherst College, and I would posit that what ails Amherst trickles down on the rest of us.

I’m particularly interested in a few claims Stavans makes.
He describes the campus committee (the C6) that reviews tenure files:

To be elected to the C6 they must have spent about a decade making themselves known in the community, which in turn makes them electable. By this time, the demands for tenure have changed from when they went for tenure. So they often demand of a candidate’s record more—much more—than their own records are able to display. This means that by their own implausible standards they wouldn’t receive tenure themselves.

Let’s pause for a minute to unpack this. It takes about ten years to build the credibility required for election to the committee. On the one hand, this could be a positive. Having a sense of an institution’s history and goals and a stake in its success is why tenure and faculty governance should matter. But the problem is that too many academics seek only to affirm their own experiences and ideas rather than judging the file in front of them. Stavan quips “Everyone knows the formula: Academics + power = mendacity” and he’s right, but what I want to understand is how this formula stays in place.

I know how it was put in place. Those who devise the systems of evaluation in higher education are suspicious of their own notions of merit and so develop ever-absurd hoops for faculty to jump through. And jump you must. There’s no use wringing your hands or shaking your fists at the system. You can, but they’ll fire you and fill your place with an equally qualified adjunct,and then with a visiting assistant professor in a position that might eventually turn into a tenure-track position that will lead to a national search where there is little or no chance of the adjunct or the visiting assistant professor making the shortlist.  Fighting pre-tenure is not a plan.  But there are those who can fix.  They have power.

By “they” I ultimately mean the upper administration, but it’s also those committees like the C6 at Amherst. This is a committee comprised of tenured faculty from different disciplines who have no real understanding of fields outside of their own. The tenure track pushes new professors to hew to a fixed path, so part of being successful is not just maintaining an active research agenda but maintaining one approved by the institution. Straying from that can lead to problems and the strategy developed to gain tenure too often solidifies into practice.”Academic freedom” becomes a banner to fly to protect speech and ideas instead of as a tool to dismantle unfair review processes.

In theory, the review process is supposed to protect a file from the benign ignorance of a committee like the C6 and external letters are a key part of that process, but as Stavans explains they can be used in ways their writers never intended, especially at places with an odd sense of what excellent looks like:

Exceptionalism at Amherst is such that the C6 expects—and the college community expects the C6 to expect—outside reviewers to use only exceptional language in tenure letters. If a candidate isn’t “superb,” “extraordinary,” “unparalleled,” “remarkable,” and “at the top of her field,” then the assessment is coded with mediocrity: Good isn’t good enough.

Even when exceptionalism isn’t the goal, tenure files can be torpedoed by poorly worded letters.

I shudder to think about what happens when the candidate works in a marginalized field that might not be taken seriously by her own department never mind a campus-wide committee like the C6.  And, if you’re thinking, “well clearly we need to put some people of color on the C6 committee, Tricia” I would answer that those committees need more than “some” people of color—more specifically they need people of color who have managed to gain institutional credibility–the kind that comes not just with tenure but with tenure in departments that have a firm footholds at their colleges and universities. So when UT Austin fires faculty working in ethnic studies, and UCLA has a program instead of a department of Afro-American Studies and Princeton offers certificates but not degrees in African Studies, Latino Studies, Latin American Studies, South Asian Studies** it is difficult and perhaps even impossible to build a coalition of faculty who have the credibility to make substantive contributions to personnel processes.

External letters are supposed to be part of a tenure file, but being a scholar in ethnic studies means that the pool for external reviewers (faculty who are senior enough to have credibility with the candidate’s home institution) is not particularly deep and everyone in it that pool is overworked. I suspect many of them are doing the work of building majors, programs, and departments in fields that are largely undervalued. I would be curious to know how their request for external review stacks up with Stavans’
He writes.

Personally, I get an average of between six and eight tenure-evaluation requests a semester. Such is the volume, let alone my other commitments, that I regularly decline, often to all, unless the candidate is a former student of mine.

12 to 16 is a lot, so managing the flow is required, but I am particularly interested in who gets a yes from him, specifically his academic kin. To use Hayes as a hammer, perhaps more bluntly than he might want me to, even as Stavan is critiquing a system he is perpetuating it by only helping out his own.  And who can blame him? He is right when he discusses the amount of work that goes into these reviews, though I’m hearing that letters from former professors are falling out of favor (I suspect that what happens is that external reviewers engage in some sort of you-write-about-my student/friend/ally-and-I’ll-write-about-yours).

Near the end, he explains one strategy he and others use in the face of some requests for review letters:

I’m told that in some institutions, declining such invitations amounts to a rejection ending up in the candidate’s files. For that reason, I do what I most dislike but others have suggested as the pertinent approach: I don’t respond.

The reason I decided to title the anthology written/unwritten is precisely because of these silences, the gap between what is said explicitly and what is deliberately left unsaid, those unwritten moments that may speak more than anyone intends. In this case, silence does not mean lack of support for a candidate’s work but lack of time to support a specific candidate (or perhaps it means both things at once). The unwritten goes beyond damning with faint praise.  And when what is written includes words like “solid” in a place where everyone  is exceptional and, (even though this is actually impossible), everyoneis above average there is no room for even the mythology of merit.

**To be fair to Princeton, they offer a lot of certificates in fields that some might find surprising. It’s also worth noting that, at some point, someone thought it odd that Princeton is the only Ivy League University that doesn’t offer a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies

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1 job search, 1 tenure-track offer…10 years later

I was recently chatting with a favorite former student about graduate school job searches and sent her an essay I wrote for the ADE Bulletin in 2007 about my approach to my 2003 job search. It’s funny to read about the process this many years out, as I start thinking about an essay I’ve been invited to write for PMLA.

It has me thinking of how lucky I was.

I decided on the career I wanted, and then I went out and got it. Just like that. Easy Peasy. Seriously. One job search, one tenure-track job. And I’m still incredibly happy to be just where I am. Now one could argue that the job I wanted was a fairly easy one to want. In other words, I wasn’t interested in a job at a selective liberal arts college (SLAC) or at a Research I institution.

BUT, what I did want was a job that would allow me to think, write and teach about canonical literature at the same time that I could think, write, and teach about marginalized texts no one had heard of.

AND, I wanted to live somewhere interesting–probably in New York.

PLUS, as I wrote in the essay, at some point during my graduate career my vision for my professional future changed.

Make of that what you will.

One thing I’m struck by is how willing I was to walk away from this position if it meant I had to be a traditional Romanticist (someone who specializes in one of the six major poets of the period). I think one thing I’ve always held close is that while I very much wanted to be an English professor I was also genuinely curious about what else I could do. I figured that having a PhD would give me a lot of different options and that I would figure something out. I really believed that. In fact, I remember leaving one MLA interview and walking around Manhattan daydreaming about what I else I could do with my shiny, new PhD.

I received word on Valentine’s Day that an offer was forthcoming. Seriously. Valentine’s Day, 2003.

The thing that seems crazy now is that I wrote this essay as I was coming up for tenure, with no idea about whether or not I would get it. It started out as a talk I gave at MLA, and the ADE editor asked me to revise it for the Bulletin. I’m also amused by how flat my writing is–not exactly tentative but definitely the writing of a kid trying to figure out what the hell she was doing.

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Diversity from the Margins

I’ll be writing more about this gem from bell hooks’ Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics for a brick and mortar publication. She offers a mindset worth holding tight to, regardless of where you are in your academic career. We get tugged in so many directions, by advice that, in myriad ways, tells us to somehow be different than who and what we are, just so we can become part of institutions that were designed to exclude us.

Don’t do too much service. Publish here not there. Specialize in this but also do this other new thing over here so you can get a job. Blend in but don’t sell out. Fit in but don’t compromise. Always professionalize. Be a role model but transcend whatever subject position makes those around you the most uneasy.  And that’s nothing compared to the demands we place on one another. Be Colored like this. Feminist like that. GLBandT in this particular space. Sign up; don’t sell out.

No wonder so many of us are making ourselves sick.

And maybe this advice comes from a good place, but mostly I think it comes from well-meaning folks trying to replicate themselves or validate their own experiences. Worse, it seems to want to make the people change instead of their institutions. It seems to start from the premise that being on the outside, on the margins is always bad.

bell hooks begs to differ:

Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation; in fact…it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance. It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such, I was not speaking of marginality one wishes to lose—to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center—but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.

Put more lyrically, Lucille Clifton asks in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me”

“what did i see to be except myself?”

The work, of course, is to know who that “self” actually is absent the destructive anxieties that plague all ambitious academics, but particularly academics of color.  What I see in hooks’ argument is a call for those of us on the margins to be funambulists, to be tightrope walkers who stay above the trials of marginalization, to work and write from that place and to embrace it.

*hooks is quoted in “Balancing the Passion for Activism with the Demands of Tenure: One Professional’s Story from Three Perspectives.” Few, et al. Feminist Formations 19 (3: 2007) 47-66.

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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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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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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.


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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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DePaul: Defense of Faculty Member

Statement of Professor Tina Chanter regarding Goswami Tenure Denial

Although Dr. Goswami is a recipient of the coveted excellence in teaching award at Depaul, and has superb teaching evaluations, colleagues in the Department of Philosophy took great pains to scrutinize the intent of students who had evaluated her, going as far as to raise questions about why her student’s reactions were so positive. This is something that is not customary in the department.

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