A Flawed System: Professors of Color Face Hurdles in Obtaining Tenure

A Flawed System: Professors of Color Face Hurdles in Obtaining Tenure

The process of obtaining tenure in academia is somewhat shrouded in secrecy. Though tenure does not grant a professor immunity from being fired, it does prevent a college from firing a professor without due reason. Tenure has been, and remains difficult, to attain. In 1997, the National Education Association reported that one in five pre-tenure professors was denied tenure in a typical year. The number of tenured and pre-tenure faculty on college campuses has also decreased from 45 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2015, according to the American Association of University Professors.

At Amherst, if a professor is denied tenure, they are given one year to secure a position at another institution. Typically, professors who are denied tenure do not receive a second opportunity for tenure review.

According to Professor of English and Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Officer Marisa Parham, retention of faculty members in general is difficult. A 2018 accreditation review of Amherst College by a New England Commission of Higher Education evaluation team found that in the three academic years prior to 2018, 13 pre-tenure professors left the college before coming up for tenure. “For untenured faculty, there is some concern about uneven mentoring and the lack of articulation of expectations regarding teaching and scholarship needed to achieve tenure,” the report stated. “Untenured faculty expressed concern that tenured faculty are not sufficiently sensitive to the feelings of vulnerability that exist among the college’s untenured faculty.”

The evaluation team wrote in the report that untenured faculty members requested a more standardized approach to teaching evaluations. According to the report, the college only recently adopted the practice of soliciting course evaluations from pre-tenure and tenured faculty.

“Presently, the design of teaching evaluations for untenured faculty is controlled by departments, and while some departments use a common form for all untenured faculty, in other departments junior faculty are permitted to write their own evaluation questions,” the report stated. “This lack of uniformity is of concern to the untenured faculty, and potentially could raise questions about equitable treatment and is vulnerable to implicit bias.”

Studies have shown that women and people of color tend to be evaluated more negatively among all professors. A 2018 study by the American Political Science Association found that “a male instructor administering an identical online course as a female instructor receives higher ordinal scores in teaching evaluations, even when questions are not instructor-specific.”

This disparity is particularly dire for women of color, especially at Amherst, where student evaluations make up a portion of the review for tenure as assessed by the Committee of Six. The Center for Teaching and Learning, however, is currently researching ways to standardize student evaluations at the college and decrease implicit bias, or unconscious attitudes about people based on their identities.

Lack of clarity around these processes and expectations for pre-tenure faculty was one of the concerns identified by the accreditation evaluation team. “One of the issues for junior faculty is lack of real clarity in terms of as to what one needs to do to achieve promotion,” Professor of American studies Robert Hayashi said. “Amherst is a unique environment, in some ways uniquely intense in terms of the demands on your teaching and your scholarship. There’s a lot of service and a lot of administration that’s done by faculty.”

Faculty members of color are a subset of this group and face their own challenges.

Both Hayashi and Professor of Black studies, Latinx and Latin American studies and English Rhonda Cobham-Sander pointed to at least two pre-tenure professors of color whom they separately knew left the college because they faced institutional racism or felt they had “lukewarm support,” as Cobham-Sander said.

“A lot of us represent emerging fields or new fields of inquiry, at least at Amherst,” Hayashi said. “That sometimes can be a challenge — your work may not be as well understood, as credited, as supported as people who work in established fields. That’s where a lot of faculty of color, people who are not in the majority, face those challenges. They’re working in those new, emerging fields. That can make it more challenging for someone to feel supported.”

At Amherst, pre-tenure professors of color are expected to contribute to scholarship, teach, serve on department committees, campus committees and national committees and produce as much as their white counterparts. “But the white counterparts have far fewer obligations, campus-wide and nationally,” said Professor of American studies Franklin Odo. Other colleges have reduced teaching loads for faculty members who take on unusually high administrative responsibilities, he said, but Amherst does not participate in this practice for pre-tenure faculty.

Disparities also exist in terms of scholarship and publication, which make up a significant portion of tenure review. Cobham-Sander noted that pre-tenure faculty of color who are more likely to be involved in emerging fields will oftentimes publish materials in niche and comparatively lesser-known journals. This can sometimes have negative effects when competing for tenure.

Full support at the college, according to Cobham-Sander is, “knowing that the stuff you study is considered important, knowing that your white colleagues consider you a part of a team for which they’re also fully responsible for all the students they teach and knowing that the college at the administrative level is doing the heavy lifting around creating an environment that works for you.”

“Having the feeling that you are not responsible for fixing everything that has to do with race … If you feel supported in that way in your department, then you don’t have to spend so much time preparing for the things you can’t imagine,” she added. “I should not have to be helping students and feel like I’m doing something that’s different from what the institution wants you to do.”

Multiple professors noted that much of this change relies on reform in the larger landscape of academia.

“Some of these issues with faculty of color are issues of junior faculty: lack of clarity, needing mentors, needing more support,” Hayashi said. “That’s in some ways trying to change academia — having different ways to assess faculty, such as in promotion, where things like community are criteria whereas here it’s scholarship, it’s your teaching … There are conversations at the college [about] finding ways to recognize that. That requires a whole cultural shift — we acknowledge that, we celebrate that.”

Institutional Barriers Fixed practices of Amherst’s institutional culture are not always inclusive, however.

All professors, for example, are encouraged to attend faculty meetings that take place two or three times a semester in the Red Room in Converse Hall. Though it is not mandatory, a pre-tenure professor in the humanities who asked to remain anonymous because of her untenured status noted that it is “basically required” for all pre-tenure faculty.

“The culture of that meeting is weird — there’s supposedly junior faculty that are encouraged to speak. But then there’s also the way that it feels in there — it’s not super welcoming,” the pre-tenure professor said. “How can our faculty meetings feel more inclusive? One step: maybe don’t use Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Robert’s Rules of Order is a structure of parliamentary governance used at the college’s faculty meetings that organizes participation and discussion. “It’s just so non-transparent,” the pre-tenure professor said. “If you don’t know how Robert’s Rules work, it is not a welcoming structure.” Multiple professors also noted that inappropriate statements are sometimes made in faculty meetings but allowed to slide.

According to the pre-tenure professor, the administration and Board of Trustees have repeatedly vocalized a commitment to retention of faculty of color, providing competitive salaries and funding for research. It is a “mandate” that exists, she said. At the departmental level, however, such support may vary, and oftentimes, the burden of finding a solution to issues of disparity is on a case-by-case basis rather than on a communal, faculty-wide level.

“Let’s find ways to proactively think about how to retain people as an institution in our everyday practice versus … on a case-by-case basis asking people, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ when they come to you with a problem,” the pre-tenure professor said.

The creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the positions of chief diversity and inclusion officer and faculty diversity and inclusion officers have been critical shifts, she said.

“Honestly, in terms of [Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer] Norm Jones’ office and the dean, I think my experience has been positive,” she said. “The dean has been very clear that the Board of Trustees has said this is a priority for the college, so the college wants to put support and resources into the retention of faculty of color.”

That does not mean, however, that all groups are treated in the same way, said the pre-tenure professor — the college has lost a number of faculty members of color who are Asian American. “We’ve lost a couple of [Asian-American professors], so I don’t know that there was a huge effort on that level,” she said. “It may be uneven … so depending on the group that someone falls into, there may be more or less desire on the part of the administration to try and do things to keep that person.”

There is shared concern among professors that there tends to be a more quantitative focus on who makes up the faculty — people of color are often thought about in terms of numbers or quotas, said multiple professors. This, combined with a mostly white administration, can lead to insensitive or ignorant approaches to race at the college. At the same time, “you have to be careful of what you say and how you protest if you want to protest conditions that are not suitable for you,” Odo said.

Exclusion and Invisibility For some people, Hayashi said, Amherst works perfectly — the process, the culture and the institution all seem completely straightforward. “For other people, this is not an institution that was built for people like us,” he said. “In many ways, it kept us out. If we are allowed in, there’s the sense that we’re supposed to add to the institution — that is, to benefit the majority — more than it is for this institution to change to become more like me. That is a common struggle for a lot of people who aren’t in the majority at a place like Amherst.”

This sense of exclusion is apparent in the lack of visibility and sensitivity for certain groups on campus, Hayashi said. At Amherst, he does not see much support for Asian heritage month. When discussions on race are held and speakers are invited, “I don’t see Asians,” he said. Hiring Odo — a Japanese-American scholar — as the John J. McCloy ’16 professor of American institutions and international diplomacy is another example of a lack of awareness, Hayashi said. McCloy served as assistant secretary of war during World War II and was instrumental in the forced removal and incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans.

“That’s a place to me where I don’t feel included,” Hayashi said. “I don’t feel like I’m part of the default settings … Who have we celebrated? Those little, subtle things are ways in which the culture of the institution does not embrace certain people.”

The statues on campus, names inscribed in buildings and achievements celebrated all inform “some sort of communal language that we can identify with collectively. But because Amherst made that decision to be this diverse, trying to make it a place where everyone is comfortable is really, really difficult,” Hayashi said. “I think we can ask more of ourselves.”

What some professors called an institutional culture of whiteness “absolutely” exists at Amherst, but it does for all professions, Parham said.

“Which is not to say Amherst is great but that everywhere is bad, and sometimes we’re bad, too. It’s been really striking that way,” Parham said. “In terms of the institutional culture that’s deeply predicated on and reflects really specific worldviews, it absolutely [exists]. And I think — this is a problem I always run up against, where you’re trying to explain to someone this thing that happened and why it’s problematic and the person who holds a different subject position is just going, ‘I don’t even see why that’s important.’ And you’re like, ‘Hm.’ At some point, even the fact that I’m bringing this claim to you or saying this thing — technically, I hate to break it to you, but that already means it’s important and that your reactive desire to simply judge the value of the claim is secondary to the fact that we need to be able to talk about it.”

This is the third of a four-part series examining retention of faculty of color at Amherst.

Part one — “A Flawed System: The Burden of Service Among Faculty of Color”

Part two — “A Flawed System: Navigating Racist Encounters”

Part four — “A Flawed System: The Obstacles of Shared Governance”