The traditional tenure system has not changed significantly in the past one hundred years, despite major transformations in higher education and shifting demographics of the professoriate. Some institutions have incorporated “stop the clock” provisions for tenure, which allow pretenure faculty members to take one semester (or a year) to care for newborns, newly adopted children, or ill family members without this time counting against their tenure schedule (Committee on the Status of Women 2001; Quinn, Lange, and Olswang 2004). Other schools have adopted part-time tenure-track positions or established mentoring programs. However, most institutions retain a traditional tenure system.
There were only two instances in the twentieth century when policies regarding tenure were updated. In 1940, representatives from the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges agreed upon a restatement of principles set forth in the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure. This revised document was known as the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Nearly fifty years later, following a series of meetings in November 1989 and January 1990, these associations adopted changes in language in order to remove gender-specific references from the original text.
It is imperative that scholars reexamine the core assumptions and values that dominate the academic profession in light of current realities. Only 35 percent of all university instructors hold tenure-track appointments (25 percent have tenure and 10 percent are probationary), and the remaining 65 percent are full-time non-tenure-track, part-time, and graduate assistants who provide an almost interchangeable contingent labor force (Benjamin 2008).
In her recent article on rethinking tenure, Cathy Trower (2009a) uses the perspective of a business analyst to examine the hierarchical organization of the academy. Gary Hamel, one of the world’s leading experts on business strategy, encourages organizations to identify where new opportunities may exist. He cautions that people at the top of any organization “have the least diversity of experience, the largest investment in the past and the greatest reverence for the industry’s dogma.” In academe, senior faculty members usually fit this description and, as Trower notes: “It is very difficult for those who rank lower in the organizational hierarchy to challenge the combined forces of precedence, position, and power precisely when change is most needed.”
Entering the Professoriate
The increased numbers of part-time and non-tenure-track positions, coupled with the distressed economic climate at most institutions, make it challenging for recent PhDs in all fields to find tenure-track positions in which to begin their academic careers. This problem is particularly acute in the humanities, as was highlighted in a recent issue of the Chronicle Review titled, “The Crisis in Graduate Education in the Humanities.” Writing in this issue, Richard Greenwald suggests that the situation is especially discouraging for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds: “[these students] were raised to believe that the more education they acquired, the better they would fare in life. And yet a starting professor’s salary in the humanities is barely lower-middle class” (B19). As Anthony Grafton (2010) observed in the New Republic, newly minted PhDs often find themselves “precariously employed as ‘visiting assistant professors’ (‘visiting’ is a technical term for minimal benefits, more courses to teach and no security) or flying the freeways from one school to another, working as adjuncts for $1,500 or $2,000 a course” (32).
The path to a faculty career in the sciences is also challenging. Many scientists and engineers spend years in underpaid postdoctoral positions before moving on to the tenure track. Additionally, graduate students across disciplines, but particularly in the sciences and engineering, find that seeing the lives of their own professors up close causes them to reconsider their own decision to become faculty members. In an article titled, “Why Graduate Students Reject the Fast Track,” Mary Anne Mason, Marc Goulden, and Karie Frasch (2009) reported the results of a survey of more than 19,000 doctoral students in the University of California system. They found that many doctoral students in the sciences and technical fields change their minds about becoming faculty members over the course of their graduate study. The main concern mentioned by these doctoral students was work–life balance—women in particular often cited issues related to children as a reason for shifting their career goal away from becoming a research-focused faculty member. Work–life balance remains a crucial issue for building gender diversity across institutions and disciplines. As Mason concludes, “We need new thinking and a new model to attract and retain the next generation in academia” (16).
Increasing Diversity in the Professoriate
The lack of institutional diversity and the low number of faculty of color in our colleges and universities is another issue of major concern. There seems to be a consensus that this is a problem, but no agreement on how to fix it. The reality of the underrepresentation of faculty of color in higher education nationally has been consistently lamented but benignly ignored. Data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES 2008) reflect the discouraging representation of full-time faculty of color: black/African Americans (5.6 percent), Hispanic/Latinos (3.5 percent), Asian Americans (9.1 percent), and American Indians (1.4 percent). While the authors of this article use the terms “people of color,” “faculty of color,” “historically underrepresented groups,” and “minorities” interchangeably, it is important to note that these terms may have different meanings depending on the institution. The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 1981, African Americans who held full-time faculty positions in higher education composed 4.2 percent of the faculty population. In 2003, over two decades later, this number slightly increased to 5.6 percent. At this rate of improvement, it will take more than 180 years for the black faculty percentage to reach parity with the black percentage of the U.S. population.
A recent study of minority faculty on the tenure track stresses the importance of “climate, culture, and collegiality” in creating a positive experience for new academics within their department and institution (Trower 2009b, 41). Also well-documented are the multiple challenges confronted by faculty of color that prevent their persistence and retention in the academy (Turner, Gonzalez, and Wood 2008). These challenges are manifested in both the personal and professional realms of faculty members’ lives. The racial climate of the campus or department can be a deterrent to the potential success of minority faculty at certain institutions. Homogeneous academic departments and campuses that do not have organizations to support the needs of people of color can be great obstacles to faculty of color transitioning smoothly into a new setting.
The feeling of isolation can also be a major factor as to why qualified people of color are underrepresented in the professoriate. During an AAC&U symposium called Keeping our Faculties: Addressing the Recruitment and Retention of Faculty of Color in Higher Education, the symposium coordinator took an anonymous poll of the attendees using electronic response technology (“clickers”). According to the poll results, tenure-track faculty ranked “isolation” as the most important issue on which to focus in regard to lack of institutional support (Viernes Turner 1998).
The racial climate of the surrounding community can also negatively affect the interest of people of color in a particular college or university. Given that most faculty members will spend many years at one institution, it is extremely important that they find themselves in an environment that nurtures their social needs. Thus, lack of community is another factor that explains why African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are underrepresented in the academy. Faculty members of color are often recruited in small numbers, which leads to a feeling of isolation in their communities. Often the paucity of their numbers compel them to feel like the “other”—a marginalized member of the campus and surrounding community who shares little cultural connection to colleagues and fellow citizens. Many faculty members of color and their families have told stories of having to drive for hours to find an appropriately trained hairstylist, ethnic foods in supermarkets, and houses of worship with familiar cultural traditions.
Moreover, faculty of color have lamented their pronounced discomfort as they seek to successfully fulfill their responsibilities as tenure-track professors. They have found themselves in confounding circumstances—including feeling alienated because of the small numbers of minority colleagues on campus; dejected because they cannot connect to a senior faculty mentor on campus to help them navigate their obligation to balance teaching, scholarship, and service; and sadly overwhelmed by an “innate” obligation that they have to mentor all of the minority students on campus to the detriment of maintaining their teaching and scholarship at quality levels (Turner, Gonzalez, and Wood 2008).
Heavy involvement in undergraduate and graduate teaching, along with administrative responsibilities, contributes to the burnout factor of historically underrepresented faculty. Without resources to support new faculty in their teaching, research, and service areas, review process outcomes for these faculty can be unfavorable. The lack of departmental support can be a major factor as to why faculty of color are underrepresented in the upper levels of the professoriate.
The experiences of minority faculty members have been studied by Jayakumar and colleagues (2009), based on a national survey of 37,582 faculty members that included 4,131 faculty of color (11 percent). They examined issues of campus racial environment, autonomy and independence, and the tenure process. The study revealed that faculty of color often have been challenged on the nature of their research—the focus on ethnic content, their use of alternative approaches rather than traditional research methods, and the significance of their research findings to the larger academic community. Negative attitudes toward the scholarship of faculty of color can adversely affect their ability to achieve tenure or promotion. The lack of faculty diversity can lead to misunderstandings of what qualifies as valuable research and service. The research agendas of minority faculty members are often perceived as “too different” from their white colleagues.
The aforementioned AAC&U symposium also examined the issue of bias in the academic workplace. During the interactive clicker survey, 45 percent of the participants ranked race and ethnicity bias as the most important issue for improving the recruitment and retention of faculty of color. As an example of racial bias, the symposium report noted that “white males are seen as having instant credibility and meriting attention. As a result, they accrue privilege, solely by virtue of their race and gender” (Viernes Turner 1998).
These issues should be seriously considered during the hiring and tenure review of minority faculty members. Proactive measures must be taken to ensure that tenure review and promotion processes are uniform for all candidates and that racial or ethnic bias is not a factor. In addition, lack of support for tenure-track faculty of color can also lead to a denial of tenure and the dismissal of that faculty member. These difficulties prevent faculty of color from being awarded tenure and underscore why qualified minorities are underrepresented in the professoriate (Turner, Gonzalez, and Wood 2008).
The Future of the Professoriate—A National Call to Action
The challenges of the professoriate have been well-documented, and new challenges arise each academic year. Yet there is ample opportunity for colleges and universities to take a more serious look at the current state of the professoriate and devise ways to bring about meaningful change. Opportunities abound for faculty, staff, and administrators to reexamine the priorities for tenure, promotion, and accreditation. Research is important, but teaching must be given priority. Good teaching must be rewarded, and every effort must be made to assure that those who engage in good teaching receive the appropriate remuneration.
Ultimately, there has to be better mentoring of students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to prepare, expose, and encourage them to pursue an academic career. In the meantime, many institutions have adopted the following measures to achieve faculty diversity:
- Aggressively recruiting qualified candidates from historically underrepresented groups
- Eliminating the hostile environment that can exist during the recruitment and interview processes
- Working to increase the number of minority faculty in all disciplines, including science and technical fields
- Making joint appointments to interdisciplinary programs
- Mentoring junior faculty
- Developing, implementing, and maintaining programs that foster faculty retention
- Collaborating with federal and state funding agencies on initiatives to promote diversity
We also suggest the creation of an annual forum on the future of the professoriate, which would serve as a national call to action. This forum would allow scholars to leverage media and technology while educating the academy and the broader public about the traditional perceptions (and misperceptions) of the professoriate. This gathering would represent a unique opportunity to create an environment that fosters dialogue and provides a venue for scholars to address the ways diversity is important and how one’s prejudice (and bias) may be a negative influence. Such a forum would give faculty members and administrators the opportunity to examine diversity, and identify some of the best practices in recruiting and retaining diverse faculty members.
The future of the professoriate forum would also provide faculty members with a safe space in which to challenge and examine the idea of meritorious research. Faculty could discuss ways of retooling advisers to respect the broad nature of research, the importance of the lack of diversity in specific fields, and its impact on hiring, tenure and promotion. We would hope to explore how “action” research can be recognized, and highlight the importance of recognizing that who is at the table affects what is viable in the canon of research. We would also underscore the importance of developing a critical mass of minority faculty across the disciplines. The forum would also incorporate a leadership summit and feature a presidential roundtable with invited speakers.
This forum could underscore the importance of an institution’s climate for the success of minority faculty. Is there clear support for institutional diversity from the president and provost? Are academic departments and human resource offices partnering to address these challenges with the support of the administration, and if so, how? Is there a clear agenda and are the best candidates being pursued, while also seeking to achieve a diverse applicant pool? Are universities and colleges integrating and incorporating both their alumni and their staff, in addition to putting into play the resources of technology, social networks, and other media, in the effort to help achieve diversity?
Ultimately, this call to action could create an opportunity to have a national dialogue. Regional meetings could be hosted as a follow-up to provide the necessary training and “toolkit” that institutions will need to realize diversity initiatives.
All of the challenges we have identified can be seen as opportunities to rectify faculty of color’s disaffection with the academy while promoting their persistence, empowerment, and ultimate success. But the question remains: Is the higher education community willing to embrace these challenges seriously and labor intensively to resolve them?
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Grafton, A. 2010. Humanities and inhumanities. The New Republic 241(3): 32–36.
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——. 2009b. Towards a greater understanding of the tenure track for minorities. Change 41 (5): 38–45.
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