It’s been about a century since the concept and practice of tenure has been alive within universities and colleges nationwide. Tenure was initially developed to assure academic freedom, protecting teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinions.
Today those seeking tenure undergo rigorous years of hard work – tremendous research, teaching, committee work and community service – prior to the big day in which their superiors determine if they are worthy of becoming lifelong faculty members with academic freedom within their specific institution.
While the process of tenure varies from institution to institution, one overarching reality seems to hold true – minority faculty, who remain underrepresented in academia, struggle within the tenure-track process much more so than the predominant White population (and more specifically White males). Also, despite a growing number of minority faculty entering academia, more and more faculty at institutions nationwide are opting out of the tenure track altogether.
This reality is taking place as minority faculty numbers continue to increase – by almost 50 percent between 1995 and 2005 and White faculty by only 8 percent, according to Cathy Trower, research director and principal investigator at the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This can be attributed to the fact that “the proportion of minorities with doctoral degrees has increased far more than that of Whites, even while their total numbers remain much lower,” wrote Trower in a Change article of 2009 titled “Toward a Greater Understanding of the Tenure Track for Minorities.” “From 1995 to 2005, the number of African-Americans with doctorates increased 84 percent; American Indians, 40 percent; Asian-Americans, 20 percent; and Hispanics, 83 per-cent. (But the number of Whites still dwarfs the number of minorities receiving the doctorate: there were 29,144 White doctoral recipients in 2005, compared with almost 3,000 Asians and African-Americans, 1,740 Hispanics and only 214 American Indians.)”
Despite the increasing number of minority faculty in academia, many of them are working in minority-serving institutions (Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges, for example) and make up only a small percentage of faculty at major research institutions. In addition, they leave academe at greater rates than Whites, according to Trower.
This reality may be attributed to the fact that minority faculty on the tenure track seem to be less satisfied with their academic workplace than White faculty are. In a report conducted by Trower, Highlights Report 2008 – Selected Results from the Tenure-Track Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey, the majority of tenure-track minority faculty report-ed significantly less satisfaction with the climate, culture and collegiality of their workplace than their White colleagues. Within this minority category, Hispanics were the only group to express a similar satisfaction as the White population with their campus climate (further research revealed that those who call themselves “Latino” and yet are White as well may have different workplace experiences to those who are within other minority groups and consider themselves White as well).
As one of the few, if not only, comprehensive reports on work-place satisfaction with tenure-track faculty, and specifically minority faculty within their separate groups, Highlights Report 2008 provides a detailed insight into what may or may not be working for minority faculty on the tenure track. The study, conducted by COACHE, included the responses of 8,513 full-time pretenure faculty from institutions throughout the country.
The results of this report revealed faculty satisfaction within the following areas of the work environment for tenure-track faculty: clarity of the tenure process, nature of the work, policies and practices, climate culture and collegiality, and global satisfaction. The study then broke down survey findings into groups, including the overall population, women, minorities – and within the minority category, Native American and Native Alaskan; Asian, Asian-American or Pacific Islander; Black and African-American; Hispanic or Latino; Other; and Multiracial.
“The COACHE study is the most comprehensive examination of tenure-track faculty specifically focused on workplace satisfaction,” said Trower. “And to my knowledge, we have the largest database of this population that matches and closely tracks the representation of scholars of color according to race and ethnicity. Most studies lump all minorities together for analysis purposes in order to have a large enough number to be able to say anything ... with statistical reliability.”
The Highlights Report 2008 revealed that White faculty and all faculty of color reported similar clarity about their own sense of whether or not they will achieve tenure, as well as clarity about process, criteria, standards and the body of evidence. However, Hispanic faculty, in particular, reported significantly less agreement than White faculty that tenure decisions are made primarily on performance-based criteria, but significantly more clarity about the expectations for their performance as teachers and as members of the broader community.
“Oftentimes, Hispanic faculty report doing research on topics that don’t always fit the normative mold, using methodologies that don’t fit the mold, and publishing in journals that don’t fit the mold (in other words, “brown on brown” research),” said Trower, explaining why Hispanic faculty might feel that tenure decisions are not made primarily on performance-based criteria. “And community service that Hispanics may feel called upon to do and want to do does-n’t count for tenure.”
Among all tenure-track faculty, the pressure to conduct and publish a lot of research is intense, and community service and teaching capacities are often undervalued. In addition, what Trower referred to as “brown on brown” research – Latinos doing research on their own communities – is looked down upon, and does-n’t count as much as other research at some institutions and departments, explained Trower.
In another report, Workplace Diversity as a Strategy for Recruitment, Retention and Promotion of Faculty of Color in Institutions of Higher Education, researchers also commented on the challenges minority professors face in teaching minority or fringe-type issues. “Hamilton 2002 found that another obstacle minority faculty face is resistance from students, particularly when they teach courses dealing with issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and diversity. She states that faculty teaching race and racism face a particular dilem-ma,” reported the study. “She found that some faculty of color report that students resent being challenged to face issues of race. As it is common in many academic departments to assign minority faculty to courses dealing with the above sensitive topics, the resistance and the repercussions from the negative response of students becomes a shared obstacle for minority faculty.”
Hispanics, along with American Indian and Asian faculty, also stated that expectations for performance as campus citizens were significantly less reasonable than those for White faculty, according to the Highlights Report 2008. “What happens, especially for scholars of color, is that they are selected to serve on numerous committees to represent their racial and ethnic group (and women of color represent both color and race – called double cultural taxation), and it’s difficult for them to say no,” said Trower, explaining what often happens for minority faculty. “In part, minority faculty may find such work fulfilling, and in part, who feels comfortable saying no to their boss or their boss’ boss on such matters? If such service does-n’t count toward tenure, then it’s unfair to minority faculty who are compelled to do it.”
Trower’s argument is also backed up by the Workplace Diversity report, which states: “Minorities of color make up about 16 percent of the total number of instructional faculty. People of color make up approximately 11.8 percent of professors, 19 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of instructors. Minorities tend to have lower research productivity, heavier teaching loads and a substantially greater commitment to community service than nonminorities.”
In addition, this same study reported that “many minority faculty report feeling that they have to work much harder than nonminority faculty to demonstrate competence. Nontenured faculty and faculty of color are constantly pressured to prove that they are effective teachers, capable of writing, conducting research, mentoring and engaging in services.”
When it came to responding to their campus climate, culture and collegiality, minority faculty surveyed in the Highlights Report 2008 mostly agreed that they were less satisfied than their White colleagues with the collaboration, communication and support from tenured professors within their departments. They did not feel the same “sense of fit” as their White counter-parts. Both Native American and Black junior faculty felt they had fewer opportunities to collaborate with tenured faculty than their White counterparts felt, and both were less likely to feel that junior faculty were treated fairly and equitably compared to Whites.
Hispanics were the only group that did not report similarly. “I did not expect to find that Hispanic faculty were as satisfied as White faculty,” said Trower, sharing her surprise. “We sus-pect that our inability to discern by national ori-gin may mask significant subgroup differences. Similar to Asian/Pacific Islander faculty members, some Latino faculty from foreign Spanish-speaking countries may experience language and cultural barriers that inhibit the development of positive collegiate relationships.”
This sense of not truly fitting in, reported among the larger minority population, was also an issue evidenced by the Workplace Diversity report. This study pointed out that minority faculty who have been successful attribute much of their success to having a mentoring relationship with a senior faculty member. Yet “many minority faculty have reported being left out of the informal look and networks,” according to the report. “Faculty of color are sometimes isolated and struggle with socialization in universities, particularly when there is a ‘chilly climate.’”
According to Trower, this kind of climate is most likely to attribute to the “revolving door” for scholars of color on the tenure track. In addition, when minorities leave one institution for potentially another, “they are often replacing a minority faculty person that has just left the institution, the result of which is not an increase in minority faculty hiring and retention, rather a revolving door of minority faculty coming and going,” stated the Workplace Diversity report from a Tolbert, et. al 1995 study.
To add to this challenging situation, tenure is becoming more difficult than before for all groups to achieve, and fewer people are pursuing the nontenure track – just as the number of minority faculty in academe are increasing at noticeable rates!
“University presses are not publishing as much. They never made money, and now they are losing money, or have gone out of business. This is an issue if you need to be published to peer review for tenure. Getting grants is tougher as well,” explained Trower. “More institutions are hiring outside of the tenure stream. There is a great increase of nontenure-track appointments out there. Will there be people left on the tenure track, what will happen to academic free-dom, and what will happen with the longevity of faculty on tenure?”
Trower and others claim that the entire tenure system needs to be changed in order to survive, especially given the changing needs of younger generations of faculty coming up the pipeline –whether minority or not. “Generation X is much more mobile, and they think about a job in the same place like a prison sentence. Also more and more faculty are associated with corporations outside of academia and are doing interdisciplinary work in research centers,” she said.
In addition to these changes, more people are seeking a balance between family and work – something the tenure process makes little room for, explained Trower. “In the Latina community, the family – of all generations – is extremely important. Why should Latinas, or anyone, sacrifice family to have a successful academic career?”
The challenges of tenure and the tenure-track route in higher education are great for all groups, but especially for minorities, according to reports cited here. In Trower’s view, and that of many others, this tenure system needs to become more flexible and inclusive, moving beyond a “one-size-fits-all” system. It seems only with these kinds of changes will the tenure system survive in academia and provide a climate in which faculty of all color, race and gender feel that their diversity is a welcome addition to high-er education.