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Black and Female in Academia

 

Pamela Trotman Reid

 


Being black and a woman and an academic is a metaphysical dilemma.
—Ntozake Shange

Much has changed in the 35 years since my first interview for an academic position. It was back in 1976, and the chair of the psychology department, who was hiring an assistant professor for his team at the University of Delaware, was so surprised to see an African-American woman at his door that he actually shut the door in my face. (He did quickly recover and reopen it, but I did not get the position.)

Standing in stark contrast to this rather eye-opening experience was the warm and sincere welcome I received more than three decades later at Saint Joseph College, both during the interview and at the announcement of my appointment as president. It is with those two poles in mind that I reflect on ACE’s data showing the slow progress in diversifying the presidency.

What has changed? The ACE report on the presidency states that, now more than ever, the successful route to the presidency includes advancing from the role of provost or academic vice president. In fact, this was my route. For me (like many others), the position of provost was preceded by service as department chair and dean. So, what has not changed? Over the years, the predominantly white professorate still controls entry into faculty positions; consequently, this gatekeeping affects advancement into administrative posts.

Data in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2006 and 2008 indicated that hiring minorities in faculty ranks has progressed in very small steps. Currently, percentages of faculty from underrepresented groups (African Americans and Latinos) range from a low of 4 percent in bachelor’s institutions to a high of 8 percent at public master’s institutions, according to The Chronicle’s 2011 Diversity in Academe report. Given the failure to hire faculty of color in numbers that reflect the demographics of society as a whole, the fact that the presidency is similarly unrepresentative should not be surprising.

As the dearth of minority faculty persists, we can note that the percentage of white women in the faculty, while still well below parity, has increased substantially. The 2011 Almanac of Higher Education indicates that white women were about 23 percent in 1980 compared with 35 percent in 2009. Research and history suggest that the increases have varied widely based on institutional categories, departmental cultures, and differences across disciplines. While some disciplines have made major strides with respect to gender, others remain stubbornly homogenous, even as they continue to receive attention and funding from numerous agencies.

Can attention and funding also help bring the presidency within reach of underrepresented groups? Clearly, talk and promises alone will not be sufficient. The challenge of diversity must include concrete strategies for hiring, mentoring, and promoting minority faculty. My observations at various institutions suggest that several common practices may inadvertently present roadblocks to the success of minority candidates. For example, unclear hiring criteria can make it difficult to counter requirements that are applied to shut out minority candidates. For examples, vague criteria and hiring goals may make comparisons across candidates arbitrary and subjective. Or, if part-time and temporary appointments are made before developing criteria for a formal search, an inside track may be established for candidates (often white).

Even after hiring minority faculty, their success may be thwarted if they are assigned heavy committee or service tasks that do not contribute to awards of tenure. Minority faculty, like women faculty, often receive lower teaching evaluations from students. And they may find that the tenure committee deems their “minority” research interests less valuable than more traditional ones.

The opportunities for advancement to administrative ranks can similarly suffer roadblocks. If few minority men and women are tenured, even fewer are appointed to positions of authority. In regularly reviewing announcements of minority administrators, one observes that minorities often receive positions without faculty-line control, such as diversity officer or associate dean. These rarely lead to higher positions.

While several women of color have now attained presidencies (some at very elite institutions), we can observe that the success of one Latina or African-American woman’s leadership does not necessarily lead to similar expectations for others. We can acknowledge that these minority women presidents serve not only as wonderful examples, but also recognize them as amazing exceptions. While 26 percent of presidents are now women; only 4 percent of all presidents are women of color. These women serve in the face of stereotypes that define leadership as contrary to their gender and ethnicity. I do believe that these stereotypes will lose their impact in the face of minority women’s successes, but this is a slow process. To hasten the result, there will be no substitute for mentoring and affirmative support, as well as clear goals for building a pipeline so that women of color can demonstrate and hone their academic and administrative talents.

 

Pamela Trotman Reid is president of Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, CT.