The Race for Tenure

I recently discovered a fantastic podcast episode on the challenges and opportunities of racial diversity in academia—particularly its impact on tenure and promotion.

Brian Lehrer (of “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC) interviewed Dr. Patricia Matthew, associate professor of English at Montclair State University* about her recently edited book, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).*

The January 18, 2019 podcast is titled, “Campus Diversity’s Unspoken Clash with University Tenure.” The podcast breaks down the invisible work often taken on by professors of color to address campus diversity issues and how it harms their tenure prospects.

In my own experience within the Academy, faculty, staff, and administrators usually treat diversity as an institutional administrative challenge rather than as an educational and professional opportunity. So I appreciate Dr. Matthew’s cautiously optimistic perspective driven by real data. She is also well-spoken and thoughtful (aka: leads by example). I absolutely agree with her that being a scholar doesn’t mean disconnecting oneself from the larger community within and beyond academia:

“There’s an idea that we have about what a professor and a scholar does and it’s work that is separate from the work of the community. . . the thing that matters most, the gold standard is still peer reviewed research.”         —Dr. Patricia Matthew

Dr. Matthew strategically uses the term burden to describe the inequitable and often unmanageable load that administrators place on individual faculty of color. They face the immense challenge of diversifying campuses via search committees, curriculum development, and student advising (just to name a few).

No matter your role in academia, this podcast will inspire you to think differently about racial diversity. For those of you who are administrators, keep in mind the pressure to “diversify” is not just top-down for untenured faculty of color. It’s also bottom-up: Students of color gravitate towards faculty of color as role models, confidantes, and pseudo-therapists (which indicates cultural shift that goes beyond issues of race). Undoubtedly, these acts of service are righteous yet predominantly undervalued in academia. In extremis, these activities detract untenured faculty of color from their research and scholarship—the predominant factors when determining tenure.

Dr. Matthew points out that these challenges don’t stop once a faculty member of color is awarded tenure. There is an even greater diversity gap across the ranks of associate and full professor. Yet the pressure for faculty of color to make tough choices and professional sacrifices continues. At the risk of their own professional livelihood.

When administrators charge faculty with the heavy lifting of solving the diversity equation at their institutions, it sounds to me like a diversity paradox: Faculty of color are overburdened and even exploited for the sake of “diversifying” academia. If you are an administrator reading this: Take a step back and realize the contradiction here.

Dr. Matthew offers some clear suggestions for faculty of color to work smarter (not necessarily harder) to preserve professional livelihood on the tenure track. I find her suggestions viable for all faculty, staff, and administrators (including deans and provosts). These include:

  • Ask questions about what diversification actually means at your institution
  • Investigate the “level of investedness” among administrators at your institution
  • Diversity cannot be leveraged in isolation at an institution, so ask for multiple stakeholders to contribute at multiple levels.
  • Instead of reinventing the wheel, look to online resources for support
  • Ultimately, it’s not your job to fix your institution’s problems with race. Your job is to earn tenure.

The episode is only 25 minutes long, but is rich with insight and information that faculty, administrators, staff and people in non-academic institutions and organizations can apply right away.

You can follow Dr. Patricia Matthew on Twitter at @triciamatthew and “The Brian Lehrer Show” at @BrianLehrer


*My home institution is also Montclair State University, but I have not yet had the privilege of meeting Dr. Matthew personally or professionally. My endorsement here is made solely on my review of the podcast itself. You can decide for yourself its merits and relevance.