Why tenure is so important – but rare – for black teachers


In the three years between leaving NASA as a research meteorologist and landing in the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia, James Marshall Shepherd rose through the academic ranks there, strengthening his authority in the field of weather and climate change. During this short period, he even obtained tenure.

This rapid rise is unique among academics at any college, but especially rare for a black professor at a predominantly white institution. But the depth of Shepherd’s accomplishments made his rise to the top of the faculty undeniable.

“The University of Georgia has been very gracious and even stepped up to make sure I know they appreciate what I brought to school,” said Shepherd, who joined the university in 2006. “At the same time, I know that historically it hasn’t. It hasn’t been the same experience for other black teachers in other predominantly white schools.

The goal of securing tenure for black professors was highlighted by two high-profile confrontations that took place in public. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones lost her job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – after it was proposed, canceled and re-offered – and instead accepted a post at Howard University, one of America’s most famous colleges. .

“To be treated so badly by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and to which I was only looking to give back, has been deeply painful,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a statement this month.

Then, Cornel West, one of the nation’s foremost intellectuals, resigned from Harvard Divinity School last week, citing a debate over tenure. He said in a letter that the Ivy League school was suffering from “decline and decay” and “spiritual decay”.

These cases have not gone unnoticed by college students, including Shepherd’s daughter Arissa, a rising high school student who is ranked in the top 5% of college students in Georgia and is a famous volleyball player. “She had North Carolina on her list of the top five schools,” Shepherd said. “But she looked at what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones and she took him off her list. It touched her. And I support her decision.

Black tenured professors are rare. Data from a 2007 report from the Journal of Black in Education indicated that they represented less than 5 percent of all full professors in the country. Growth during this period has been minimal, say educators.

In non-HBCUs, black faculty “provide a level of representation and credibility by establishing a baseline for a diverse and inclusive faculty,” Shepherd said. “It also affirms and establishes, given the system that academia has put in place, that you are someone that this university wants to invest in or to roll with, so to speak.”

W. James Mashall Berger.Courtesy of the University of Georgia

And yet history has shown that many black academics find the path to tenure in predominantly white colleges at best intimidating. The permanence ensures the job security of professors; in some cases, this allows academics to research and teach topics that may be considered controversial, including racial inequality, without fear of losing their jobs.

In January, Franklin Evans became the first black president of West Liberty University, a small public college in West Virginia. He said he was amazed that the faculty of 136 full-time professors only had two black faculty members, including one full-time faculty.

“And one of the two was recently hired,” said Evans, president of Voorhees College, an HBCU in Denmark, South Carolina. He obtained his position in 2005 at JF Drake Technical College in Huntsville, Alabama. He said Hannah-Jones’ decision to bypass UNC for Howard was a watershed moment.

W. Franklin Evans.Maureen Zambito

“His treatment revealed to the public how differently we are judged,” Evans said. “But having black teachers in predominantly white schools is essential, because it allows others to see us as qualified, to see us as creative and intellectual.

“It’s very disheartening when we work hard and do everything we’re supposed to do without being tenured. Sometimes the rules change for people of color or successful African Americans. Sometimes they’re a little stricter when African Americans do their research, and it’s always more scrutinized. Sometimes there is a double standard when it comes to people of color at PWI. You work, you teach and the students love you, you are engaged in community and service activities, then you do research and academic work … and your white peers will come back and can turn their noses up.

Paul Harris knows this all too well. A researcher at the University of Virginia, Harris was denied tenure at his alma mater when the Promotion and Tenure Committee said his publication record fell short of expectations. He considered his work in the Journal of African American Males in Education to be “self-published,” even though it is a selective and peer-reviewed journal. More than 4,000 Harris alumni and colleagues have signed a petition denouncing the decision.

“It was exhausting, especially the process that followed because the facts presented in my case were not facts at all,” he said. “Having no warrant, you are sort of appeased. You always think about what I say and how, because there can be retaliation.

The committee then reversed its decision, but Harris instead took a permanent position at Penn State University, where he will teach graduate students of the counselor training program.

“I think now we’re just seeing what’s been going on for a long time,” Harris said. “And I hope this results in altered policy, altered practices, and a space within academia that is truly welcoming and not only tolerant but celebrating the work of black academics.”

The Washington Post reported in 2016 that 96% of full black professors taught at HBCUs. That number was disputed by Contexts, a research magazine published by the American Sociological Association, which said black professors with HBCUs made up 22%.

“If we only stayed in our HBCUs,” said Evans, “I think we are doing others a disservice by knowing how great and brilliant we really are. We should want to show that we too are at the cutting edge of technology and that we are doing amazing things.

“Of course, it’s not an easy road. Despite great accomplishments, you still have people guessing you. And what he’s really saying is that academia is symptomatic of what’s happening to us in the world. “

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