tenure and promotion experiences among women of color

After completing a Ph.D., how to get a tenure-track position, secure tenure, and advance to full and beyond are not clear, particularly since multiple layers of bureaucracy (committees, department, division, school, and university board) have a say over candidates’ cases.  Despite written policies specifying criteria and process for tenure and promotion, universities can interpret these policies in ways that advance or push out qualified candidates.  Over at feministwire, Vilna Bashi Treitler shares her experiences with the tenure process at one university, where unofficial teaching evaluations were apparently used to justify a tenure vote:

In my case, I was unable to defend myself when someone at my tenure hearing read verbatim from, a popular website where anyone can write anything about any professor in the country. The review reported me for “abandoning” my class. My colleagues discussed my case without reference to the medical emergency that pulled me from class: I lay, pregnant and bleeding, on doctor’s ordered bed rest, trying to save my baby. My colleagues failed to consider the testimonies of graduate students who taught the four class sessions that remained in the semester – at my own expense – or the fact that my website showed evidence that classes continued (with the aid of graduate students) and I distributed handouts online, despite my forced absence.

Perhaps most frustrating, it did not appear to matter to my colleagues that I had several peer-reviewed articles published in top journals, a book already published with a top-tier university press, a grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project, and mostly good reviews from students up until that time. This happened 10 years ago, and despite the opposition, I survived and succeeded in the academy. However, I never stopped facing challenges from white students who – despite signing up for my course, which at no time was ever a requirement – resist what I have to teach them, and in some cases, treat me with open disrespect.

Having served with Vilna on a committee overseeing dissertation proposals at the Graduate Center, CUNY and spending time with her discussing pedagogy, I can attest that she is very invested in students’ learning, no matter how difficult the topic.  In sociology and related disciplines, we teach and discuss complex topics – inequality, discrimination, and the various –isms – that can challenge or even threaten people’s worldviews.  The individualistic emphasis in the US makes it especially difficult to convey alternative ways of thinking.

Vilna’s post includes several recommendations for the academy.  In particular, she urges colleagues who have power to act on behalf of those who do not:

We must stand behind the promises we made to young faculty when we hired them: if you produce high quality scholarship, we will award you the tenure you need to continue conducting cutting edge research. Any scholar who makes the grade with notable and widely accepted peer-reviewed scholarship should not have their fates sealed in closed-door processes with little transparency or overt accountability where the complaints of a relatively tiny number of students – of course, students have never published research or taught courses themselves – are given undue weight. (Of course, bad teaching should not be rewarded, but we have other ways to assess teaching, including examining syllabi, having faculty regularly observed by peer scholars, and creating and encouraging the use of teaching centers where new scholar-teachers can seek aid in improving their classroom skills.)

Faculty who serve on committees that make these decisions know when injustice is being committed, and the time is now to take a stand. Standing up to proceedings that negate principles of both academic freedom and honor among colleagues and that allow racism and sexism to decide who is a quality scholar is risky and requires courage, but is nevertheless necessary. It is difficult to ask questions aloud about what’s not happening when a colleague looks like they’re being railroaded. If you stand up, you effectively become a whistleblower, for which there might be retaliation – but if you’re tenured, that’s exactly what tenure is for: protection from punishment for following through on ideas that may be unpopular. So when the tide turns against a junior colleague in your department or university, the difficult but morally right thing to do would be to take a bold step to stand up and at minimum question why.

And standing up takes many forms. When the conversation turns towards student complaints about a professor, inform your colleagues that student evaluations have gender and race biases (see here, and here, too). Find out if the professor has good evaluations that are being ignored or downplayed. Ask whether colleagues are overlooking other evidence of good teaching, like positive peer observations, or syllabi chock full of information about assignments, how grades are determined, and classroom policies. Professors who stand up must ask about the rest of the scholarly record: are we talking about the teaching of a highly productive scholar who has a publishing record and is a good departmental and college/university citizen? Maybe you should ask whether those things should matter more than evaluations – especially if you know this is what junior faculty are told when informed of the requirements for tenure.

Standing up also looks like administrators who overturn or challenge insufficiently explained tenure denials for stellar candidate records, being mindful of institutional commitments to inclusion and diversity. In addition, professors who become aware that injustice is occurring should reach out to administrators and encourage them to do the right thing.

Vilna’s insightful post includes links to several other scholars’ tenure denial experiences in the academy, as well as additional recommendations on working with students.


Written by katherinechen

July 27, 2016 at 5:25 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I also read Vilna’s post and was disturbed by it. Even though T&P practices have improved over time, there are still many problems. The one indicated is a big one – it is possibly for people to anonymously drop unsubstantiated charges and the applicant doesn’t know, or can’t respond.

    I also like the idea that more established people can step in. For example, in Vilna’s case, why didn’t senior faculty say, “You can’t judge someone on what is written on an anonymous website.” Shocking.


    Fabio Rojas

    July 27, 2016 at 6:06 pm

  2. Another way senior people can “stand up” in the tenure process is to pay attention to anything that might look like a blot on a record and address it. I was on the college tenure committee when a somewhat similar thing happened, also to an African American woman, but this time in the student comments on the original teaching evaluations that were part of the official dossier. Students complained that the professor frequently did not show up for class and was emotionally problematic when she was there. Our committee tabled the discussion and asked the department for an explanation, which turned out to be that the professor had been very ill that semester (ultimately needing surgery). They had known about it but did not think to explain it to the committee. (Whether the students had actually been told the reason and had been given alternate instruction as in Vilna’s example, I don’t know. I have seen students blame the professor [me] for missing class even when they were told the reason [pneumonia].)

    It is frequently the case that professors of color get lower mean evaluations, especially if the class discusses race, and a pattern can be detected in the original instruments where a small number of students are giving very hostile evaluations while the majority of the class is very positive. And most White professors don’t even know the data. I once had a White male colleague (who should have know better given his area of expertise) actually say that he believed students practiced “Affirmative Action” on their evaluations and gave minorities higher ratings!



    July 27, 2016 at 8:49 pm

  3. […] via tenure and promotion experiences among women of color — […]


  4. “However, I never stopped facing challenges from white students who – despite signing up for my course, which at no time was ever a requirement – resist what I have to teach them, and in some cases, treat me with open disrespect.” Happens to me all the time.


    Bernd Schmidt

    July 28, 2016 at 10:21 am

  5. Hi. It’s Vilna…. Thanks for writing about this Katherine. Since publishing it I have heard from so many – friends and strangers – who went through similar nightmares. I am honored the piece added fuel to this conversation … Fabio, I know that some in the meeting that ultimately decided my tenure denial did protest – the vote wasn’t unanimous. But their protestations weren’t enough to make the difference. I heard there were a couple of problematic letters too, but the story told about me publicly was that the students didn’t like me. And the fact is that the same year they tenured three others and of the group I had the strongest record of scholarship… And olderwoman, I agree and know firsthand that women and people of color are not given the same rights to illness as others. It’s shameful. My chair got notice of my need for immediate medical leave yet forced me to begin preparation for tenure hearings a week after my being put on bedrest – they never even responded to my request for aid in my classes or for medical leave!… The situation is increasingly dire for professors: our jobs are disappearing as higher education is driven by increasingly corporatized customer service led transactions that are driven by bottom lines (especially asstate and federal funds for higher education are all but gone). It is no surprise that those who are not in the most protected categories (Euro-descent, male) are at the greatest risks.


    Vilna Treitler

    July 29, 2016 at 10:38 am

  6. Thanks everyone for weighing in about steps that faculty can take, as well as personal experiences in the classroom. Vilna’s point about positions disappearing highlights how fewer associate and full faculty are available to review tenure and promotion files… it’s more difficult for the academic commons to operate under these conditions.



    July 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm

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