Minority faculty face unique challenges in obtaining tenure

by Rachel Osterman | 4/3/02 5:00am

Dartmouth ranks 10th among the nation's top research universities for hiring black faculty. For an institution long associated with a white hamlet image, those rankings appear to be encouraging news.

They are. But at the same time they're not.

The problem is that while Dartmouth compares favorably with its peer institutions, only 44 of the arts and science faculty's 355 members -- or 12.4 percent -- are minorities. Among the 265 professors who hold tenure, only 19 -- or 7.1 percent -- are non-white.

"The story is some of our colleagues are doing horribly, and we're doing better than that," said Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Ozzie Harris.

Dartmouth has long worked to diversify the ranks of its faculty and, compared with other major research institutions, can rightly claim a modicum of success. But just as wide disparities exist between the number of whites and people of color who hold teaching positions, the tenure process itself skews the success rates of minorities.

No one has any definitive explanation for the racial disparities among those who hold tenure, but observers point to an absence of strong mentoring programs for young minority professors, disproportionate demands on the time of instructors of color and a system in which academic programs that employ many minorities do not make tenure decisions.

Some say the College offers inadequate mentoring for junior faculty of color, a failure that, these critics argue, leads to intellectual isolation.

"As far as I know, I could be the only tenured Asian humanist on campus," Chinese professor Hua-yuan Mowry said, who has been at the College since 1975. "Who do I discuss my work with?"

While Mowry believes that the tenure process itself is fair, she believes the six years leading up to tenure decisions disadvantage junior faculty of color. "The cultural gap is so great that it's very difficult for my mainstream colleagues to understand how difficult it is to be a minority and a woman on this campus. There's real intellectual loneliness, a lack of understanding of my discipline."

Harris agreed the College should work on ways to enhance the support of junior faculty of color, much as it already provides a support network for female professors.

"Our challenges are not only related to recruitment," he said. "It has a lot to do with providing more meaningful mentoring, support and other resources that would encourage not only junior faculty to be ready for the tenure review, but also encourage senior faculty and departments to actively take part in that success as it relates to mentoring and an understanding of the tenure process."

Some professors say junior faculty of color are expected to be more involved in College life than their white counterparts.

"Minority faculty are called on to do all sorts of things in the life of the College -- to be on this committee, to advise this group, to work with these students," Marty Favor, a tenured African-American English professor said. "It's not something we don't like doing, but quite honestly, you don't get tenure by doing those things."

"The faculty of color have to be more active. If they're not, they are also judged negatively," Favor continued. "You get a lot of people directed your way from your colleagues saying, 'We think you'd be really good on this committee,' and sometimes the only reason you're on the committee is because you're a person of color."

Favor noted that during the months of January and February, he is constantly asked to help plan commemorations surrounding the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and black history month. "You can spend your entire time going to events," and not complete any research, he said.

Faculty of color may face special barriers because many are hired into programs such as African and African-American studies, Asian and Middle Eastern studies and Native American studies that are inter-disciplinary in their approach. Tenure decisions, however, are made by departments whose members often judge a candidate's scholarship from the perspective of one particular discipline and are sometimes unsure of how to evaluate interdisciplinary research.

"Sometimes departments fall back on their own discipline," observed Harris.

While Dartmouth does compare favorably with its peer institutions when it comes to black faculty, strikingly few Asian professors -- a minority group that is well-represented at most institutions of higher education -- hold tenured jobs at the College. Indeed, only four Asian faculty members held tenure as of last year, compared with a comparatively higher number of nine blacks and six Hispanics.

Mowry attributed the under-representation of tenured Asian faculty to an unsupportive environment that causes high attrition rates.

"Culturally, it's a very difficult place," she said. "Sympathetic understanding from your faculty and deans is very important, and I feel that's lacking."

Harris agreed that the College has to work hard to recruit and retain more faculty from Asian backgrounds. "I think that's one of the main issues for us," he said.

Data also reveal that despite Dartmouth's association with Native American studies -- Dartmouth has a program devoted exclusively to that field, for example -- no Native Americans hold tenure at the College. Two professors who identify as Native Americans do hold positions at the assistant professor level, however.

Despite the stark under-representation of Native American and Asian tenured faculty, the College does fare significantly better than other major research institutions when it comes to black faculty.

Observers say that is in many ways the result of differences between Dartmouth's and, say, Harvard's tenure system. At Dartmouth, instructors hired at the assistant professor level are put on the tenure track. By contrast, top research institutions rarely tenure professors who have risen through the ranks, but rather tenure faculty who have already obtained senior appointments at other universities.

Harris said Dartmouth's comparative strengths are also due to the school's commitment to making diversity a priority.

"We have a lot of work to do, but we should give ourselves credit for valuing diversity. We've articulated for ourselves that diversity is important," he said. "We've focused on it in a way that places like Harvard and Princeton have not. We care about individuals in a way that larger institutions may not be able to do. We are an institution with a number of resources, and not just fiscal ones."

But Dartmouth does not compare so favorably with liberal arts colleges that also have a tradition of tenuring faculty who begin as junior professors.

While 2.4 percent of Dartmouth's tenured faculty is black, at Haverford College that number is 7.9 percent and at Wellesley College it is 7.2 percent, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Even at geographically isolated Bates College 6.9 percent of the tenured faculty is African-American.

"That's Dartmouth being caught between" research and liberal arts institutions, said Favor, who studied diversity at the College as a member of the Committee on Institutional Diversity and Equity.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education offered other reasons for the success of many liberal arts colleges in recruiting and tenuring blacks: the most popular majors at these colleges are in the social sciences and humanities, fields in which there are a significant number of black scholars; despite their small size, many liberal arts schools offer black studies programs; and small institutions have environments that allow black faculty to mentor African-American students.