Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Her most recent book is No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work (Temple University Press, 2012).
It is no secret that the structure of higher education today is different than in previous generations. The university of the past was primarily comprised of tenured or tenure-track faculty members, who were then tapped for administrative ranks. Public universities typically offered free or low-cost tuition to residents of the states where they were situated and could count on subsidies from state Legislatures that allowed them to provide high-quality education at a reasonable cost.
Lest we overidealize this time period, however, it is also important to point out that these faculty were primarily white and male, with white women largely relegated to adjunct faculty roles and men and women of racial minorities entirely excluded or employed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Many think pieces and research studies have documented the ways that this university is now a thing of the past. The fastest growing trend today: faculty members who are employed as contingent workers, not on the tenure track, and who teach several classes for low pay with no job security or guarantee of long-term employment. Concurrently, the demographic makeup of the American faculty is slowly changing. Although academe overall and many disciplines in particular remain predominantly white and male, the professoriate now has more racial and ethnic diversity than it has in years past.
Unfortunately, however, this diversity mimics broader labor patterns in the larger society, where occupational segregation persists despite government prohibitions. In academe, that means that while there are more racial minority professors, faculty of color are largely concentrated at the lowest ranks of the academic hierarchy. And given how the university has shifted from a model that offered faculty crucial support structures to one that largely treats faculty labor as disposable, such shifting structural patterns and demographics matter.
What impact does the changing university have on faculty of color? This is a question that has not really been answered by empirical research. We do know, however, that faculty of color are overrepresented in contingent positions that have less economic stability and job security than those on the tenure track. Of course, tenure-track positions are not bastions of academic stability, either. Either way, minority faculty remain a small percentage of those on the tenure track in college and university settings, and their numbers only get thinner the higher the rank. That means that as tenure-track positions have become increasingly scarce, the numbers of faculty of color in those jobs remain few and far between.
At the same time, many colleges and universities are openly advertising a commitment to diversity. The recent protests at Yale University, Emory University, the University of Missouri and other institutions have drawn attention to the ways that predominantly white universities may not necessarily be as receptive to the needs of their minority students — as well as to the racial hostilities and issues these students encounter in the form of violence, social exclusion and expectations of failure. As a result, colleges and universities are calling upon faculty of color to do much of the service work of helping them become more attuned and responsive to the needs of students of all races.
That creates a problematic dilemma faculty of color. On the one hand, many colleges and universities publicly declare a commitment to increasing diversity and making college campuses more welcoming spaces for students and faculty of color. Yet, on the other, a commitment to hiring is often lacking, such that minority faculty remain underrepresented in the most secure, highest-paying and most influential tenured and upper-administrative positions — those that have the potential for changing institutional norms and cultures. They are instead more likely to be found among the least secure, lowest-paying ranks of contingent faculty workers. Institutions look to faculty of color to be key partners in improving campus climates. But as they invest less and less in the faculty members who might have the resources and security to do that, the results they say they want are, unsurprisingly, often slow to materialize.
For colleges and universities to change fundamentally, they must revise their structural processes first. When they concentrate instructional responsibilities on low-paid adjunct faculty with no job security or long-term investment in the institution, it minimizes those workers’ freedom of speech, adds to worsening economic inequality, compromises undergraduate instruction and ultimately undermines the mission of higher education. It is absolutely vital to reverse the current pattern of diminishing investment in tenure-track faculty.
At the same time, institutional commitment to diversity must go beyond lip service and translate into an increased representation of faculty of color in the tenure-track, tenured, full professor and upper administrative ranks. Despite the excuses that administrators often give, that is not impossible. Broadening the specialty areas taught in various departments, institutionalizing a commitment to diversity and offering strong retention packages to faculty of color are all ways that colleges and universities can actually increase diversity rather than just talk about it.
Critics of diversity often complain that making changes weakens the organizational structure. In the course of my career, I have heard the argument that committing to diversity undermines quality more times than I care to remember. Of course, that argument assumes that incorporating faculty of color into the professoriate inherently means that such faculty members are of lesser quality than their white peers.
But I think a more effective way of thinking is that more diversity is, in and of itself, a benefit to the university — just like adequate research support, infrastructure for teaching and student services. Rather than compromising intellectual quality, a diverse faculty introduces various points of view, provides multifaceted role models and exposes students to new ways of thinking. Those goals should be paramount in higher education — and should be buttressed by institutional support for its workers.