Minority Faculty Finish Last on Tenure Track

Victor Ortiz, who coordinates the Mexican and Caribbean Studies Program at Northeastern Illinois Univeristy, is on the school's tenure track. Despite seeing some progress, Ortiz agrees with other area faculty who say schools must do more to prioritize diversity. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Victor Ortiz, who coordinates the Mexican and Caribbean Studies Program at Northeastern Illinois Univeristy, is on the school's tenure track. Despite seeing some progress, Ortiz agrees with other area faculty who say schools must do more to prioritize diversity. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)

Behind binoculars, Valerie C. Johnson cried.

She watched from a car across the street on a cold day last February as her students, bundled in winter coats, shouted, marched and waved banners that read “Tenure Professor Johnson” on the University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus.

Eight months later, in October, Pat Gill, UIC’s associate chancellor, was the first person scheduled to speak at Illinois Board of Higher Education hearings on faculty diversity. She faced an ethnically diverse audience of about 40 people, many of them university administrators or professors.

Gill, who is Latina, read from a statement. She told her audience that UIC “aspires to achievement in faculty diversity,” but that the university had a problem finding qualified minority candidates.

When Johnson, an African American, spoke more than an hour later, about 15 people remained in the room. She explained that she had been denied tenure at UIC, meaning she would have to leave the school within a year. When that happened, she said, UIC would lose not only a good professor but a mentor many students needed.

“I think that my burden of mentoring minority students is far greater than the burden white professors assume,” she told the group.

Whether they agree with Johnson’s analysis or not, many administrators, professors and students at Chicago-area universities argue that the schools need more tenured minority professors.

Since 1993, 24 four-year colleges and universities in the Chicago metropolitan area have made little progress on improving tenured faculty diversity, according to an analysis of Illinois Board of Higher Education data by The Chicago Reporter.

During that time, the overall number of students and faculty of color grew, but the proportion of tenured faculty who are black or Hispanic did not change substantially. While Asians gained ground in public institutions, their representation at private universities remained the same.

The situation puts minority students–”who now make up a third of the area’s student population–”in jeopardy, and limits learning opportunities for white students, experts and educators say.

“The fact is that our sense of what’s possible is influenced by the images we take in,” said Beverly Tatum, the president of Spelman College in Atlanta and a psychologist who has studied the impact of race on education for 20 years.

And, she said, “we think of programs that increase faculty or student body diversity as only helping the student of color or faculty of color, but white students are being truly prepared to interact. In order to be an effective leader in the 21st century, you need to be able to interact effectively with people different from yourself.”

But university officials and professors can’t reach a consensus on why their faculties aren’t more diverse, or how to change the situation.

Most administrators attribute the lack of tenured minority faculty to the “pipeline,” as Gill did: They say there just aren’t enough qualified minority professors to go around.

Dwight McBride disagrees. The problem isn’t a shortage of minorities, said McBride, who is tenured and chairs African American Studies at Northwestern University. It’s that minority professors are held to standards that white professors aren’t.

“What people are really saying is that –˜We can’t find enough black people who impress us in the ways that our colleagues impress us,'” said McBride, who is African American.

Tenured professors uniquely affect universities by shaping curricula. They have lighter teaching commitments, can’t be fired and retain tenure status if they leave a university to join another.

“Tenure-track” professors typically have six years to prepare for tenure assessments. At that point, committees of tenured faculty, provosts, deans and the chancellor decide who receives tenure based on student evaluations and statements by the candidate, plus their teaching, research, outside work, and books or articles. After professors are denied tenure, they usually cannot stay at the university.

Some blame the tenure process itself for stifling diversity.

Phil Nyden believes that minority professors are often drawn to social activism, but that may not lead to tenure, he said. Nyden, who is white, is the director of Loyola University Chicago’s Center of Urban Research and Learning, which works with area professors and communities on issues such as early education and affordable housing.

“The traditional route is [that] you look at what’s being published by others in your field, and then write your articles. When you listen to community leaders, it looks like you aren’t as –˜hard-core’ academic, and this is not looked upon favorably,” he said.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UIC, said the tenure process is a peer review with “documentation the size of a phone book” to ensure objectivity. Community work is valued in tenure assessment, said Fish, who is white, but “you have to have some form of documenting the effect of the community work. In the humanities the book is the benchmark achievement” for tenure.

Fish and other Chicago-area academics said minority recruitment and diversity programs have been among the first to go at schools experiencing budget crunches.

“Before last year, it was understood that minority applicants were especially favored by this university’s administration,” said Fish. “I hope that policy returns, but I don’t know, because I don’t know about the budget policy. I just do what I can with what’s handed to me.”

Salme H. Steinberg, the president of Northeastern Illinois University, said she puts resources into programs that benefit the whole student body, even though the school receives federal and private grants because it has a high Latino student population.

“We help Latinos by helping all students,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”

“My burden of mentoring minority students is far greater then the burden white professors assume,” says Valerie C. Johnson, who was denied tenure ar the Univeristy of Illinois at Chicago. (Photo by Andre Vospette)

No Explanation

Johnson and others said minority professors go out of their way to extend their work outside of academia, but then they end up being punished by being denied tenure.

“It almost seems like you are doing the community a disservice to get all this damn education and not use it in service to the community,” she said.

Johnson came to UIC in 1994 as a tenure-track assistant professor in political science. Three years later, she took a year off to research and write for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. The university gave fellowships to two graduate students to work with her.

In the fall of 2001, Johnson was up for tenure. She said she had been told about tenure requirements prior to her evaluations. She thought she had met them all. In addition to her teaching and work with Rainbow/PUSH, she had published two articles and had a book contract.

But in September she learned that the political science department had voted to deny her tenure. As is customary in the process, she received no explanation. Johnson appealed the decision.

Some of Johnson’s undergraduate students heard the news. Along with several others, Jason Lukasik, a white student, and Kip Bordelon, a black student, formed a group, Diversity In Demand, to protest Johnson’s denial and what they deemed a shortage of minority faculty at UIC.

In 2001, 4 percent of the school’s tenured faculty was Latino, and another 4 percent was black. Asian professors made up 15 percent of the total.

The group requested a meeting with Fish, and he agreed to see six of its members one morning in February.

“When we walked in and I saw the Danishes and coffee, I thought we were going to have an amiable meeting,” Bordelon said.

Then the students asked him to explain why UIC had a low number of minority faculty. “He exploded,” Bordelon said. “One minute he was nice and the next he was yelling and pounding on the table. Danish was coming off his shirt.”

Fish said he reacted strongly.

“Students don’t have any rights in the tenure process–”that is a remark I will repeat,” he said, noting that some members of Diversity In Demand were “visibly distressed” at his response.

Fish said the tenure process should only involve administrators and tenured professors because others aren’t well enough informed.

“It’s not their job. They don’t have the competence. They don’t have the investment. It’s not their profession. They shouldn’t be making the decision,” Fish said.

In March and April, after lobbying by students and black faculty, two higher committees confirmed the denial, Johnson said. She lost an appeal in September 2002. She will have to leave UIC by the end of this school year.

Fish would not talk about Johnson’s case. He said the question of whether community activism or published work was more valuable for students was “not relevant” because they can learn from both. But, in the tenure process, “the emphasis is on the book,” he said.

And the merits of work outside academia can be interpreted widely, said Sumi Cho, a professor at DePaul University’s College of Law who has written papers on the tenure process.

“It is particularly difficult for people of color to get tenure because there’s a very subjective decision as to what qualifies as service,” she said.

Cedric Herring, a black tenured sociology professor at UIC, said almost all the people who make tenure decisions at large universities are white, and the work of black professors is too different from their own to be valued.

“Many people [of color] have difficulties with getting hired and, once hired, retaining their jobs, because white faculty in the discipline don’t necessarily value their research,” said Herring.

“I know of no evidence to prove that is the case,” Fish countered.

And McBride, who was the head of UIC’s African American studies department last year, said tenure is about awarding a lifetime appointment to people who have achieved “a level of scholarly excellence.” Many minority professors want to work in the community, he said, “but is that the work that gets you tenure? My answer would be flat-out –˜No.'”

“In order to get tenure as a black person at UIC, you have to be a star,” said Johnson, whose book was published in October.

“They don’t have a commitment to hiring regular African American faculty members as much as they might tenure a regular white faculty member.”

Superstar Professor

While Johnson fought to stay at UIC, McBride grew frustrated and left over the summer.

“The story’s fairly straightforward,” he said. “We had a contract, and they didn’t live up to it.”

He said UIC’s African American studies department was supposed to get three new faculty and a new staff member in his first year. It didn’t. The university froze salaries and temporarily suspended a fund for minority faculty recruitment after the state cut its budget, UIC officials said.

McBride doesn’t think diversity should be abandoned under any circumstances.

“All the things that should be held harmless during times of hardship–”minority faculty recruitment should be at the top of that list, particularly at an institution like UIC where diversity is one of its big selling points,” he said.

Northwestern has a true commitment to diversity, McBride said. “For my money, it was really important to be at an institution where minority recruitment is always a priority,” he said. The school has a $1 million fund to recruit minority faculty.

This fall Northwestern hired 10 black professors who have tenure or are on tenure-track. But from 1993 to 2001 minority representation didn’t change much at the university, moving from 11.1 to 11.6 percent. The African American Studies Department had two professors before McBride was hired.

Other professors and administrators say McBride was in a position to jump to Northwestern, calling him a rising “superstar” professor–”one of the high-profile, sought-after professors whom universities compete to recruit.

Fish said McBride is well known and respected. In the last three years, McBride has written two books and edited two others. His books were widely praised within the field of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender studies. His forthcoming book will be titled, “Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality in the U.S.”

In 1996, McBride earned his doctorate in English literature from the University of California, Los Angeles; his dissertation was on 19th century slavery and abolitionism. He was an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh for three years before joining UIC in 1999. In 2000, at age 33, McBride was tenured by UIC, and last fall became head of its Department of African-American Studies.

But the attention given to the stars distorts the true picture of tenured minority faculty, others say.

“For many schools, stars are an attractive solution to diversity because they get a lot of PR,” said DePaul’s Cho. “But they’re not expanding [the number of] minorities, just shuffling the existing stars around.”

As a few rose to the top of Chicago’s academia, others were left behind. From 1993 to 2001, DePaul, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and UIC all failed to significantly improve tenured faculty diversity.

Recent columns in UIC’s student newspaper, UIC Today, have speculated that the school is courting Houston Baker, an African American professor of English at Duke University. Baker has made frequent visits to the school.

But minorities who are not superstars have not made progress in tenured faculties and are pigeonholed in ethnic studies departments, other professors say.

“Most [Chicago] institutions do not have a commitment to diversity. They have resources committed to little programs here and there,” said Marí­a de los Angeles Torres, a political science professor at DePaul.

Fish said minority recruitment in other parts of his college was not a top priority.

“I’m interested in taking each of the departments in my college and making it a cutting-edge department. With African American studies, literature, history, there’s a built-in impetus for going after high-level minority faculty,” he said. “In physics, chemistry, we would consider it an extraordinary find, but in those disciplines there aren’t the same pressures internal to the discipline to go out and seek good minority faculty.”

Core Requirements

Many academics say the issue of tenured faculty diversity is linked to a struggle to broaden college curricula to include more ethnic studies.

In 1995, Loyola University Chicago separated from Loyola University Medical Center and lost $50 million in annual funding.

Shortly afterward, John Frendreis, formerly the chairman of Loyola’s political science department, accepted a new post: associate vice president for planning and analysis. Frendreis was charged with implementing a plan to get Loyola out of the red.

The school first tried to raise enrollment. It dropped. Frendreis was then told to cut faculty positions in programs with the lowest enrollments.

“If you have more students to serve in this area, you put more faculty and staff; if you have fewer in this area, you put fewer here,” said Frendreis, now the school’s vice provost. But “whatever changes were made as a result of our attempt to engage in cost-control and restructuring on the academic side did not distinctly affect faculty of color.”

The representation of all minorities among Loyola’s tenured faculty remained steady at about 8 percent between 1993 and 2001, according to the Reporter’s analysis.

But others charge that the university has never made a serious commitment to ethnic studies programs.

Asian and Asian American Studies, Latin American Studies and Black World Studies are not full departments at Loyola. All are known as “interdisciplinary studies,” meaning their courses are technically offered by other departments and often taught by their faculty. Students can work toward a minor in the subjects.

Currently, 11 students are minoring in Asian and Asian American Studies. In 2001, Loyola had about 7,100 undergraduates, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

In April, Loyola’s acting dean, David Slavsky, told Yvonne Lau that her position as director of Asian and Asian American Studies would be eliminated by summer, she said. Lau said she was offered the choice of taking severance pay or remaining in her position no more than one year. (Lau is a member of the Reporter’s editorial board.)

Since Asian and Asian American Studies began in 1995, Lau had taught its core classes. In 2000 she started the Link program, which gave students in the Chicago Public Schools the chance to earn a year’s college credit in Asian and Asian American Studies. Link is now in limbo, Lau said. She was not tenured.

Loyola’s administration would not comment specifically on Lau or the future of the Asian studies program.

But Frendreis said it would take a tenured, “champion” professor to establish a good Asian and Asian American Studies program at Loyola–”someone “who is a proven teacher and scholar and who is in a position in their life that they can devote the time and energy to developing the program.”

Lau said administrators repeatedly promised to put her on tenure track, but never did. Over the summer she left Loyola for DePaul University. “I gave everything I could to the program,” she said.

Tracey Pintchman, a theology professor who specializes in South Asian religion, now oversees the program. Pintchman, who is white, has tenure, and she said that Lau lost her position because she didn’t have it. Loyola had to cut the positions of many part-time or non-tenure-track professors to save money, she said, because it is against the law to fire tenured or tenure-track professors.

Pintchman said “at least” three Asian and Asian American Studies faculty members left or were fired last year, and about 10 professors now teach the minor’s courses.

Frendreis confirmed that professors have bigger workloads and teach fewer courses for the interdisciplinary studies programs, but he could not provide numbers.

Other departments will have faculty openings filled before Asian and Asian American Studies, and will be able to offer more courses, said Ann Harrington, who teaches Japanese history and helped create the program. She is a tenured member of the history department.

“If we had 1,000 students, we might see change,” she said, adding that it was not her place to question the administration’s priorities.

But students accuse the school of abandoning its commitment to offering a diverse curriculum.

“They’re not so much cutting these programs as bleeding them. I hope that’s not intentional,” said Puja Mehta. “They need to be more aware of all student needs.”

Mehta, who graduated in May with a degree in finance, led Loyola’s South Asian Student Association last year. She said the Asian studies program would be more popular if students could major in the subject, or if the classes counted toward core requirements for other majors. All arts and sciences students are required to take Western history, she noted, but cannot choose courses like Asian history instead.

“More people would take the courses if they counted for something,” Mehta said.

Mehta added that the program’s classes have been important, especially since Sept. 11, as a way for Asian students to explain their culture to others. “The minor was South Asian students’ medium–”it showed we were on common ground,” she said.

Frendreis admitted that low enrollments might not correspond to low interest. “Just because there are only a few minors doesn’t mean there isn’t demand,” he said. He said he could not predict when more faculty members would be devoted to the programs, even if student enrollment were to increase.

As he crossed out his old title and replaced it with “Vice Provost” on his business card, Frendreis smiled and said that this year Loyola will break even.

Benefiting Everyone

Juana Montoya enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University in 2000 because she was interested in the school’s Mexican and Caribbean Studies minor, an interdisciplinary program like those at Loyola. The school’s Latino population–”about 25 percent of its student body–”and low tuition also appealed to her.

She was soon disappointed to find that many of the classes advertised in a brochure for the minor were not being offered. And when she tried to talk to someone about the program, she found it didn’t have a director or an office on its main campus, on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Montoya joined Chimexla, a Chicano, Mexican and Latino group, and, with the help of the Puerto Rican Student Union and the student magazine Que Ondee Sola, tried to get students to protest what she thought was neglect of Hispanic students’ needs, including the need for Latino professors. She was disappointed once again when the students responded apathetically.

“Many have jobs or many other things besides school, and the last thing they want to worry about is to try and get the school to pay more attention to them,” Montoya said. “They never stop to think about this place.”

Senior Michael Rodriguez Muñiz is the editor of Que Ondee Sola. He has completed the requirements for the Mexican and Caribbean Studies minor. Most of the classes were taught by white professors. Muñiz said he didn’t really mind, as long as the subjects were taught well.

“I take what I can get,” he said.

After Native Americans, Hispanics are least likely to be tenured professors. At the 24 universities in the Reporter’s analysis, they made up 2 percent of tenured faculty members in 2001.

In 1998, Northeastern became the only four-year Hispanic Serving Institution in Illinois, meaning its undergraduate student population was at least a quarter Latino. But there is no Latino faculty requirement. Northeastern had 4 percent tenured Latino faculty in 1993 and 5 percent in 2001.

Over the past three years the university won $3.1 million in federal, state and private grants meant for Hispanic Serving Institutions, according to university officials.

But none of the funds went directly to Latino programs, said Steinberg, Northeastern’s president.

Instead, Northeastern applied for grants that would support programs benefiting everyone at the school, including Latinos, she said. For example, one of the grants helped support a center that provides training for faculty.

“What they’re learning in that center has really nothing to do with Hispanics–”it has everything to do with anybody who is a student,” said Steinberg, who is white. “It’s always important to remember that [the school gets funding] because we have the presence of these Hispanic students along with our richly diverse community, but that anything we get benefits everyone.”

Montoya and other students are handing out surveys to Latino students to ask what they want and need. They think that the students want more Latino professors and more Mexican and Caribbean Studies courses. And they believe the administration should find the funds to add both.

“They’re attracting all these minorities and they’re getting money because they’re a minority-serving institution, and yet they don’t provide the services they need to provide for minorities,” Montoya said.

Last year, the Mexican and Caribbean Studies Program opened an office on the main campus, and Victor Ortiz was recruited to be its coordinator. Ortiz–”who was denied tenure at UIC last year–”is also a member of the criminal justice department and is on tenure track.

Northeastern’s Mexican and Caribbean Studies Program has existed for 20 years. But students have occasionally kept it going on their own, at times paying for the program’s promotional materials with their own money or lobbying faculty to teach its courses, Ortiz said. He added that Northeastern’s administration began talking about “doing something actual” with the program two years ago.

The class Ortiz taught last semester and the one he’s teaching now both filled up.

Steinberg said she’s done her best to increase faculty diversity, but there just aren’t enough qualified minority candidates to go around.

Still, Ortiz said he’s seen progress, even if it’s “fragmented.”

“Latinos have been here for a long time–”since the beginning,” Ortiz told a class recently. “And they’ve been the underclass for a long time. Change is long overdue.”

Maria Erdmann, Janelle Frost, Ryan McFarland and Julia Steinberger helped research this article.

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