Diversity in Academe 2013

Lessons From a Faculty Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On

October 29, 2012

I remember the first time I entered the Boyd Law Building at the University of Iowa College of Law. It was a cold February day in 1987, and I had been asked to present a lecture on Namibia's continued occupation by the apartheid South African regime.

The new law building was shiny silver on the outside, gleaming in the winter sun. On the inside, I was struck by its traditional look. Throughout the lobby and hallways were many oil portraits of white males, some dead and some living, all emanating gravitas—wisdom and power. The portraits seemed to say, "We are important. We are the law. This is our world." I was told that these men were all faculty who had taught law for 25 years or longer.

I learned that placing the portraits in the new building had not been without controversy. To counteract the overwhelming sense of white male privilege, a metal plaque had been placed in the lobby. It had the images of the first female graduate, Mary B. Hickey Wilkinson, Class of 1873, and the first black graduate, Alexander G. Clark Jr., Class of 1879. Yet even on this plaque, the white male presence dominated, with the image of Charles Wright, a white male and member of the first graduating class, from 1865, appearing above the others.

In the lower-level hallway I saw photographs of all graduating classes and faculty members back to the beginning. I was impressed when I saw the occasional female or minority face over the hundred-plus years. I was impressed to learn that Iowa had been a place to educate blacks from Southern states during the days of Jim Crow segregation.

My talk went well. The room was full of friendly faces, including those of minority professors and students. I began to think that maybe there was some civilization in the state. (I had an attitude problem, being a New York lawyer.) I mentioned to Burns Weston, head of the international-law program, that I might have to move to Iowa due to my then-husband's job. "Do you have any idea what I might do in this state as an international lawyer?" I asked plaintively.

Before I knew it, I was entering the building as a new faculty member. Now the portraits seemed to be silently screaming, Intruder alert! Who is this woman?!

I am pleased to say that over the years, the law school has made the front entrance more inclusive. A portrait of George Strait, a black man who had until recently been the university's librarian, was moved from the library to the hallway. The front hallway contains display cases with faculty publications and photos of the authors. It has made me proud to see the pictures diversify. Now we have close to 20 women and eight people of color represented, including two Asians and one Latino.

Amazingly, I am now the law school's senior black faculty member, and we have four black women, including Angela Onwuachi-Willig (see accompanying essay). Finally, a few years ago, oil portraits of female professors were hung.

Now, having finished 25 years of teaching, I am the next woman to have her portrait done. (There is only one person whom I would permit to paint my portrait: my current partner, James Sommerville, who is an artist.) What is the significance of the fact that now I, too, will have a portrait? What lessons can I give to those behind me? When bombs were falling daily on England, and it was unclear if the country would survive Hitler's wrath, a wartime poster urged people to "Keep calm and carry on."

My advice to my sisters when the bombs are dropping—literally or figuratively—is to do the same. Here are some lessons I have learned that might help.

Do more than the minimum. During my candidacy for tenure, the question about how many articles were necessary came up. The rules stated that two major pieces were required, so some people thought I needed just two. Others thought I needed three since I had had an extension after my long-distance marriage fell apart. Some even thought I needed four since I had also had a maternity leave.

I counted the pages that those tenured in the five years before me had done. I noted the journals. I decided to exceed the page number and make sure my articles appeared in equivalent journals.

Aiming for the top was a more successful approach than merely fulfilling the minimum.

Tenure is only the end of the beginning. After I received tenure, I really started cranking. My active participation in scholarly groups led to speaking invitations, and law journals published the results.

Now the portraits seemed to be silently screaming, Intruder alert! Who is this woman?!

In 2001, I gained a very meaningful scholarly honor when I replaced my retiring mentor, Burns Weston, as the Bessie Dutton Murray distinguished professor of law. (He is now Bessie Dutton Murray professor emeritus.) Now that I have more than 100 scholarly publications, no one dares say that I am not a scholar.

Keep teaching the teacher, and teach on a grand scale. Everyone knows of professors who teach the same courses in the same way from the same materials year after year. Black women must be even more careful not to take such an approach since many people already do not perceive us as acceptable professors. So I decided to keep innovating, adding courses on race and American law, law in different cultures, legal aspects of AIDS, and law in the Muslim world.

I also decided that teaching on a grand scale was useful, so I have taught in Howard University School of Law's study-abroad program in South Africa and directed Iowa's summer program in France, and now our London semester program. Having students from different colleges is great: They get exposed to new content and, often, to the first black female teacher of their entire lives.

Be involved in othermothering. There is a mammy stereotype about black women, and rather than reject that image, I have embraced the concept of nurturing and extended it. On the professional level, this may be classified as mentoring. I could not have excelled in my career if I had not had the mentoring of many people, none of them black women.

Do not assume that someone will be your mentor or even your confidante just because he or she is the same race, gender, or race/gender as you. I know of horror stories where senior people of color have stabbed junior colleagues in the front and back in the workplace. There are senior people who resent a young rising star. If the tables flip, and the junior person is now in a superior position, the senior person of color may be her biggest nightmare.

What are the solutions to these mentor problems that can derail a woman of color's career? I think my approach of having a wide variety of mentors from various backgrounds has been a lifesaver. I never put all my eggs in one basket.

Give credit where credit is due. At the center of all my credit, I must put James, my partner. An artist who trained as an engineer, he has been a father figure for five sons, driving them to their activities when they were younger. Along with computer matters and so-called male chores, he is the family cook, and redesigned our home. All his contributions enable me to be the primary breadwinner. Now, what is the catch here? In my 20s, if someone had said that I would be the primary breadwinner, I would have thought they were crazy. I thought I needed a man who had as many degrees as I did and made more money. I then married that man, but it did not work out. In my 40s, I realized that a nontraditional relationship could really work, and I encourage other young black women lawyers and law professors to think out of the box as well. If women think that they must wait for a man like Barack Obama, they will remain alone.

The portrait looms in my dreams now. I hope my Alzheimer's-affected mother will live long enough to see it. Many of my colleagues have continued teaching for 20 or more years after their portraits were done. Will I have such a luxury? What would I write 20 years from now? I hope that we will have advanced by then in terms of our presence in the academy—that the tales written over the past 20 years by women professors of color will be of only historical interest. Perhaps by then, one of my granddaughters will also be a law professor, inspired as a child by having observed her grandmother's portrait being hung at the University of Iowa College of Law.


Adrien Katherine Wing is a professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law. This essay was adapted from Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris; Copyright 2012 University Press of Colorado).


Correction, 11/20/2012: Because of a conversion error, this essay originally appeared online without an author's identification at the bottom. The essay has been updated to include the author's bio, which appears in the printed version.