To understand this future, we must look at the past. A 2019 study covering the period from 2013 to 2017 found “largely minimal” gains made in the diversification of faculty across academe, with doctorate-granting institutions faring particularly poorly. During this period, at doctorate-granting institutions, the percentage of Black faculty barely budged. According to a
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To understand this future, we must look at the past. A 2019 study covering the period from 2013 to 2017 found “largely minimal” gains made in the diversification of faculty across academe, with doctorate-granting institutions faring particularly poorly. During this period, at doctorate-granting institutions, the percentage of Black faculty barely budged. According to a 2016 study from the TIAA Institute, while the total number of people of color and white women employed as faculty increased from 1993 to 2013, much of that increase was in adjunct and part time positions. “Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head,” the authors wrote.
Reaching further back, to 2009, an article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education estimated that it would take almost a century and a half for Black faculty to reach parity with white faculty. This “snail-like progress,” in the article’s terminology, was the status quo before a decade of underinvestment, before some of the harshest economic effects of the Great Recession were felt, and before many colleges met an existential threat in the global pandemic.
What will pass for progress now? If hiring has driven the paltry advance of diversity in the academy, the widespread adoption of hiring freezes can only stall such progress. Given the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, we can expect the pandemic to extend this timeline by decades.
Higher ed’s historical approach to the diversification of the faculty leaves us with little hope for the post-pandemic university. If we take seriously the findings of these studies, if we take seriously that the diversity of the academy is borne on the backs of contingent faculty, a grim picture emerges: As universities tighten their belts and eliminate adjunct positions, they also eliminate the largest population of their faculty of color. That elimination, during a global pandemic that has annihilated the academic job market, means that many of these contingent faculty may never return to the academy.
And how can they? Surviving economic insecurity often requires junior faculty to draw upon broad networks of financial and professional support — networks rarely available to faculty of color. As financial constraints reduce finding and obtaining an academic position to a matter of whom an applicant knows, as opposed to what an applicant knows, the path forward for such junior scholars closes. As the 2009 JBHE article put it, “the traditional ‘old boy’ network of referrals is likely to increase the percentage of whites who are hired to faculty posts when budget constraints weaken affirmative-action efforts.” As it went in 2009, so it will go in 2020, as cluster hire and targeted hire positions are eliminated.
Surviving job insecurity for diverse junior faculty also requires conformity to the nebulous concept of “fit” — often code for the degree to which minority faculty can conform to the standards of a largely white, male, and able-bodied professoriate and senior administration. And while “fit” has recently been demonstrated to be potentially inimical to efforts at diversifying the professoriate, it still remains a persistent force in the determination of “quality faculty,” to the detriment of marginalized applicants whose areas of research may be deemed “too narrow” or “too niche” to suit the needs of the established structures.
Moreover, even when faculty of color are deemed worthy to enter the tenure track, even when they do manage to “fit in,” they often face insurmountable hurdles in the form of obstructionist institutional processes and lack of support for their scholarship, all of which contributes to a climate inimical to their advancement, and all of which disproportionately affects women of color.
While all such fields are vulnerable, the situation facing women’s studies across the academy appears particularly dire. In May, the National Women’s Studies Association issued a statement calling upon “all faculty, administrators and governing boards to maintain funding to protect women’s and gender studies and other interdisciplinary programs during this critical time,” citing the importance of the work of these programs in our current social moment. Unfortunately, this call seems not to have been heeded by senior administration. Self-reported data gathered by the NWSA reports steep budget cuts, the elimination of programming budgets and administrative support staff, and the suspension of searches for vacant director positions, all of which imperil the missions of these programs and departments.
Compounding the budgetary effects of Covid-19 on these fields are the political challenges facing higher education more broadly. Despite the perception of the academy as a liberal stronghold, these colleges’ most powerful voices — the regents, trustees, alumni, donors, and, at public institutions, state governments, are often politically conservative, as David Austin Walsh, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton, recently pointed out in The Washington Post. Programs and departments centered on the experience of the marginalized will always face an uphill battle in such circumstances. Moreover, as university presidents are overwhelmingly white and male, strident appeals for the value of these programs are less likely than they should be to fall upon sympathetic ears.
If there is a silver lining, it is solidarity and coalition building.
Before the pandemic, administrators were hesitant to fully support these programs. Now, as the pandemic intensifies existing inequalities and makes these programs even more vital, these same administrators are likely to double down on “safe” programmatic decisions. The cost of those “safe” decisions? Programs that value and validate the lived experiences of marginalized faculty and students.
There may be some hope: At Harvard University, the high-profile hiring of specialists in Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim studies, which was put on hold in April — a blow to the decades-long struggle to establish ethnic studies at Harvard — was recently reversed when the university announced that the positions would be filled, as well as the addition of visiting scholarships and fellowships within the program. This move comes as part of Harvard’s larger push for diversity and racial justice.
In a similar vein, Purdue University announced on August 5 that it would be eliminating stipends for 10 of its 16 director positions in its School of Interdisciplinary Studies, which houses fields like African American and Asian American studies. Fortunately, backlash against the decision forced Purdue to reverse it a day later.
So, if there is a silver lining, it is the coalition building and solidarity in the face of such challenges. While academic solidarity is too often sophistry, and tenured faculty are only now realizing the radical purposes to which the privilege of tenure should be put, the case of the recent backlash at Purdue, and the earlier backlash at Yale which galvanized support for its ethnicity, race, and migration program, indicates some success in opposing these cuts. However, success requires direct action in coalition with the programs affected and with the needs of those programs — something I fear may be too much for some members of the academy.
It could already be too late. With the new semester looming, a fresh wave of university transitions to online teaching, and the continued onslaught of austerity measures, something has to give. For many institutions, it will be their commitment to diversity. As a result, the university will be whiter, straighter, and less accessible. We will be left with an empty shell of what we could have had, built “safely” on the corpses of diverse programs and faculty. Let us mourn the loss.