Welcome to Race on Campus. This month, Andia Augustin-Billy, an associate professor of French and francophone studies at Centenary College of Louisiana, was awarded tenure. She’s the first Black faculty member at the college to receive it. While it’s a big academic achievement, Augustin-Billy says she can’t help but feel sad that it’s taken this long.

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The day after Andia Augustin-Billy was awarded tenure at Centenary College of Louisiana, she emailed the campus archivist with a question: Who were the other Black tenured faculty members?

Chris Brown, the archivist, wrote back: There were other Black professors and board members at the institution, but she was the first to be awarded tenure.

This came as a surprise to both Brown and Augustin-Billy, an associate professor of French and francophone studies.

Augustin-Billy is Haitian-American. In her culture, honoring elders and those who have come before you is important, she said. When she was awarded tenure, she had the “cultural impulse” to reach out to those people, she said. Augustin-Billy also wanted to commiserate in the particular loneliness that comes with being a Black academic and to learn about their triumphs.

“It gets lonely and taxing,” Augustin-Billy said. “I wanted to just talk to them and echo each other or validate what they have gone through because I also experienced it.”

She doesn’t want to diminish her accomplishment, but she doesn’t feel like she can celebrate. Like the Black academics who came before her at different institutions, she was given good news — her tenure award — coupled with bad news: Centenary awarded tenure to a Black professor for the first time in 2021.

Black tenured professors are underrepresented across academe. In the fall of 2019 (the most recent year for which federal data are available) 4.88 percent of tenured professors at degree-granting institutions that participate in Title IV funding in the U.S. were Black. Only 2.1 percent were Black women.

Being the first Black tenured professor at Louisiana’s oldest college is its own burden, Augustin-Billy says. Her award is a reminder that there were not many faculty of color on campus.

Augustin-Billy also said she can’t pat herself on the back for the award because she knows that exclusionary policies, like segregation, made it take this long to have a Black tenured professor.

“People who look like me at Centenary, most of them — if not the majority of them, except for a few — they are in service positions. They are either working in the cafeteria or they are doing work on the grounds,” she said.

When she thinks about her tenure in the context of the bigger picture — how marginalized people were treated at Centenary, in Shreveport, La., and throughout the country — Augustin-Billy says it feels heavy.

Pressure to Excel

In graduate school at Washington University at St. Louis, Augustin-Billy said she was the only Black student in her department. There she felt the pressure to excel to prove that Black students could endure the rigorous academic environment.

When she visited Centenary during the application process for her current position, Augustin-Billy said that some students encouraged her to do well during the interview and not “mess it up.” They wanted her to get the job, she said. Augustin-Billy said she sensed that students wanted and needed another faculty member of color on campus.

A spokeswoman for the college wrote that 18 percent of “currently enrolled” students identify as Black or multiracial. The college also has two full-time and one part-time faculty members who identify as Black.

After she landed the job in 2015, Augustin-Billy said tenure was top of mind. Still, she said, it’s lonely being one of the few Black faculty members on campus. Attending academic conferences and meeting other scholars of color was a high point, she said. But the enthusiasm and sense of community that she gained at the conferences would wane a few weeks after returning to campus.

Augustin-Billy said she has found a group of faculty-member mentors and colleagues — like her department chair — who championed her work and made sure she was visible on campus before her academic reviews.

Now, Augustin-Billy has begun mentoring Black junior faculty members at Centenary. She said she feels a responsibility to offer the same kind of support she received.

Augustin-Billy said her tenure award is a good first step, but her college and higher education as a whole have a way to go to achieve faculty diversity and equity.

Read Up

    • In 1892, Homer Plessy was arrested for riding in a whites-only train car in Louisiana. This led to the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which approved the “separate but equal” rule that was later used to justify Jim Crow laws in the South. Nearly 130 years after that arrest, the Louisiana Board of Pardons cleared his record. (The New York Times)
    • After a monthlong sit-in, Howard University student activists reached an agreement with administrators to, among other things, improve their living conditions. The activists also called for Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alumna, to fund minority institutions more robustly. (The Chronicle, Politico)
    • On some reservations, Indigenous women are killed at a rate more than ten times the national average. This season of the podcast Up and Vanished is about how difficult it is to find missing Indigenous women. (Up and Vanished)