What Is Faculty Diversity Worth to a University?

The “invisible labor” done by professors of color is not usually rewarded with tenure and promotion. But it is more important now than ever.

A student at graduation wears a cap that reads "Don't Do Dartmouth." The gown reads "Fight 4 Faculty of Color."
Jim Cole / AP

The spate of racialized attacks on college campuses after the election are, in some ways, the flip side of the protests that sprung up across the country starting last fall. Then, students of color called for their schools to develop more inclusive climates—with big stories breaking from campuses like the University of Missouri and Princeton—and pressed elite institutions to confront the racist histories of the leaders they enshrine. Such activism took place on campuses that don’t have such high profiles, too.

To put it simply, in the parlance of social media, the students protesting are woke AF—and one of the things they want are more faculty of color. It’s a complicated request in many ways. This is in part because a call for a more diverse professoriate suggests that faculty of color, simply by being brown and on campus, can serve the institution in unique ways. In turn, when faculty of color are hired, they are often expected to occupy a certain set of roles: to serve as mentors, inspirations, and guides—to be the racial conscience of their institutions while not ruffling too many of the wrong feathers.

Those like me who pay attention to diversity in higher education call this work “invisible labor”—not because no one sees it but because institutions don’t value it with the currency they typically use to reward faculty work: reappointment, tenure, and promotion. Chances are a faculty member of color is not going to get a sabbatical or a grant from her institution because she contributes to the diversity mission her university probably has posted somewhere on its website. She certainly isn’t going to get tenure for it.

Although I have tenure now, as a new, African American faculty member I know I was strongly advised by my senior colleagues and administrators to keep my service to that so-called diversity mission to a minimum, and it was advice that I was happy to follow. I was happy to follow that advice even if it meant keeping as low a profile as possible and declining requests to take on important projects that I knew would not count when I came up for tenure.

I’m not sure what choices I would make now. For example, earlier this year, I got a lot of attention for a series of tweets that focused on how I have learned to talk to students of color, particularly black students, during a time when the extrajudicial deaths of black men and women are getting more attention than they have in the past. In those tweets, I mentioned that my colleagues and I put together a reader with articles and essays that we thought would offer useful context for our students for a Ferguson event we had planned. It reminded me of the importance of such service.

There’s not a lot of room in my teaching or research for this kind of work. I write and teach about 19th-century British literature, and the colleagues I worked with on the reader are not historians or sociologists. We worked outside of our expertise as a service to our institution. To date, I’ve personally received more than 200 requests for the reader from professors and student-service administrators from all kinds of institutions: high-school libraries, Ivy League professors, community-college faculty, and people who want to read it for their own edification. The thing I hear most often is that they want to do something for their students but they feel ill-equipped to do so because the issue falls out of their area of expertise.

I get requests from students, too. Those are the ones I’m most interested in—the student in a small midwestern town who wants to help his classmates understand why folks are chanting Black Lives Matter; the student who’s seeking more context after being assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me; the student who explained to me that she is chairing a committee on her New England campus that is focused on racial reconciliation. So, every few days, I put aside time to do this work that probably doesn’t count to the people who assess my scholarly productivity. It isn’t a conference paper or a peer-reviewed journal essay or a scholarly monograph. It’s labor that is invisible except to those eager to be as woke as those students who have been protesting; and it’s labor that keeps me mindful of what role I can play right now as students of color and their white counterparts learn to understand one another in and out of the classroom.

This imbalance—this extra burden on minority faculty—has ever been thus. Women of color, for example, tend to take on more service than their male counterparts. Similarly, for me and other nonwhite faculty members I know, much, if not most, of this service revolves around supporting students of color—sponsoring campus groups, providing additional guidance (especially for first-generation college students), and intervening on their behalf with administrative officers. On top of that, we’re also called on to “diversify” campus committees and to represent the views of a variety of ethnic groups in even the most informal conversations. And while advice about how to manage the pressure is readily available, it’s hard to take the long view and think about tenure and promotion when college students need, and are seeking, guidance as they challenge their institutions to make diversity a priority in word and in deed.

The stakes are even higher now. They are higher because service that might have been seen as extra can now feel essential. Black faculty report feeling more vulnerable, and the invisible labor is hyper visible in this post-Ferguson, post-Obama moment. All too often, when deans, provosts, and presidents call for panels, workshops, and university discussions, there’s a faculty member of color who has to wrestle with how to contribute (or with whether or not they want to) while still doing the work their colleagues get to do without the same burden. The stakes are higher because ethnic-studies and women’s-studies departments are being effectively dismantled. Their faculty must take time away from their own research and teaching to fight as legislatures target them and administrators try to cut their budgets or fire the tenure-line faculty in their departments.

And they are higher because this generation of college students was educated in a No Child Left Behind culture, which means they have been rewarded for paraphrasing and summarizing instead of wrestling with ideas and interpretations. College may well be the first time many of these students have been required to think “critically,” and they are being asked to do so while the world is on fire and social media is there to capture it.

In my diversity research, I am particularly interested in how the academy is structurally hostile to meaningful diversity. Specifically, I look at the ways colleges bring faculty of color to campus with no clear plan about how to support them once they arrive. I wonder, for example, in the consumer-based model of higher education, what happens to the Latina assistant professor of history in a room full of white students who are hearing for the first time that the history they have learned is complex in ways that implicate them? Or the black sociologist charged with teaching urban studies to kids who grew up with the invisible safety nets of the suburbs? In political-science courses across the country, faculty of color are, in all likelihood, discussing the election of Donald Trump in classrooms with students who might think all his rhetoric is just talk. If, generally speaking, classes that ask students to reexamine their assumptions about race and racism are challenging, what is in place to protect faculty who lead difficult class conversations in this particularly volatile moment?

Extensive research shows that angry students don’t just act out in class but also punish faculty of color on student evaluations that are used in personnel reviews. Now, as colleges and universities have conversations with students demanding more inclusive campuses—and as the country has elected a president whose campaign relied on rhetoric of exclusivity—is an ideal moment to consider how faculty of color fit into the equation. This equation includes what these faculty members contribute while noting what those efforts cost them.

It’s something I wrestle with when I talk to young faculty members and their administrators. I want them to understand the value of their very presence on their campuses, and I want them to take to the long view—to do the work that will secure their positions on campus. But that long view can feel like a luxury  at a time of protests, community discussions, and teach-ins.