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By Vilna Bashi Treitler
I’m a full Professor of Sociology. Some might say I’ve “made it,” especially in a country where (according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics) black women constitute 3% of all instructors and only 0.3% of all full professors, and where, by contrast, white males are 43% of those in instructional titles and 58% of all full professors. Moreover, for the past three years, I have served as Chair of my Department; I’m Vice President-Elect of a major regional organization of U.S. sociologists; I’ve served five years on the board of a section of the International Sociological Organization, and I’m Vice Chair of a United Nations NGO Committee.
But to get here, it was trial by fire, and I was burned by being denied tenure when a number of students who didn’t like me and weren’t doing their work became vocal. They were neither going to class nor looking at the course website, but their complaints were enough that my colleagues at the time abandoned their support for me and removed me from my job. Research by Stark and Boring published in the journal of ScienceOpen Research adds to the mounting evidence that (as their article is entitled), “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness” – instead, evaluations seem to measure student’s gender bias. There’s mounting evidence, too, that evaluations unequally damn nonwhite faculty. These facts are especially frightening considering that faculty who are female and nonwhite are time and again expelled from their jobs unjustly.
Assistant professors are “up or out” (meaning promoted or fired) after closed door meetings where small committees of scholars dissect and discuss their assistant professor colleagues’ work during several (normally 6) preceding years. Not only are those evaluated barred from attending meetings where their work and university citizenship are discussed, even written evaluations are unavailable for the one being judged to read, and no notes of these meetings are taken.
In my case, I was unable to defend myself when someone at my tenure hearing read verbatim from RateMyProfessor.com, a popular website where anyone can write anything about any professor in the country. The review reported me for “abandoning” my class. My colleagues discussed my case without reference to the medical emergency that pulled me from class: I lay, pregnant and bleeding, on doctor’s ordered bed rest, trying to save my baby. My colleagues failed to consider the testimonies of graduate students who taught the four class sessions that remained in the semester – at my own expense – or the fact that my website showed evidence that classes continued (with the aid of graduate students) and I distributed handouts online, despite my forced absence.
Perhaps most frustrating, it did not appear to matter to my colleagues that I had several peer-reviewed articles published in top journals, a book already published with a top-tier university press, a grant from the National Science Foundation for a new project, and mostly good reviews from students up until that time. This happened 10 years ago, and despite the opposition, I survived and succeeded in the academy. However, I never stopped facing challenges from white students who – despite signing up for my course, which at no time was ever a requirement – resist what I have to teach them, and in some cases, treat me with open disrespect.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Indeed, the academic year recently came to a close all over the U.S. and a new cadre of women faculty of color have lost their jobs. Most recently, Dartmouth made the news for denying tenure to English Professor Aimee Bahng (also affiliated with three other departments: Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, African American Studies, and Comparative Literature), who is planning to appeal. This year also, Professor Jennifer Warren appealed being denied tenure at Rutgers University. When Warren, a professor with a stellar record in the Rutgers University Department of Communication, was denied tenure one year ago, the Rutgers chapter of Black Lives Matter organized protests in response.
Former law professor Elvia Arriola, denied tenure with six articles when her 3-year tenure track required only two because her evaluations weren’t stellar, writes poignantly about her story in the acclaimed book, Presumed Incompetent. For the second time in three years, students at Emmanuel College are protesting tenure denials and complain of insufficient transparency in the denial process of professors Jeffrey Fortin and Claire Mehta. Alma Martinez filed suit in 2015 against Pomona College for their refusal to release student evaluations that may hold evidence that she was discriminated against as a Hispanic woman. The Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination (MCAD) upheld appeals by Lulu H. Sun who was unfairly refused promotion to full professor and overturned the denial of two black professors at Emerson College, while also finding systematic institutional undervaluing of African Americans. MCAD also happens to be handling the case of Medical Anthropologist and Latin American specialist Kimberly Theidon who is suing Harvard University for denying her tenure for her public criticism of the way Harvard handled on-campus sexual assault. Another six women of color have made the news after being denied tenure for reasons ranging from the following: use of untraditional research methods, giving too many A’s, and attending Black Lives Matter rallies. Others made the mistake of falling ill or giving birth, and were abandoned by their colleagues.
Our nation’s public and private colleges and universities (aside from HBCUs) started out with overwhelmingly white faculty. But why has the racial composition of U.S. faculty stayed this way for decades on end? Why are women of color who meet and exceed the high bar of stellar scholarship being denied tenure on the basis of student evaluations? The statistics reveal a serious problem. In 2000, among all tenured full professors, 72 percent are white men, 17 percent white women, 8 percent are men of color and 2 percent are women of color (black, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American, combined; not including Asians). Blacks are 14 percent of the population, but comprise only 6 percent of all research PhDs, and are 4 percent of all full professors. Women are 60 percent of all college students, but less than one-fourth of full professors in research institutions, and fewer than 10 percent of all professors in the top 50 research universities (data, analyzed by the author).
Much of the problem comes from the tenure process. There is no other profession where the absolute neophyte has so much power to influence important proceedings. In higher education, young people who may have never successfully completed a single college class are asked to review people who have several advanced degrees. Because segregation in our neighborhoods and occupations means most students haven’t had to interact with a person color in a position of authority for any prolonged period of time, treating that faculty member with respect seems to be optional. If not optional, it certainly isn’t a behavior that appears to be widespread. Then there is pervasive sexism. All of this is concerning considering that these reviews can mean the difference between work and unemployment for women of color. The weight we put on evaluations would never be tolerated in other settings. It’s analogous to asking people who neither cook nor have sophisticated palates to eat a meal and write a restaurant review that Local Food Boards use to decide which restaurants to close.
We don’t have to stand aside as some poor student evaluations – or worse, online trolls – take away the livelihoods of hardworking and notable scholars. There is much that we can do. Take the example of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) who responded to the troubling and unjust pattern of Asian American women professors being denied tenure by creating a mentoring committee or tenure task force to address the problem. We can also take notes from campus chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which are taking stands to correct biases in curriculum matters and protest what they see as unfair practices in the treatment of faculty of color.
The women of color around the country who lost their jobs this past spring, after years of toil, some with mountains of student debt heaped on their backs, and after doing all the right things, need our collective support. We must stand behind the promises we made to young faculty when we hired them: if you produce high quality scholarship, we will award you the tenure you need to continue conducting cutting edge research. Any scholar who makes the grade with notable and widely accepted peer-reviewed scholarship should not have their fates sealed in closed-door processes with little transparency or overt accountability where the complaints of a relatively tiny number of students – of course, students have never published research or taught courses themselves – are given undue weight. (Of course, bad teaching should not be rewarded, but we have other ways to assess teaching, including examining syllabi, having faculty regularly observed by peer scholars, and creating and encouraging the use of teaching centers where new scholar-teachers can seek aid in improving their classroom skills.)
Faculty who serve on committees that make these decisions know when injustice is being committed, and the time is now to take a stand. Standing up to proceedings that negate principles of both academic freedom and honor among colleagues and that allow racism and sexism to decide who is a quality scholar is risky and requires courage, but is nevertheless necessary. It is difficult to ask questions aloud about what’s not happening when a colleague looks like they’re being railroaded. If you stand up, you effectively become a whistleblower, for which there might be retaliation – but if you’re tenured, that’s exactly what tenure is for: protection from punishment for following through on ideas that may be unpopular. So when the tide turns against a junior colleague in your department or university, the difficult but morally right thing to do would be to take a bold step to stand up and at minimum question why.
And standing up takes many forms. When the conversation turns towards student complaints about a professor, inform your colleagues that student evaluations have gender and race biases (see here, and here, too). Find out if the professor has good evaluations that are being ignored or downplayed. Ask whether colleagues are overlooking other evidence of good teaching, like positive peer observations, or syllabi chock full of information about assignments, how grades are determined, and classroom policies. Professors who stand up must ask about the rest of the scholarly record: are we talking about the teaching of a highly productive scholar who has a publishing record and is a good departmental and college/university citizen? Maybe you should ask whether those things should matter more than evaluations – especially if you know this is what junior faculty are told when informed of the requirements for tenure.
Standing up also looks like administrators who overturn or challenge insufficiently explained tenure denials for stellar candidate records, being mindful of institutional commitments to inclusion and diversity. In addition, professors who become aware that injustice is occurring should reach out to administrators and encourage them to do the right thing. (This happened to me, when three Chairs of other departments asked the Dean to transfer my line – unfortunately, the Dean and the Chair of my department were working together to ensure that my career at that institution would end.
If making appointments with administrators is not your thing, write a letter, or start a petition. Cadres of students join in multiracial movements like Black Lives Matter to stand for social justice in administrator’s offices and campus settings. They can also benefit from student-faculty cooperation. So standing up can be agreeing to advise or stand with students who protest unfair firings. We can also work to change evaluation systems altogether, to make them more responsive to actual classroom learning instead of students’ perceptions about their professor. We can create anti-racism workshops and require their completion the way we require faculty to attend sexual harassment workshops. More, we need not stand by, wondering why our colleges and university cannot resolve their “diversity” issues. We can stand up, instead. To this day, my usual answer to a colleague’s “How are you?” is “Still standing.”
Vilna Bashi Treitler is a Professor of Sociology who in Fall 2016 assumes the Chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is also Vice President-Elect for the Eastern Sociological Society, and Vice Chair of the United Nations NGO Committee for the Elimination of Racism, Afrophobia, and Colorism (CERAC).