The University of North Carolina may have quelled one controversy when its trustees finally granted tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on Wednesday, but across the country — and in Massachusetts — the number of Black women who are tenured faculty remains low.
At public and private nonprofit four-year colleges, slightly more than 2 percent of tenured professors in the United States were Black women in the fall of 2019, according to the most recent federal statistics. For two- and four-year colleges in Massachusetts, the number was even smaller at 1.7 percent. Nearly half of the state’s tenured faculty — 46 percent — were white men.
Higher education experts have long speculated that as older professors retire, heavily white and male faculties would be replaced by more diverse cohorts. But while colleges and universities have increased representation overall, tenured faculties still remain overwhelmingly white.
“People have been saying that for years and the needle’s not moving,” said Glenn Colby, senior research officer at the American Association of University Professors.
In addition to prestige and a significant pay bump, tenure typically gives faculty members a job for life, affording them more freedom to conduct their own research. The status is typically granted by a university’s board of trustees after a professor has spent about six years in a tenure-eligible position and obtained a recommendation from both a department and university-wide committee.
For Black women, the fight for tenure is about more than just diversity for diversity’s sake. For students of color, learning from professors who may share their perspective reinforces the idea that they, too, have valuable information to contribute in a white-dominated environment.
Meanwhile, the academic freedom that tenure guarantees enables professors to pursue challenging research, and to speak freely about their findings — even if the results are uncomfortable.
Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer who spearheaded the publication’s award-winning “1619 Project,” which reassessed American history in the context of slavery, initially did not receive tenure for her position as an endowed chair in North Carolina’s journalism department. In what NC Policy Watch described as a “political” decision made in response to conservative objections to Jones’s work, the school’s board of trustees went against recommendations by its journalism dean and faculty.
Many universities are redoubling their efforts to hire more Black women for tenure-eligible positions. But roughly a dozen Black female instructors interviewed by the Globe pointed to a longstanding hierarchy in academia that does not offer faculty of color, especially women, the same opportunities to succeed as their white counterparts. The instructors cited several barriers to tenure, including an opaque application process, lack of access to mentorship, and white-dominated departments where Black women often feel like outsiders.
“It’s pretty much systemic,” said Evelyn Fields, a past president of the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education and a professor of education at South Carolina State University.
The political aspect of applying for tenure “is a disadvantage for African Americans, more so than it is for whites,” she said. “Had the [UNC] board been a little more diverse, that situation may not have occurred the way it did.”
Crystal Brown, a social science and policy studies professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who began a tenure track position last fall, joined many instructors in attributing her success in the application process to mentorship: “It’s the key,” she said.
Less than 0.5 percent of faculty at WPI are tenured Black women. Brown said George Floyd’s murder last summer and other acts of racial violence against Black Americans “spurred a change in academia,” including at WPI, which said it now offers resources to make the tenure application process more transparent.
But the changes are not being implemented everywhere, Brown said, and some of her Black female colleagues in Boston feel like they remain “oftentimes in the dark” about how the process works.
Black female professors are particularly underrepresented in subjects such as mathematics, engineering, and science. Eno Ebong, an engineering professor at Northeastern University who recently received tenure, said she only realized the extent to which unconscious racial bias affects the process of landing a tenure-track position once she began participating in faculty recruitment.
“A lot of it is, can you see yourself having a beer with this person, collaborating with this person?” she said. “So they [white faculty] see someone who looks like them, who they like, and they start making concessions.”
At Northeastern, tenured Black women comprised just under 1 percent of faculty in 2019, the last year data was available.
“Recruiting and retaining faculty of color is a priority across American higher education. Northeastern shares this priority, and our academic leaders work at it tirelessly day in and day out,” said Renata Nyul, a university spokeswoman.
Malika Jeffries-EL, a tenured chemist at Boston University, said reviews from faculty outside the university “can make or break you” in the tenure process. There are often so few Black female professors in a field that it’s impossible to have a truly diverse review, she said, “but failing to at least seek out another person of color is equivalent to setting that person up for failure.”
Of its 3,030 faculty members, the university employed 71 Black female instructors, only seven of whom were tenured in 2019. BU spokesman Colin Riley said that the university has focused “several years of concerted effort to increase the diversity of our faculty with particular emphasis on groups historically underrepresented in the academy and at BU.”
Students also can contribute to the problem, Ebong said, by giving low marks to Black professors in course evaluations, which can weigh heavily in tenure discussions.
“There were many students who were not used to seeing someone like me teaching that class, so my teaching evaluations were filled with bias,” Ebong said. “I’ve heard it from friends of mine of color at top research institutions — that their teaching [evaluation] is why they either didn’t get tenure or why they’re not getting the promotion to full professor.”
Other professors said that in some fields, white department chairs know less about the areas of study Black women specialize in, such as the psychology of prejudice, and therefore tend to undervalue it.
Marjorie Salvodon, a tenured professor of world languages and cultural studies at Suffolk University, said colleagues and superiors “may look down on your scholarship when they don’t understand it . . . and also just plainly out of learned anti-Black racism.”
The tenure numbers don’t appear likely to change dramatically anytime soon: Black women held only 3.4 percent of tenure-track positions in Massachusetts in 2019.
Advocates for greater diversity in tenure are calling for wider representation not just on tenure boards and committees, but faculty-wide.
“Teaching is great, but we need the support in our home department, and then also at the board level,” Salvodon said. “Who’s the provost? Who are the deans? And where are they coming from? What are they interested in developing at the institution?”
A number of Massachusetts colleges have recently promoted Black women to administrative roles. WPI named the Rev. Debora Jackson as dean of its business school late last year and Dayna Cunningham, currently at MIT, will become dean of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life next month.
In 2019, four of Tufts’s 374 tenured professors were Black women, according to the US Department of Education.
In a statement, Tufts spokeswoman Robin Smyton said the university is committing $25 million over five years to support antiracist and inclusion efforts.
“While we are currently not where we would like to be in the diversity of our faculty, we are optimistic we will meet our objectives given our investments and the work happening across the university,” Smyton said. As of last month, more than half of the 30 full-time faculty hires this year in the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering are people of color.
Salvodon said creating mentorship networks for faculty of color may be one of the most important efforts universities can make to diversify their ranks because it “breaks the walls of isolation.”
“When you don’t have tenure, it’s a very fragile place,” Salvodon said of academia. “The beginning of making your way through a white institution is to have one or two people . . . who are really standing by you and standing up for you.”