When Obtaining Tenure, Black Women Have Never Been Underqualified, But Have Always Been Overlooked

Audre Lorde said, “Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism.” When we examine the percentages of Black women who have tenure compared to those who are qualified, Lorde’s quote is the epitome of how Black women have become invisible in higher education as it relates to obtaining tenure.

Vawn Himmelsbach explains, to obtain tenure, one starts as an assistant professor and around six years, they’ll go through a tenure review. If successful, they are promoted to associate professor, which typically comes with a pay increase. In addition to teaching students, research will be conducted so the results can be published in academic journals. Five to seven years later, they will undergo the evaluation procedure once more, and if all goes according to plan, they are promoted to professor.

Based on your tenure report, a tenure review assesses your performance in three areas: teaching excellence, administrative service and research excellence. There is also a third-year review which is when you can be fired if you are not on track toward tenure. If you do well it is “expected” that your case will be successful at year six. Furthermore, this is why when people are denied, it is such a huge let down and cause for concern when tenure is not obtained.

A little less than half of all full-time faculty at colleges and universities in the U.S. – 45.1%, or 375,286 according to 2019 data — have tenure. Of those 45.1%, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article reported that as of the fall of 2019, only 2.1% of tenured associate and full professors at U.S. universities and colleges were Black women.

Born March 31, 1865, the same year slavery was abolished, Georgiana Rose Simpson is the first Black women to earn her Ph.D. Dr. Simpson earned her Doctorate in Philosophy, on June 14, 1921 from the University of Chicago. Fast forward to present-day and “among Black students in higher education, women are more likely than men to earn degrees.” Given this information, how is it that Black women are still fighting to obtain tenure and they are the most educated amongst the Black population? The answer is simple. When Black people were allowed to attend college, Black women were last to be afforded the opportunity. Furthermore, it makes sense as to why they are last to be chosen for tenure, despite their qualifications.

Black women have never been underqualified, but have always been overlooked. If Black women were underqualified, there would not be a continued effort to ensure Black women remain stagnant. When you think about how patriarchy and white supremacy functions, Black women must remain at the bottom of the totem pole. Additionally, one must also account for intersectionality, colorism, elitism and a whole host of other things that allows patriarchy and white supremacy to flourish.

53 years after Dr. Simpson earned her Ph.D., Dr. Eileen Jackson Southern joined Harvard University in 1974 as a lecturer for the Afro-American Studies Department. In 1975, Southern was appointed a joint professorship in Afro-American Studies and Music Departments, becoming the first African-American woman to achieve full professorship with tenure. It took almost six decades after Dr. Simpson obtained her Ph.D. for a Black woman to receive tenure at the nation’s oldest university. If this was achieved in 1975, how is the status quo that Black women “fail to “measure up,” [and] they do not deserve tenure? Furthermore, it makes me wonder if Dr. Southern then and the current 2.1% of Black women now were only appointed tenure as a performative diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measure rather than their qualifications, to appear progressive?

This assumption is not far-fetched, given the two-sided history of this country. The same country that said, all men are created equal, after stealing millions of Africans, enslaving them, forcing them into involuntary servitude on stolen land, breeding them like cattle, selling them like property and defending this concept all in the name of states’ rights.

Imagine the number of Black women who might have earned a Ph.D. by 1921 had it not been for enslavement. Additionally, the first Black woman did not earn tenure to the nation’s oldest university until 1975, but Harvard was founded in 1636, 17 years after the first slave ship arrived in America. Again, imagine how many Black women would have earned tenure by 1975 had chattel slavery not been converted to other forms of oppression that affected everything including higher education.

Given the historical context and status-quo of Black women earning tenure, I suggest the following:

If Black women teaching at these institutions are truly unqualified, provide the professional development necessary for growth. Create an organizational climate that is healthy for sustainability. Ensure Black women are at the table when decisions are being made on everything, not just diversity, equity, and inclusion. I would even take it a step further by ensuring Black women do not become stagnant once tenure is achieved by providing opportunities for them to continuously grow beyond the institution. Lastly, ensure the Black women students in the undergraduate and graduate programs, who aspire to become tenured professors are supported with equitable resources to achieve this goal. These are sound solutions given the amount of resources institutions receive for Black women simply existing, whether they are staff, faculty or students.


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