Guess who’s coming to dinner? That is, after you hire us.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Guest post by Dr. Annette Henry, Professor and David Lam Chair in Multicultural Education and the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia

Consider the following statements from search committee meetings at various universities involving racialized candidates. My purpose in sharing these statements is to raise questions about institutional commitments to hire Black faculty.

Our first candidate understands this theory the way we do, but the second candidate has another interpretation of the theory”

This example illustrates how faculty may unwittingly reproduce their own thinking by hiring people who think like them, and in which faculty members may find flimsy reasons to not hire qualified candidates under the pretext of philosophical differences or lack of experience. In the first instance, faculty found the racialized candidate’s philosophical interpretation problematic rather than an asset to students’ understandings and to collegial discussion. As Jerlando Jackson has noted, “departments hire amongst themselves with little policing.”

“Oh! That sounds like a Black name! Wouldn’t it be great if she were Black?”

This statement exemplifies a lack of commitment to racial diversification. Hoping and wishing are not enough to create a racially diverse or better still, an anti-racist institution. Search committees cannot continue to delude themselves with talk of diversity whilst continuing to hire white people with whom they are more familiar – including their recent white graduates at the expense of equally competent or superior racialized applicants with a diversity of experience that could enhance the department.

Depending on the university, Black faculty may need to be invited or assiduously recruited and part of a visionary plan. Preparatory work might include a self-examination of the reputation with the local Black community. Communities have collective cultural memories and stories of institutional betrayals that may affect the willingness of faculty and students to apply to any given institution. In other words, a preparatory act would involve an examination of the climate to which we would hope to invite Black faculty members and the support that will be provided.

Most Canadian universities have made poignant statements about anti-Black racism since the murder of George Floyd. It remains to be seen how they will keep their commitments regarding anti-Black initiatives. How seriously have Canadian universities taken up their charge of “diversity, equity and inclusion” thus far, especially with respect to the support and well-being of Black faculty, staff and students? Bathseba Opini asks important questions worth considering in creating an equitable climate for Black faculty, such as: Who gets mentored, and tenured? Who has the privilege of longer sick leaves with well-negotiated pay, and course releases? Indeed, we need to ask ourselves important questions throughout our trajectory, such as: Who gets access to opportunities? Whose specialities are appreciated and utilized? Who gets tapped for leadership positions? Who gets sponsored for prestigious positions such as Canada Research Chairs?

Some Canadian universities have established pathways to address anti-Black racism on campus. Still others have gone further in establishing hiring initiatives specifically designed to increase the number of Black faculty and diversify disciplinary knowledge. Hiring Black faculty is not the solution to systemic anti-Black racism. It is only one of many ways that universities can address the complex epistemic and equity gaps on their campuses.

The ways in which we invite or recruit Black faculty matter. The most exemplary recruitment examples that I have witnessed took place in the United States. The first example involves a former African American colleague who was a Department Chair at a research-intensive university. He would recruit Black faculty to his predominantly white College of Education, taking full advantage of a program that existed at the time referred to as a “Target of Opportunity Program” (TOP). It afforded the possibility of hiring a prospective faculty member regardless of whether a position had been advertised, an incentive for seeking a specialist in an area of expertise deemed missing. Such initiatives, can of course, position Black people as tokens. Nonetheless, there is evidence, that racialized faculty, especially women, are often seen as incompetent regardless of whether they were hired through a recruiting initiative. Furthermore, such beliefs show unidimensional thinking. That is, the person was hired because they are Black. Such a comment demonstrates a refusal to acknowledge the many skills and talents the new colleague has brought to the university as well as being a Black person who possesses a unique set of academic skills, understandings and a distinct cultural, societal knowledge and life experiences.

The Department Chair relentlessly pursued highly qualified Black candidates to the extent that if a Black candidate whom he had tried to recruit had turned down an offer, he would call them again months later, and ask, “Are you happy with the decision that you’ve made to stay where you are? Would you reconsider?” In this way, he was able to develop a nationally renowned College of Education with outstanding Black faculty who were satisfied and thus they spent their entire careers at the institution. By contrast, my campus, part of the same university system, was located in a large vibrant urban centre. I would occasionally meet potential graduate students who preferred to drive 200 kilometres for evening classes at the other campus often referred to as “out in the cornfields.” The rural campus was perceived to be a more “Black-friendly” campus for African American students. There were more faculty who looked like them, understood their realities and, importantly, could offer an intellectual community and a range of courses of relevance to their own lives. (At the time, I was the sole Black professor in my department, although much has changed in the faculty since that time.)

The second instructive example occurred at one of my interviews after graduating with my PhD. The entire interview was welcoming. Much thought was given to my reality as a Black woman coming from Canada. The interview included time with a member of the Black Caucus. As is customary, I met with the Dean. A Black man himself, he took time to relate to me as a Black woman, unfamiliar with the United States. Moreover, he told me about neighbourhoods where I might consider living, and what each neighbourhood had to offer; he suggested salons where I could get my hair done, churches where I might feel comfortable, and places to meet like-minded people. After the interview and upon returning to Canada, the Dean went out of his way to call, along with other faculty members who responded to any questions that I had. This also happened at another American university where I interviewed. (Having had several U.S. and Canadian interviews after my PhD graduation, I gleaned that some of these strategies are more commonplace in the U.S. compared to Canada.)

The Department Chair and the Dean afforded a vision of what is possible. In both cases, a deliberate, focused commitment to hiring Black faculty was evident. The Dean understood that I would be coming from another country and needed to understand the politics of neighbourhoods in his city, where I could live, how I could feel a sense of belonging and what my needs might be as a Black woman. He knew that I had interviewed at a larger urban university where I eventually accepted a position. (Deans talk!) So much so, that he made comparisons of the pros and cons of each city.

Universities do not always take into account the kinds of questions that we may have but may not feel comfortable asking. Imagine asking an all-white committee, “Could you recommend a Black hair salon?” Racialized candidates may have questions that our white colleagues do not need to ask and often do not deem relevant to constructing an interview process. Consider this personal example: Before being hired at my current institution, I made a telephone call to the Equity Office to find out whether I would be the sole Black female professor at the university and to find out about the demographics more generally. It was clear that I would be the only Black women in the Faculty and at the time, one of two Black women at the university. Luckily, I had a frank 45-minute conversation with the person who answered the phone. I appreciated the time that she took and her honesty about the racial climate, the challenges and the description of the interesting research and activism of several racialized women faculty at the university. Her time and knowledge were a rare gift. Similarly, the frankness of my conversation with the Dean was memorable. It was an example of being treated as a unique individual, rather than “the candidate who interviewed last week.” Search committee members still misunderstand equity and treat each candidate the same way, communicating the same information in the name of an equitable process. By contrast, I communicated the request of a Latina candidate to the search Committee chairperson at a former university. She wondered whether she might meet with Latinx faculty across the campus during her visit. The chairperson forbade it, because “None of the other candidates met with Latino faculty.” None of the other applicants were Latinx and would not be as interested in meeting with Latinx faculty, or at least not for comparable reasons.      

Like the Dean, the Department Chair was intentional in his efforts to recruit and hire expert Black faculty across ranks and build a diverse and inclusive College of Education. His strategy of following-up months later speaks not only to his relentless determination, but also to an understanding of the difficulty of decision-making when considering an academic position, especially for Black candidates. The Department Chair’s tenacity in hiring a number of outstanding Black faculty encouraged applications from faculty and students who could imagine the institution as an exciting possibility for their futures. Hiring several Black faculty in succession or all at once is never a “quick fix.” There is ample research to show the challenges and benefits of “cluster hires” in a single department or across faculties. Such initiatives take intention, planning, professional development for search committees, a cultural change and investment of time and resources.

Most Black faculty are necessarily doing the work of “diversity” whether they want to or not. With the presence of a range of junior and senior Black faculty, there are more bodies to take on the imposed service work, that Jackson calls the “burden of diversity.” There is also more moral support, a greater opportunity for Black mentorship, cultural understandings, and sociality, and a higher likelihood of faculty satisfaction and retention, an oft overlooked yet integral aspect of faculty diversification that has to be considered together with recruitment. Furthermore, the possibilities for departmental courses that move away from Institutional Whiteness and the possibilities of attracting and benefitting Black and racialized students could be enhanced by hiring Black faculty and giving them the latitude to develop and teach courses in their areas of expertise, research, and passions.

Structural change is needed. Until then, systemic racism will continue to be manifest in the colonial ways in which Black Canadian faculty are dis/regarded, resulting in isolation, racial and gendered harassment,  alienation, inequitable workloads, unreasonable teaching or service demands, and lack of access to opportunities. These conditions could be diminished by taking seriously the institutional commitments to anti-Black racism. They can begin with, but cannot be solved by hiring and supporting Black faculty.


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