Aug 21, 2021 - Podcasts

Hard Truths: What it takes to get tenure

On our latest installment of our Hard Truths series, we look at how the process to get tenure at many universities in the U.S. is shutting out academics of color.

Guests: Paul Harris, associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, and Patricia Matthew, associate professor of English at Montclair State University and editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure

Credits: "Axios Today" is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. This episode was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and edited by Alexandra Botti. Jeanne Montalvo is our sound engineer. Dan Bobkoff is our executive producer. Special thanks to executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, Hard Truths editor Michele Salcedo and managing editor for business Aja Whitacker-Moore.


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! I’m Niala Boodhoo. We're here with you on a Saturday with the latest episode in our special monthly series called Hard Truths, examining systemic racism in the U.S.

Today — how the tenure process in higher education is shutting out academics of color.

Earlier this summer, a story about tenure started making waves outside of academic circles. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina, where she had been hired in 2021 as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Hannah-Jones is known for launching "The 1619 Project" with the New York Times Magazine in 2019, aiming to reframe the role of slavery in U.S. history. Her work has been met with a loud backlash largely from conservative voices.

When the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees initially blocked her application for tenure, the highly publicized case laid bare the problematic internal workings of higher education.

This is a story about power and who gets to wield it. But first, let's step back and explain how the hierarchy at universities works. Faculty members are not all equal — there's part-time and full-time faculty broken into assistant professors, associate professors and tenured professors. Assistant and associate professorships tend to be temporary appointments — a few years here and there — but tenured professors are permanent and have the freedom to research, teach and work at their own pace.

PATRICIA MATTHEW: Those are the untouchables when it comes to the academy. They are the people who set the agenda in terms of curriculum, in terms of faculty governance, teaching and hiring.

That's Dr. Patricia Matthew — she's an associate professor of English at Montclair State University and the editor of the book Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. We also wanted to talk to her because Patricia has not only researched the tenure process but works with academics of color to prepare their tenure cases.

We asked her why diversifying academia matters for people outside of higher education:

PATRICIA: Well, if you want to understand history, we need to have a diverse and well-supported and tenured faculty. So much more is generated from higher ed that I think people pay attention to. I think we imagine that we can do history if we can read a Wikipedia page or we have an opinion about literature, but we don't understand it in context, that we can look at statistics and call ourselves sociologists. There are methodologies and context and history, a critical vocabulary that some of us use without even thinking about it. And so much of that is generated in higher education. And I actually think if we want to have informed citizens who can tell the difference between fact and fiction, we have to support higher education.

NIALA: By the numbers: Of the 1.8 million people who work in colleges and universities, 54% are full-time.

PATRICIA: 40% are white males. 35% are white females. 7% are Asian. 5% are Asian Pacific Islanders, 3% are Black men, 3% are Black women, Hispanic men and Hispanic females, and then less than 1% are American Indian and Alaskan Native.

NIALA: This past year she came across a particular case — Dr. Paul Harris at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and Human Development. Paul, a Black man, had been on track for tenure since 2014 but a year after he applied for tenure, on January 2020, he was told his tenure had been denied.

PAUL HARRIS: So the report comes back. It says your teaching has been great. Your service has been great, but we have found that you've performed below expectations in the area of scholarship, right? This was more like, you know, we counted up the number of citations that your articles have, and what that is, essentially, people reading my work and citing my work in their work, right? That's a really small but important piece of the puzzle. And they said, for example, we noticed your work was cited 50 times. That number was wrong. It was like five times too low.

There was an article that I published in the Journal for African American Males, and they said, this article seems like it was self-published. Actually, it wasn't self-published. It was in a pretty renowned journal in which preeminent scholars publish in, and there's a 20% acceptance rate, so that's wrong. So those were just blatant errors which if I'm honest, I was kind of like, “Okay, this is an easy fix because these are just, they're just wrong. There's no gray here.”

NIALA: So Paul decided to formally appeal the decision.

During that time, his case went public and it spurred students and other academics outside of UVA to speak out against the university's decision. About 4,000 university students, academics and UVA alumni signed a petition in support of Dr. Harris' tenure. To many, it was yet another example of a primarily white institution ignoring the work of a Black academic.

We’ll be back in 15 seconds with the rest of the story of Dr. Harris’s tenure appeal.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Hard Truths. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

We asked UVA for comment about why they first denied tenure to Dr. Paul Harris. In an email, a university spokesperson told us, quote “Given that the tenure process is a personnel matter, we are limited in terms of what we can say about this case and in the ways we can respond to allegations about it." But the spokesperson said in response to Paul’s claims that there were things that were blatantly false in his tenure denial, that quote “The original review committee had a different point of view on these points.”

Four months after UVA first denied him, the decision was reversed.

The spokesperson told us this was after some of Dr. Harris’ colleagues sent in letters to the committee detailing the value of his research and the impact of his work.

But for Dr. Harris, the decision to grant him tenure, in the end, came too late to salvage his relationship with the university.

PAUL: I'm glad that it's done, but also I'm really tired, and we've expended a lot of energy over the last, at that point 7 months, to get to this point, unnecessary energy. And this was a rather, in my opinion, violent experience that we even had to endure. And the emotional and psychological damage that it did to our family, the hate mail, you know, you just name it. There's a lot of things that kind of happened throughout the process that contributed to that emotional stress and trauma. So happy? Sure. Grateful? Sure. But also thinking now about whether or not this was a place I even want to work because it took this long for them to sort of assign value to my work through the awarding of tenure.

NIALA: What was it like to watch the Nikole Hannah-Jones story and her denial of tenure and student outrage and seeing that whole story play out on a national media stage?

PAUL: Yeah, it was very triggering. I kind of alluded to, though it's hard to articulate, the depth of emotional pain and psychological stress that that process provokes. It hurts. Period. It hurts. And so triggering for us, but then that shifted to just empathy for her and what she is now having to unnecessarily navigate. So it was hard. It was hard to watch that. And ultimately I was grateful for her outcome but again, unnecessary.

NIALA: I'm sure you've thought about this a lot given your background, Professor Harris, why, why do you think it hurts so much? Can you describe why?

PAUL: Oh, wow. I can't help but think of my ancestors who and what they went through such that I could even be sitting in this position, grateful for the progress and yet frustrated by the lack of progress that just sees racism just as present, right, just having different clothes on.

I think of racism and what it is, systemic racism — think of it as this order or process or set of rules that renders a group of people, oppressed and marginalized, and so to be kind of told that and put in that space, even as I talk, is hurtful and just really frustrating and angering, right, that we're still in this space.

So it's hurtful on that front. It's hurtful, you know, to see my wife kind of wonder, where do we go from here? My kids say, are we staying? You know, Daddy, why are you on the news again? Daddy, why are you installing security cameras? What kind of mail — like, what's happening, right? That's hurtful. And for it all to stem from this very deep betrayal, that's hard to articulate. I think I'll just stop there cause I think it's still something we’re working through. In a much better place now, of course, but working through in terms of how deep that went.

NIALA: Thank you for sharing that. I think you did articulate that very well. I don't want to end without asking you what life's like for you now at Penn State.

PAUL: Yeah, it's great. You know, I think we're always going to miss Charlottesville. Like I said, it wasn't just UVA. We left the church that we love there. We left people, friends like family that we left. So we're always going to miss them and that's hard. And Penn State has welcomed us. My dean has an anti-racist agenda and strategic plan that is at work in a lot of different ways.

And so I'm grateful for that. And now open to, you know, what new challenges and added value I can bring to this institution and community and will do my best to do that while still loving on our people in Charlottesville as much as we can whenever we're able to, but all in all it's well.

NIALA: It's not just Paul Harris and Nikole Hannah-Jones who have been in public fights with their institutions over tenure. Lorgia Garcia Peña, a Black Latina professor who was building a program called a “Latinx studies” program at Harvard and was denied tenure after complaints that her work was more activism than academia.

Dr. Patricia Matthew, who we heard from at the beginning of the show, says it's important not to group the challenges of every group in academia together — Latina professors have different challenges than Black professors than Native American professors. But they all lack one crucial thing — the support of their peers as they try to navigate the unwritten rules of the tenure process.

In March, when Paul appealed his case to the university provost, he wrote that he felt he had been misled throughout the entire process.

PAUL: Every year you get evaluated on research, teaching and service, at least at UVA, that was the case. And so every year I had either meeting or exceeding expectations in all three, and then three years in, you get a more formal what they call pre-tenure evaluation, which looks at your overall portfolio and trajectory towards tenure. That too was very positive, right? You're on the right track is, is kind of the exact verbiage from my pre-tenure letter.

NIALA: After years of positive reviews, Dr. Harris thought he was following all the rules. Here’s how he characterized it in his tenure appeal — quote: “In retrospect there appears to be an unspoken algorithm or hard criteria that one must meet for tenure, and I was unaware.”

PATRICIA: I think the problems that he has are pretty normal when you think about what happens by the time a faculty member gets to the stage of tenure only to discover that the rules changed when they got to the final moment. And the base of his appeal, and I'm sure he explained that to you, really indicts the system, not him, right? Through this process, there was no one who was helping him decipher the language of evaluation.

NIALA: This process inherently seems subjective and subject to a lot of nuance and interpretation. To your mind, how does that make the challenges, as you said, his case indicted the system, how does that make it all the more difficult to create an equitable system if so many of these things are kind of squishy and subjective?

PATRICIA: I think the reason I started with the full numbers, I think it matters that 40% of full-time professors are white men, because I think the national narrative is they're under assault. They're under attack. But those men are still really controlling everything that matters from the curriculum and their standards and what they consider ideal matters. And this is the challenge when you only have 2% of the full professors in higher education being Black faculty, what we're really saying is that only 2% of the people in the room, in any room have the understanding of what faculty of color face and so can represent that to rooms that are predominantly white.

NIALA: What role do white faculty members have to play, then, in all of this?

PATRICIA: Well, I think they have three things I can do: One, they have to just allow for the fact and admit that they're not always there because of merit, right? This story of they were the best or the brightest, or just that they were just quote unquote lucky. The system works for them, even the ones who feel like they might be on the margins of it. It works for them when they go to graduate school, in their relationships with their advisors, who puts them early on journal review boards so they can understand how the system works. The second, I think, thing they need to do, especially associate professors, is reach out to junior faculty and faculty who are on the tenure track and help them decipher what's happening at the institution. And then the third thing is when they're the person in the room they have got to be — and I see this more and more, by the way, I'm very encouraged about junior white faculty I talked to who've really done their homework in a different way — when they're in the room, they shouldn't leave it to faculty of color to point out inequities and it doesn't always have to be in a public performative way.

NIALA: With more public scrutiny than ever on how tenure gets awarded — and to whom — there’s hope, as Paul said, for change. And students and faculty around the country are raising their voices to get institutions there faster.

"Axios Today" is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. This episode was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and edited by Alexandra Botti. Jeanne Montalvo is our sound engineer. Special thanks to Axios Executive Editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, Hard Truths Editor Michele Salcedo, Executive Producer Dan Bobkoff and managing editor for business Aja Whitaker-Moore.

We’ve got so much more about many other aspects of systemic racism and higher education, visit Tell us what you think. Email us at [email protected] and find me on Twitter at NialaBoodhoo.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening — stay safe — and we’re back with the news on Monday.

Go deeper