Former professor says University of Delaware tenure process stifles diversity

A former professor at the University of Delaware says the refusal to grant her tenure is part of a pattern of discrimination against black women faculty.

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Former UD professor Arica Coleman in her home Wednesday. Feb. 27, 2019, in Newark, Del.  (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Former UD professor Arica Coleman in her home Wednesday. Feb. 27, 2019, in Newark, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Arica Coleman misses engaging in intellectual discussions with university students, and watching young men and women develop into critical thinkers.

The former University of Delaware professor hasn’t taught since 2014.

Coleman said the Newark, Del. university where she taught African-American studies stripped away her opportunities when they denied her tenure, which would have provided job security and academic freedom.

Coleman believes she met the teaching, service work, and publishing criteria for tenure at UD — and said the rejection was discriminatory because male colleagues with similar achievements were awarded that status. She believes racial and gender disparities within the hiring, promotion, and tenure process are too common at the university.

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“There’s no reason I should not be at UD right now, except for a system of inequality and a group of people who are willing to be complicit within that system,” Coleman said.

Former UD professor Arica Coleman in her home in Newark Del. Feb. 27, 2019. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

A larger problem

Coleman said when she taught at UD, men in the African-American Studies Department (which is now called Africana Studies) received more attention and accolades from university officials than women did. And university-wide, even black men hired on the tenure-track were more successful than black women.

“The feeling was isolation and invisibility … just not valued,” Coleman said.

UD officials declined to comment on Coleman’s case, saying the university cannot discuss personnel issues. However, UD pointed to several initiatives to recruit, hire, and retain women and people of color on staff.

Four other black women who taught at UD between 2000 and 2017 told WHYY they, too, noticed a lack of diversity among the faculty. They said while they truly enjoyed teaching at UD, professional growth was limited for women and people of color. Coleman and three of those women, hired between 2005 and 2007, all left without tenure.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar became the first tenured black woman and third tenured black person in UD’s history department in 2007.

While she was at UD, Dunbar said the history department never hired any other black professors, and never promoted existing black faculty to full professor, the highest paid and highest rank of professorship. And while she was tenured, Dunbar remained an associate professor.

That’s why she says she shifted most of her courses to the African-American Studies department.

“Given the signals I was receiving from other professors in the history department, Africana Studies was going to be the only place I could move forward professionally,” she said.

“My feeling is black faculty, regardless of gender, have tremendous difficulty being tenured, promoted, and nurtured at the University of Delaware,” she added.

UD data show that in 2018, 79 percent of the 402 full professors were white and more than half were white men, while 3.5 percent were black.

Now a professor at Rutgers University, Dunbar said her experience there is like night and day.

“I can say that within my department, there are many more faculty of color, let alone black faculty — three, four times as many,” she said. “There’s a significant difference in the student population — very diverse enrollment with students of every kind of background there is.”

Data show lack of diversity among faculty

UD has been criticized for its lack of diversity for a number of years. As WHYY reported in 2018, while the university has made efforts to improve, it still struggles to recruit black students.

While Delaware’s population is 22% black, 5% of UD’s 1,334 full-time faculty were black in 2018. Meanwhile, 74% of UD’s full-time faculty were white, compared to 69% of Delaware’s population.

“It was isolating, despite the [university’s] desire to make the campus welcoming to faculty of color,” said Antonia Randolph, who is black, and taught sociology at UD between 2006 and 2013. She now teaches at Winston-Salem State University.

Randolph was hired on the tenure track. Tenure-track faculty are reviewed in years two and four for a contract renewal or denial, and a tenure decision is made in year six. If they’re denied tenure, they’re required to leave the university.

Randolph chose to rescind her tenure consideration during year-six because she knew she wouldn’t be successful. She said that’s because she didn’t have time to publish a book due to her extensive teaching hours. Randolph believes it might have been different if senior faculty had explained that it’s more important to publish than to devote extra hours to teaching.

“It’s often women work with students, and volunteer to be on committees — which is not the thing universities reward, but rely on,” Randolph said. “No one dissuades [women] from it and they may not get any benefit from doing it.”

Coleman, too, said male professors were given more time to focus on writing books.

Maggie Ussery, who is black, taught at UD from 2006 to 2013 in the African-American Studies department. She eventually rescinded her tenure consideration because her book manuscript wasn’t published.

“I was pretty young at the time and didn’t fully understand what needed to be done. There wasn’t a lot of mentorship. I was given a mentor, but we met once and she wasn’t particularly interested in meeting again,” said Ussery, who left academia and became an economic development consultant.

“I came to UD the same time a male colleague was hired in the department,” she said. “And while I found myself having to ask for meetings or advice, he was offered advice unsolicited.”

She said the disparities at UD seem to be based more on gender than on race.

“There were several black men who came in with me who were tenured,” Ussery said.

The number of tenured white male professors at UD exceeds that of women and people of color.

Of UD’s 754 tenured faculty in 2018, 49% were white men and 27% were white women, while only 2.5% were black men and 2% were black women.

The percentage of tenured black professors has not changed much since Coleman was denied tenure in 2013, but white males have dropped 6%.

Data also show men of any race are more likely be tenured at UD than their female counterparts. A 2012 study by UD’s Women’s Caucus analyzing tenure status between 1993 and 2011 shows the gender gap among tenured faculty widens as it goes up the ladder from assistant to full professor.

“Tenured/tenure-track women generally start off in the assistant rank on equal footing with men, and their representation at the associate rank is steadily moving towards parity,” reads a 2018 UD report on diversity. “Non-tenure track women are overrepresented at the instructor and assistant ranks, yet they are underrepresented at the associate and full ranks.”

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The parity is more common among underrepresented minorities and faculty of color.

“The majority of tenured/tenure-track faculty who are not underrepresented minorities or faculty of color are full professors, whereas, associate and assistant professors together constitute a majority for tenured/tenure-track underrepresented minority faculty and faculty of color.”

Nyasha Grayman-Simpson, who is black, was hired on the tenure track in 2005, and left two years before her tenure decision date because her soon-to-be husband took a job in D.C.

She said she was offered a number of professional opportunities at UD, including co-directing two study abroad programs and receiving funding to mentor student research assistants.

While Grayman-Simpson calls UD an “ideal first appointment,” she said it doesn’t mean she would have received tenure had she stayed.

“The year before my departure, the department voted down a gender and racially diverse group of three people who went up. So I would say that it can be very hard to get tenure at UD,” wrote Grayman-Simpson, who now teaches psychology at Goucher College, in an email.

Matthew Kinservik, vice provost for faculty affairs at UD, said tenure data doesn’t reflect the university’s work to improve diversity, since many white male tenured professors have been there more than 40 years.

“So the efforts we’re making, they are yielding and will continue to yield through,” he said. “But we’re working in a faculty pool where some people were recruited in the 70s.”

Kinservick said UD could not share data on how many professors apply and receive tenure each year, and the university denied a FOIA request for this information broken down by race and gender.

The university is not alone in its lack of diversity among tenured faculty. In 2000, women of color comprised just 2% of tenured professors nationwide, compared with 72% for white men, 18% for white women, and 8% for men of color.

“This is the experience of black women and women of color in the academy across the nation, even abroad,” Coleman said. “Even white women have a hard time. The difference is the issue of racism, so what women of color endure is a double jeopardy.”

Ebony O. McGee, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies racial bias in education, said it’s a nationwide problem. Sometimes universities set the bar higher for tenure-track faculty of color than they do for their white counterparts, she said.

“Whatever the guidelines are — just multiply it by two,” McGee said. “This is based on longstanding evidence if you do exactly what is asked for, it will never be enough if you’re a black faculty member at many institutions. But if you do twice as much, you seem to be deemed as competent, as someone that only does what is asked of them.”

A career derailed

Coleman came to UD in 2001 as an adjunct English professor. She became an assistant professor of African-American Studies on the tenure track in 2007.

In 2012, Coleman submitted her dossier for tenure, which was majority approved by three committees after a months-long review process considering service, teaching, and publishing success, and reviews from academics. But then-college dean George Watson, next in line, denied her tenure, and then-interim provost Nancy Brickhouse approved his decision.

Watson wrote he believed the quality of Coleman’s scholarship was “modest.”

“Most of her time after joining UD was devoted to revising her dissertation into [a] publishable manuscript, an ongoing project referenced in both her second- and fourth-year reviews,” he wrote.

Watson also said Coleman’s book, “That the Blood Stay Pure,” was likely to meet “mixed reviews and face questions about the research’s quality,” because while “most external reviews are favorable,” one was “highly critical” and cited factual errors.

“The external letters suggest she has drifted toward commentary on contemporary issues and become a ‘social intellectual’ rather than moving into additional areas of scholarly pursuit,” Watson wrote.

Coleman argues her work met standards in the faculty handbook, which states the “standards for excellence in scholarship shall include, but not be limited to, contributions to the field, significance of the research or creative work, and methodological originality.”

Coleman argues her research agenda was no different than other junior faculty members granted tenure with books based entirely on their dissertations — and that her research was more extensive than her dissertation.

Coleman said her book is the first of its kind to address African-American and Native American relations in Virginia. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania wrote it “provides a crucial missing chapter of America’s racial history.”

Former UD professor Arica Coleman poses with a copy of her book “That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans.” The book was selected by Choice magazine in its list of outstanding academic titles for 2014. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Kinservik said typically, published peer-reviewed articles and books determine research quality. However, UD may also consider the rate and venue of publication, he said. Each department outlines tenure qualifications, as does the university.

The current Africana Studies handbook says promotion standards recognize “particular expectations for scholarly performance will vary because of different disciplinary and interdisciplinary orientations.”

Kinservik said most candidates who receive the first two contract renewals are offered tenure.

Randolph said she believes Coleman was qualified.

“She met the requirements for tenure. Then the dean or provost decided they didn’t want to offer tenure, so that seems like a bait and switch,” said Randolph, the former UD sociology professor. “If people meet expectations, you should err on side of tenure unless there’s a sting in their file.”

Randolph added: “It was a bad bet to not bet on Arica.”

Coleman appealed the university’s decision, but was denied. Thus, per UD’s policy, her contract was discontinued in 2014.

“The mantra used to be publish or perish,” Coleman said. “I published and perished.”

She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2013, citing race and gender discrimination.

But the EEOC closed the case in 2015, saying it could not conclude whether UD had discriminated against Coleman. The commission reopened the case in 2016 when her attorney argued the investigation wasn’t thorough enough.

However, the case stalled by 2017.

Coleman didn’t sue the university because she couldn’t afford legal fees, she said. Instead, she told her story in an open letter posted online in 2018.

“This is about me and my own liberation and freedom and my own healing,” Coleman said.

Since leaving UD, she has written several articles for publications, including Time magazine. Coleman said she’s been interviewed at universities, but believes the tenure denial has hindered offers.

“With tenure [denial] comes a stigma,” she said. “You hear the whispering. And there are people who will remain your friend and colleague and there are people who will treat you like you have the cooties. It makes you feel like you’re damaged goods.”

Kinservik said UD receives grant funds to increase the number of women and underrepresented faculty in STEM fields. Other efforts to improve diversity include updating the university handbook in 2018 to ensure pre-tenure faculty receive mentorship.

“We can’t control the work an individual faculty member does, but we can control how clear the standards are, how clear and transparent the process is,” Kinservik said. “We can control the type of mentoring we provide and encourage the departments to provide. We can make sure from a university level the promotion, tenure, and peer review system is working as it should.”

He said it’s a process that will take time.

“Do I expect it to bear fruit? I do,” Kinservik said. “We recruited more underrepresented minority faculty last year and the year before than we ever had. Now comes the work of mentoring for success.”

UD hired 6% more underrepresented faculty than the previous year, according to UD’s 2018 diversity report. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of Asian faculty on the tenure track rose 2.5%, and black faculty on the non-tenure track increased by 2%.

UD has improved its recruitment process and trains search committees to avoid implicit bias, Kinservik said. In previous years, he said recruiters nationwide hired those who they felt would fit in the university,  but that criteria counteracts diversity initiatives.

“‘Fit’ is a way to reinforce who you already have, which is why we have recruitment workshops for people on search committees to confront that old idea and say, ‘No, what you need is an intentional process where you’re taking affirmative steps to build a diverse pool. You’re using an objective rating instrument for candidates based upon the criteria you articulate in the job ad,’” Kinservik said. “All these things can counteract intentional or unintentional bias.”

McGee said improving diversity at colleges and universities across the country requires changing deep-rooted belief systems.

“If you were reared knowing and thinking the only thing valued intellectually, academically, is old white grey-haired heterosexual able-bodied men, it’s very difficult to change those ideologies,” she said. “Or if you were reared to think only people that come from Northwestern or Penn State or MIT are deemed worthy of being faculty members, those misconceptions are very hard to change.”

McGee recommends universities learn from black faculty who have left. She also suggests incentives, such as tying a dean’s salary to retaining faculty of color.

“But that’s just recruitment. Once you get black and brown bodies in the door, the job is not over — it’s just started,” McGee said. “Retaining them, making and affirming a place their identities and diversity of thought are celebrated — not just merely tolerated.”

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