Minority faculty members perceive marginalization

When history professor Lillian Guerra entered a campus building in early February to administer a doctoral exam, she received an unintended compliment. The guard at the front door refused to believe she was a professor, insisting instead that she must be a graduate student.

“He thought I was joking when I said I was a professor,” Guerra said, laughing as she recounted the story over the phone. “It really took some convincing.”

Guerra does not attribute the guard’s mistake — a common one throughout her years of interactions with Yale staff — to youthful appearance. Instead, Guerra, who is Hispanic, said she is often mistaken for a graduate student because, as a woman of color, she does not look like the typical Yale professor.

“When you have this experience regularly it does put a certain set of pressures on,” Guerra said. “You know that you look weird to people. It affects you emotionally; it affects the way you perceive yourself. You don’t fit the standard look of the professor.”

Guerra’s experiences illustrate long-perceived but little-acknowledged cleavages among the University’s faculty along racial lines — cleavages that have now been confirmed by a Provost’s Office study, the first to measure work satisfaction among Yale’s faculty. The survey, conducted during 2006 and 2007 and released earlier this month, shows that minority faculty members have taken this divide to heart. Underrepresented minority faculty members — which included blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, native Alaskans or native Pacific Islanders — are more likely to regret their decision to come to Yale, feel unable to navigate departmental politics and feel excluded from informal faculty networks than their white colleagues.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the administration is responding to the survey by meeting with department heads to discuss minority issues and increasing the focus on formal faculty mentoring.

“It distresses me that anyone is displeased with their experience as faculty at Yale,” Salovey said. “If there are systematic reasons why one group is more distressed than others, we need to find out why.”

The survey found that 22 percent of the University’s URM faculty “would choose not to come to Yale” if they could decide again, whereas only 5 percent of non-URM faculty members regretted their choice.

Thirty-three percent of URM junior faculty members said they feel they can navigate the “unwritten rules” of their department, compared with 61 percent of non-URM junior faculty.

Minority senior faculty are three times as likely as other faculty to feel they have to work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as a legitimate scholar and to feel included in informal networks.

Finally, exactly half of under-represented minority faculty members feel minority faculty have lesser opportunities for career advancement than their white counterparts. Seventy-eight percent of URM faculty said they had experienced barriers to their promotion at Yale, most often citing informal barriers such as lack of interest in their research and lack of professional respect.

“Under-represented minorities have a unique experience here and we rarely talk about it,” Guerra said.

Navigating the ladder

Several minority faculty members interviewed said they felt the survey confirmed their own experiences at Yale, while others emphasized that minority professors’ experience vary widely based on their departments.

Political science and African-American studies professor Ange-Marie Hancock, who is black, said some departments tend to overburden their young minority faculty with administrative duties while not showing much interest in their research. Because many professors of color tend to engage in interdisciplinary research, there may not be many senior professors — or “patrons” as she calls them — whose work relates to that of minority junior faculty.

“If you don’t have a patron then you have no chance for advancement,” Hancock said. “If you’re doing interdisciplinary work and patrons don’t understand that, then they’re not going to advocate for you.”

Hancock said she has received more informal senior-faculty support in the African-American Studies department, citing as an example a talk she gave about her research that the chair of the department attended.

“That validation, that people who are in charge know what you’re doing, makes it that much easier to advocate for you with the deans and the Provost’s Office,” Hancock said. “When chairs don’t take that kind of personal interest in junior faculty, that’s when you get an experience where people will leave or go elsewhere.”

When it comes to the more traditional Political Science department, Hancock said her experience has been different. After arriving at Yale three years ago — two years after a formal mentoring program had been put into place in the department — Hancock said she had to ask the chair of the Political Science department to be paired with a senior faculty member and then had to choose her own mentor because the chair was not familiar enough with her work to do it himself. She said she thinks her white male counterparts in the department had an easier time finding mentors.

Experiences can also vary depending on rank. African-American Studies professor Emilie Townes said her experience as a black faculty member at Yale differed slightly from Hancock’s because she came to Yale as a tenured professor and did not have to “climb a particular ladder.”

But she said her conversations with junior faculty over the years affirm the survey’s results.

“I have certainly talked with and heard from a number of junior faculty members who don’t think this is an even playing field at Yale,” Townes said. “Almost 25 percent of respondents is a fairly significant portion of faculty members who are not particularly happy.”

Townes said informal networking among faculty in a department, like dinner invitations and golf games, are often the most important sources of mentoring, but that minority junior professors may be unintentionally excluded.

Anthropology professor Kamari Clarke, who is black, said she does not regret coming to Yale, although throughout her years here she has had to be proactive in shaping the University’s intellectual community to be more receptive to her scholarship, which includes research on religion, law and race.

“My attitude when I came was, Yale wasn’t perfect,” Clarke said. “But my approach has been to make Yale the kind of place I want it to be, to create at Yale the kinds of conversations I want to have. I have felt fully supported in that arena.”

History, African-American Studies and American Studies professor Jonathan Holloway, said all three of the departments he teaches in were attentive to his needs as a black junior faculty from the very beginning.

“Much of how any faculty, regardless of race or ethnicity, experiences Yale is driven by departmental culture,” Holloway said.

Improving the climate

All minority faculty interviewed said the best way to improve the climate at Yale would be to have more minority individuals in senior faculty positions. Some said this could be achieved through increased recruitment of older minority academics, while others said the University should increase its focus on the retention of junior minority faculty, who can later become tenure candidates.

In 2005 the University announced a diversity initiative which would add at least 30 minority professors to faculty ranks by 2012. Deputy Provost Judy Chevalier said the University is on pace to achieve that goal, which would represent a 34 percent increase in the number of minority faculty, but that the University wants “to do more.”

“While the numbers aren’t everything, the numbers really matter — social science research shows that,” Chevalier wrote in an e-mail to the News. “I think the issue of improving climate and improving representation are closely linked, with causality going both ways.”

While faculty were universal in their praise of the current University administration in its focus on recruiting more women and minorities, History, African-American studies and American studies professor Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95 said some department chairs may be “lagging behind” the administration when it comes to creatively recruiting minority candidates.

“There will be claims … that there are too few people in the pipeline,” Holloway said. “Many people won’t even apply to Yale jobs because they are convinced that Yale’s going to be hostile to URM candidates or women candidates. That’s a long battle that Yale’s going to have to fight and that’s just the simple fact. It has to battle against its own past behavior.”

Comments

  • Alumni 06

    I find this abosolutely disturbing. Instead of fully supporting our wonderful professors, Yale is choosing to construct 2 new residential colleges. This is evidence of where Yale's priorities are. For years students have been trying to create a stronger base for professors that are either ethnic minorities or are involved in the disciplines such as African American Studies, Asian-American Studies, Native American Studies, or Ethnicity Race and Migration. Requests have always been denied because of Lack of Funding. With these additional financial resources, Yale should focus on strengthening these departments and resources.

  • Alum '84

    I think Alumni 06 is correct about the priorities, although I think that Yale has issues regarding tenure and junior faculty that cross race sex and other lines. Some science and engineering junior faculty have felt marginalized in the tenure process. These issues bear directly upon the quality of faculty and with the additional teaching load represented by the additional residential colleges is an issue perhaps not receiving enough attention.
    How will departments handle the additional teaching load without compromising the quality of education? There appears to be reluctance to increase the number of graduate students and perhaps for sound academic quality reasons. Again, who will handle the additional teaching load.