The number of white people involved in the protests against the killing of George Floyd has been heartening. It echoes the words of sympathy that I often hear in university corridors about the discrimination that faculty of colour face, and I don’t doubt that it is genuine.
But words are not nearly enough. Faculty of colour (as well as female faculty) routinely take up extra service to try to do something to redress the problem. We do more advising, we decolonise the syllabi of existing courses, we take the lead on fighting injustice. In many institutions we are the engine of social change.
As a Latino who passes as white, I recognise that my privilege spares me from much of the discrimination that my colleagues of colour face. But I like to think that I take up my fair share of the effort.
But even a fair share is enormous. Under normal conditions this work is exhausting and isolating. Some of us feel we must fight at every level – in our departments, colleges and the overall university administration – to make marginal gains for equity.
One particular morning in early July, for instance, my timetable was as follows. At 9 o’clock, I spoke to the president of our faculty union (a Palestinian woman) about how best to communicate to our members that the university administration would like us to accept a pay freeze for next year (since then, this request has been withdrawn). At 10 o’clock, I met via Zoom with a graduate student who is stuck on Long Island, quarantining alone for the past three months, while her grandmother is dying. At 10.30, I had a phone call with the chair of the Faculty Senate (another woman of Middle Eastern/North African decent) to discuss how best to mitigate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that, before it was rescinded, threatened many of our graduate students with deportation if we had to move all our teaching online again (we made an appointment with the provost’s office to discuss it).
Then, at 11.30, a student, a young woman of colour, called me in tears. The constant reminders of racism and brutality in the post-George Floyd world were exacerbating the inherent stress of writing a thesis and she needed reassurance that at least this small part of her life would turn out OK. I referred her to student counselling, a recommendation that has been increasingly frequent since the campus closed for the pandemic.
I also answered about two dozen emails about students, restart plans, adjunct working conditions, reappointment delays for lecturers in our science programmes and more. Yet I am not an administrator. I am a third-year assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, on a nine-month contract, who cares about the working conditions of his colleagues and the well-being of his students.
But I am also worried about losing my job. Because the worst part of it is that tenure and promotion committees brush all such work into the throwaway category of “service”, equating the arduous task of making lasting moral progress with being a silent voice on a committee. Meanwhile, biased student evaluations and uneven standards of peer review and grant approvals are used to degrade the teaching and scholarship of faculty of colour.
Supporting faculty and students of colour is always difficult and frustrating, but also rewarding. Last summer, I dedicated 15 to 20 hours a week to it and was still able to prepare for my courses in the fall and carry out my modest research agenda. But since the pandemic arrived, the demand for my support has grown beyond anything that could be considered reasonable. I am exhausted. We all are.
My advice from my senior colleagues is to let something else go. But what should it be? International students? Students of colour? Faculty of colour? How can I turn my back on colleagues facing both discrimination and potential layoffs, cuts or even closures? Moreover, from experience, we know that when we step down, the people who step up are the other, equally overworked, faculty already engaged in these causes. My decrease in work is, typically, my Black or Brown colleagues’ increase.
Of course, none of this is new. Studies going back decades confirm that faculty of colour and women take on far more service and that the tenure and promotion process is biased against them. Every one of us that enters the academy understands these two truths – about which our senior colleagues shake their fists but take no active steps to change. But the pandemic has worsened the burnout, attrition and mental ill health to which these truths give rise.
We can’t wait any longer. Now is the time to precipitate the revolution in tenure and promotion process, building in transparency and objectivity. Now is the time to discount student evaluations that we know are both sexist and racist. Now is the time to recognise that university service is a foundation and important part of joint governance and the only mechanism to bring about much needed and desired institutional change.
It’s time for administrators to stop asking faculty of colour to do more than our fair share and then punishing us for it. It is time to stop demanding that faculty who suffer from discrimination come up with the remedies for it. It is time to stop paying us less. It is time to stop touting increases in “diversity” when those increases are largely in contingent faculty who are the first to be laid off during a pandemic.
I love my job and I don’t want to lose it. But I would rather be denied tenure and fired than stop fighting for what is right. I hope that universities across the country finally realise that asking me to choose between instigating meaningful change and pursuing my chosen career is unconscionable.
Author Bio: Josh Hiller is Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Adelphi University, programme director of the MS in applied mathematics and statistics, and interim president of the Adelphi chapter of the American Association of University Professors.