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Presumed Incompetent is a courageous, ground-breaking book by women of color that exposes the destructive secret of academia: Universities frequently are biased against bestowing tenure on professors who are not white and of the upper and middle classes. Not only that, nonwhites – people who have worked their way up in higher education from the lower classes – and LGBTQ academics, in general, are frequently looked down upon, viewed as not being as competent as white “members of the club.” They are considered – in many cases – “trophy hires” to meet diversity goals, but let go before receiving tenure.
Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week Editor Mark Karlin recently interviewed Presumed Incompetent coeditor Angela P. Harris, a law professor at the University of Califonia at Davis, about the challenges facing nonwhite and nonheterosexual academics and the increasing impact of the corporatization of universities:
Karlin: What was the motivation of you and your Presumed Incompetent coeditors to debunk the general public perception of universities as liberal bastions of academia that embrace professors on merit without regard to gender, class, race or sexual orientation?
Harris: To be honest, we were motivated by our own personal experiences. As women of color faculty ourselves, all of us had faced the “presumption of incompetence” in our own lives, and we suspected the four of us were not alone. We hoped that pulling together a collection of empirical studies, literature reviews and personal stories and essays would help other individual women who were struggling, as well as providing a resource for administrators and others who have power to change procedures and affect the culture of their institutions.
Were you surprised at the strong grassroots response to the book in academia, from women of color, on social networks, in commentaries and at academic association meetings when Presumed Incompetent was first published in 2012?
I think all of us were stunned by the response to the book. Speaking for myself, I certainly was! Wherever we have gone to promote the book, women have come up to us, thanked us, and shared their own war stories. Moreover, even though it’s been out for two years now, we are still getting regular requests to speak. It’s incredible to me how much of a “long tail” Presumed Incompetent has had for an academic book. It’s really been a catalyst for taking this conversation out of hallways, bathrooms, and hospitality suites and bringing it into public spaces.
A review in The Feminist Wire earlier this year said of Presumed Incompetent: “Few texts in recent years have had such a rippling effect in the non-self-reflective world of academia, and the book has inspired a tsunami of support for change within the system.” Do you see evidence of the primarily white patriarchal hierarchy of professors and university administration cracking open a bit?
I would like to say, Absolutely! But the truth is that we are dealing with a problem that exists at all levels, from the individual to the structural. At the individual and interpersonal levels, many people have told us that the book has made a difference in their lives, and that’s great. But change is always going to be slower and more difficult at the institutional and the structural levels. It’s going to take a very long time to institute policies and procedures at every college and university that recognize and reward women of color faculty for the work that they do.
And it’s going to take a long time to eradicate the presumption of incompetence in everyone’s psyche. A few months ago I was talking to a faculty woman who is moving into administration at her university. She’s talking about requiring every undergraduate student to get trained in the science of implicit bias. That’s a very big project, and not one that can be accomplished right away. And undergraduates are likely more open to change than tenured professors, most of whom believe that they don’t have any biases and so don’t need any training! So it’s going to be a long struggle.
The book also touches upon discrimination against LGBTQ academics? Can you expand on that?
It’s so clear that the presumption of incompetence, like other forms of discrimination, never operates in isolation. Although as academics we like to believe that we are guided only by objective standards of “merit” when we judge students and one another, the truth is that like anyone else, we are personally affected by implicit bias, and we also teach and write in institutions that were designed to preserve certain kinds of hierarchy. That includes heteronormativity and the dominance of cis over trans. Queer scholars, especially gender-nonconforming queer scholars, have to deal with the discomfort of homophobic people, which can affect hiring, promotion and tenure, as well as perceptions of collegiality.
A friend of mine who spends a lot of time counseling queer graduate students talks about how crappy she feels when she has to tell them that if they want an academic job they have got to go into the closet, or at least “cover” to use Kenji Yoshino’s term – that is, make your appearance, your manner, your C.V., your research agenda appear to conform to homophobic standards. And it doesn’t stop when you get hired. One of our contributors writes about being told that her work was “too feminist, too lesbian, too controversial” for a pretenure candidate.
Again, none of these forms of discrimination happen in isolation. Another contributor to our book, a white woman, talks about how her coming out in academic settings as working class has been received more poorly than her coming out as a lesbian. But for people of color, again especially gender-nonconforming people of color, being perceived as a sex/gender “other” can be the thing that tips you over the edge, makes you feel completely alienated and alone in your department, and induces people to act crazy toward you.
The book is astonishing in its breadth, depth of detail, courageousness of the authors, and the sheer number of contributors (about 30) of such high academic caliber. As one reads the book, it becomes clear how pervasive and engrained the problem of academic discrimination is, weeding out people of color even before they become eligible for teaching and conducting professorial-level research. What persuaded so many academics of color to “come out of the closet”?
I think the time was just right. We are now well past the moment when we could imagine that as soon as we got a “critical mass” of people of color and women hired, our institutions would automatically change. Our book is not about that first generation, “pipeline” problem . . . although as you point out, qualified people are still not making it into the pipeline! But our book really focuses on those second generation problems – problems of retention and promotion, problems of unequal service obligations, problems of “chilly climate.” I think that’s where we are right now in the conversation.
I also want to note that a lot of our contributors are now post-tenure, in a place where they are able to tell their stories more fully. A few years ago, there were far fewer enough women of color at that stage. In that sense, we do have a “critical mass” – of people who have enough job security to be honest about their experiences!
Is there a difference in prejudice toward women of color and men of color in academia. Is it bias in general or is there less of a bias against men of color?
It’s so hard to rank oppressions in that way. I would make a couple of general observations. First, a lot depends on the discipline and the department. In a department and/or discipline that is very heavily male, yes, a man of color might be better received than a woman of color. But, second, all of these situations are affected by intersectionality. What if the man is gay, trans or gender-nonconforming? Then a straight woman of color might be better received, even in an otherwise all-male department.
We were particularly interested in telling the story of how women of color fare in academia because there are a number of books and studies on sex discrimination and race discrimination, but far fewer on the intersection of gender and race. I would love to have solicited more essays from men of color for a comparative perspective – but then the book would be even longer than it already is!
How do class issues play into advancement up the academic ladder?
This is a fascinating topic that I also wish we had been able to say even more about in the book. I mentioned before that one of our contributors felt that being working class made her feel like more of an outsider than being lesbian. I’ve talked to a number of other working-class women who similarly feel like class makes much more of a difference than is commonly acknowledged. Since it’s also the case that white privilege and class privilege are intertwined, a lot of academic women of color also have working-class backgrounds and have a dual struggle.
In general, our contributors suggest that the culture of academia is very upper-middle-to-upper class. This means not just that faculty members tend to have elite educational credentials, but that formal and informal interpersonal relations follow typically upper-middle-class norms of indirection, understatement and a “cool” emotional tone. It’s considered inappropriate in a lot of academic settings to speak bluntly, call people out, swear, tell broad jokes or laugh too loudly. Also, most academics are not from poor places, either rural or urban; they may casually put down tastes, recreational activities and habits that are associated with those places.
But as is typical in our society, none of this is really talked about openly. Academics don’t think of themselves as belonging to a specific class, even though they do. So people from a working-class background have to try to figure out the cultural norms without anyone telling them. And if they make a mistake, it will be held against them as indicating a personality problem or a problem with “collegiality.”
What about the issue of tenure. Explain how many universities use women of color and other marginalized academics as “trophy” faculty but deny them tenure?
Being treated as a token or a trophy is extremely common in the university. It’s what happens as a response to two different incentives. On the one hand, women of color and other marginalized folk are presumed to be incompetent, as we document in the book. On the other hand, “diversity” is practically an institutional religion in higher education. Everyone is for diversity, and everyone wants their organization, department, program or other endeavor to appear diverse. So what happens, for example, is that a department starting on a search will reach out to people of color, including women of color, and include them in the pool of people to be interviewed. That looks good later when the chair has to report on the demographics of the pool for federal affirmative action purposes. But when it comes time to actually make an offer, the presumption of incompetence begins to operate. Again, it’s usually implicit.
Questions get raised about the woman of color in the pool, and the committee picks up its fine-tooth comb. Maybe her book didn’t get picked up by the most prestigious university press; maybe she got some bad teaching evaluations as a graduate student; maybe she has a white male mentor who is more excited about someone who looks like him, and so wrote an unenthusiastic recommendation letter. Maybe some people didn’t like the job talk, or felt like she wasn’t that much fun at dinner. Pretty soon the person who looks more like everyone else in the department gets the job, and the committee tells itself, “Wow, we really tried hard, and we had such a diverse pool. The quality just wasn’t there.”
The same thing can happen at the dean search level. There are a lot of women of color now who are putting themselves out there to be deans, and they’re getting interviews. But there’s an open question about when the search committee is serious about you, and when you are just there to make the pool look diverse.
Finally, some faculties think that they want “diversity,” but they don’t realize that true diversity might mean having to change the received wisdom about what constitutes a valuable project. For instance, some of our contributors write about having a deep commitment to a racialized or tribal community, the kind of commitment that shapes their research interests and the way they do their research. These women are doing serious scholarship – community-engaged scholarship – but their departments may not value it because the work doesn’t look like work that’s been done before. I’ve talked to several faculty members who feel frustrated because they were recruited because they think outside of the box, and yet when they go outside the box they are punished for it.
What role does the increasing corporatization of universities play in the struggle to achieve a true meritocracy in academia?
As Carmen González and I discuss in our introduction, higher education is in a very precarious place right now. Depending on how things shift in the next few years, things could get better for marginalized people in the academy, or they could get a lot worse for nearly everyone. The shift toward teaching by adjuncts and lecturers rather than by tenure-track faculty, the pressure to cater to the desires of corporate employers, the destabilizing effect of high student debt loads, the move toward online education . . . in a few years we could have a winner-take-all market for faculty, where a tiny number of superstars at the most prestigious schools command large salaries and enjoy full participation in governance and job security, while the vast majority of academic workers are adjunct faculty with low salaries, no job security, no control over their intellectual property, very little autonomy, and no voice in institutional governance. If that’s where higher education is headed, it’s very unlikely that many of the superstar faculty will be women of color.
So these conversations really belong together. We can’t think through the question of fairness for marginalized groups without answering the tough questions: What is higher education for? Who should be paying for it? How should it be structured?
In the last chapter (30), psychology Professor Yolanda Flores Niemann includes advice and recommendations on how to end the “dirty little secret” of the ivory tower. Can you identify some that you think are most salient?
Gosh, there are so many! When I talk about the book on panels and at workshops, I offer different recommendations depending on what audience I’m talking to.
At the personal level, I would say to individual faculty members, whether you’re a woman of color or not, that the best thing you can do is educate yourself about the presumption of incompetence. For women of color, know that you’re not alone; for others, just remember life that we never know the burdens that others are carrying anyway, and that is even more true in this society where gender, race, sexuality, class identity, disability, age make such a difference as to how we see the world, and how we are treated.
The next most important thing for faculty women of color is to take care of your physical and mental health. I’m continually struck by how the stress generated by the presumption of incompetence takes a toll on people’s lives. It’s important not to let that stress disable you.
At the interpersonal level, I would say that if you are an administrator, be aware of and ready to respond to some of the common problems that our research identifies. Know, for example, that the student evaluations of women faculty of color tend to be bipolar; there may be extremely negative and vicious evaluations alongside glowing ones. Figure out a way to address that fact, both with the faculty member and with tenure committees. Be careful about assigning your female faculty of color to too many committees, even though it always looks good for committees to be “diverse.” Be proactive about communicating and applying leave policies and other kinds of practices, like stopping the tenure clock, that can help women of color juggle the dual burden of work and life. Be sensitive to signs of stress on the part of your women faculty of color and have an open-door policy. Be sensitive to signs of trouble in the student body and among faculty. It’s much better to identify and address problems while they are still small than to wait until a decision point.
And if you are a dean, be forthright about supporting your faculty, if and when students complain about their teaching style. Support your faculty in being the best teacher they can be; but also make clear to students that if their complaints are amorphous – the teacher is “too different,” or teaches from materials they don’t like, or talks about issues that make them uncomfortable, or is just “the worst teacher ever,” with no details given – dealing with that teacher maybe is part of their learning process.
If you are a colleague who doesn’t share the same identities, be a mentor and a friend. Speak up in public ways on some of these issues, rather than waiting for the people who are personally affected to do so – but listen more than you talk, and make sure your friend is on board before you start trying to fix things for her. Let her pick the battles, not you. If you are a dean or other administrator, be alert for signs of stress, trauma and burnout in your minority faculty. Don’t wait until the person has a breakdown before getting them some relief.
At the institutional level, I tell people to work for better policies that allow faculty to appropriately balance work and life – for everyone, not only mothers. Make sure your school has a good parental leave policy, and make sure that everyone who is eligible takes it. When there is a policy on paper but no one makes use of it because they are afraid that it will send a signal that they’re not serious, then you don’t have a real policy.
If you have the power to make institutional change, consider developing and advocating for policies that recognize and reward faculty for excellent teaching, for mentoring, and for service – not just for research. Be open to rethinking what a good tenure file looks like. Realize that numbers matter. Having a “critical mass” of women in a department, of people of color in a department, of open sexual minorities in a department, sends the message that it is OK to be yourself, and reduces the hypervisibility of “tokens” and the stress that comes along with that hypervisibility. If you have the power to affect student culture, consider antibias and anti-bullying training.
Finally, at the structural level, I would say, recognize that the current upheavals in higher education have implications for the lives of faculty women of color and for the “diversity” mission more generally. Beware of structural reforms that undermine faculty freedom of expression, that “casualize” faculty labor and increase vulnerability to bias. And I would argue that the “diversity” mission should not be seen as separate and distinct from the “excellence” mission of the university. We won’t do ourselves or our women faculty of color any good unless we can explain how a diverse, fair and inclusive workforce is not just a good thing to have in the abstract, but how it is central to the purpose that higher education serves.