Are You Considering the Hire of Racial/Ethnic Scholars?
Associate Professor of Religious Education
Arthur L. Pressley
Associate Professor of Psychology and Religion
Independent Scholar and Consultant for Theological Education with the American Academy of Religion
Maxine Clark Beach
Dean and Vice President
The hiring of a racial/ethnic scholar into an all white or practically all white faculty is a daunting challenge for the administration, existing faculty, and the person being hired. These remarks and advice are meant for white colleagues, faculty and administration, who are committed to diversity and are well-meaning, but unaware of the possible cultural insensitivity and the systemic practices of racism so deeply imbedded into the institution that they are beyond your notice or control. We are assuming that as a white colleague, you do not want the racial/ethnic person to be wittingly or unwittingly sabotaged by the institution or individuals. Your on-going support of this person will be paramount. There are important matters to consider so that the new hire will not be set-up for failure. The ideas conveyed below may at times sound absurd or foolish. The issues raised and the advice given comes directly from real-life experiences of racial/ethnic colleagues who have survived the hiring process in white institutions. We have tried to make our words candid and informative so that other colleagues might learn and become more aware and sensitive.
Creating a Place Where There Is "The One and Only" or "The First"
Will the racial/ethnic person being hired be the "one and only" or "one of the few?" Will the person be "the first and only?" In all of these instances, there is tremendous pressure and stress on the colleague of color to meet the challenge, perform for voiced and unvoiced standards, follow vague expectations, and to succeed. Adding a "one and only" to your faculty, often means bringing the racial/ethnic person into the isolation of your town or village. The reality of this isolation and its ramifications is very complex. Many racial/ethnic persons thrive well as the "first and only." Other people of color will choose to move on quickly to positions where there are more people like them.
A Common Scenario When There Is the First and Only
Ebony graduated with a PhD from one of the top universities in the nation. After being interviewed by several schools, and with the advice of her mentor, she elected to join the faculty of a small university located in a small town, about a two hour’s drive from the nearest city. Ebony, the first and only racial/ethnic colleague on faculty, was generously welcomed to the school and given as much support as the institution could offer as she made the transition. As a matter of fact, some of the white colleagues were jealous of the amount of support and attention she received. Ebony first noticed her colleagues’ discomfort with her when they grumbled, in joking ways, that they had not received such remuneration, care, and consideration. Ebony thrived in her new position, but found tensions among the faculty and internal politics to be difficult to negotiate. Faculty members would gossip about each other to her, and also talk about her to each other. She felt that her gossip was amplified in the life of the school because she was the only Black faculty person. Ebony also had social difficulties. Living in the small town of the university, Ebony found herself feeling lonely on weekends when she did not travel to conferences or to visit family. While shopping at the local markets and malls, the stares of the people let her know that there were not "many of her kind" in this area of the country. Ebony had feelings of isolation and alienation professionally and socially. By all accounts, Ebony was doing very well in her tenure-track position, but from her perspective, she was isolated and without conversation partners. Ebony’s situation was complex. She recognized and appreciated all that the colleagues of her institution had done to welcome and support her. She was working hard and doing well in teaching, giving good service to the university and was publishing in major journals. All this notwithstanding, Ebony recognized that all the political skirmishes, battles, and plots of the faculty and administration were debilitating to her emotionally, spiritually and professionally. At the end of her third year, Ebony received word that there was a new position in her field at a university in the nearby city where she would be one of many racial/ethnic scholars. Ebony was encouraged by a senior scholar at that university to apply for the position. Ebony was conflicted – should she stay in a place where she was well established and doing well on her tenure-track and continue to battle the internal politics of the current school or should she go to another school where she might have more political alliances and not feel so isolated?
Giving Up Power
Hiring a racial/ethnic person will not bring substantive change until the power dynamics of your institution shift. The shift in power will mean that people who have been comfortable in their authority for many years will have to be uncomfortable and even unsure of their power positions for a brief time. Challenging a well established scholar’s authority usually results in fighting and hurt feelings. Your institutional leadership will need to determine if the benefits brought by this change will outweigh the fights and anxiety that will ensue.
The academy does not have traditional forms of power. In corporate life, time and money are the nexus of power. Whoever makes decisions about how time is spent and how resources are allocated are in authority. However, in the academy individual faculty often have control over how their time is spent at the same time as having little access to major financial resources (control of a few thousand dollars is not real money or power). In the academy, the power is distributed based on the furthering of agendas of those in power. Power is competitive and to the victor goes the spoils. Those who come into the institution, who can read the institutional ethos and can be co-opted by the existing power structures, will be given authority. New persons not interested in existing agendas, or those who bring their own agendas, are denied power and kept from authority. Giving up power in the academy means finding ways for new people not to be co-opted into old agendas and creating space for new agendas to flourish. Time for new considerations, new conversations, and different assumptions will have to be carved out of people’s already too busy schedules. Resources will have to be rethought and allocated to meet the shifting priorities. Also, administrators inherit and contribute to all kinds of dis-ease among the faculty. Faculties may be quite good at arguing civilly about theology and the nature of God, but not as good at talking about past hurts and disappointments, broken relationships, betrayals and unrealized dreams, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled expectations of the past. All of this, unfortunately, can get pushed onto any new person, but the overlay of racism and prejudice that is added in white institutions puts the racial/ethnic persons in jeopardy.
A Common Scenario When Power Is Not Relinquished
Ky-young graduated with a PhD from one of the top universities in the nation. After being interviewed by several schools, and with the advice of his mentor, he elected to join the faculty where he would be the first and only racial/ethnic colleague on faculty. During his interview process, little attention was paid to Ky-young’s interest and work in establishing an institute for Asian and Asian-American Studies. During his first year on faculty, requests for Ky-young’s time came from all over the institute. It seemed every project and committee wanted his participation. Ky-young turned down the majority of the requests and spent his time working on his dream of creating an institute. When Ky-young went to the administration to request funding for the institute, he was surprised to learn that he was considered to be uncooperative. He was told that he was not "a team player" because he had not participated in all of the committees that wanted him. Ky-young explained that he wanted to spend time working on a project that would bring many strong, Asian and Asian-American students to the university. He dreamed of creating a place where Asian students might study with him and other colleagues interested in Asian studies. In the conversation with the dean, Ky-young was told that this kind of change in the university would take a great deal of resources and that the resources were not available at this time. The dean was puzzled – he thought that Ky-young should have known that he was joining a prestigious university and as a junior scholar his primary responsibility was to maintain the agenda that was established. After all, he reasoned, the agenda of this fine university is what attracted him here. The dean explained that only the senior scholars get to manage large projects like the establishment of an institute. Ky-young told the dean that if the senior scholars are the only ones who can make significant change then his hire would not bring any change to the university for at least 10 to 12 years. The dean told Ky-young he would just have to wait. Ky-young felt betrayed – he thought when the university hired him it was in support of his scholarship and would provide him with adequate time and resources to move forward with his dream of bringing substantive change. Now, from his perspective, they did not want change, but tokenism.
Change brings resistance. The hire of a racial/ethnic person will bring change to your institution. Potentially, this hire, will begin new patterns of faculty configuration, bring new perspectives on curriculum, presuppose a different kind of conversation around the faculty table in formal meetings and at informal lunches. The resistance will be subtle with some people falling into a passive silence or moving conversations to the hallways and away from the official meeting times. Subtle resistance might take the form of persons arguing in dichotomous logic – there is right and wrong, good and bad, must and must not thinking. The resistance might also be more pronounced with persons refusing to consider the differences or uniquenesses of the racial/ethnic candidate. In either case, subtle or pronounced, expect resistance.
A Common Scenario Concerning Resistance
Juanita graduated with a PhD from one of the top universities in the nation. After being interviewed by several schools, and under the advice of her mentor, Juanita reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by a school where she would be the first and only racial/ethnic colleague on faculty. During her interview, a senior, white, male, faculty person, Dr. Van Claus, sat without saying much throughout her interview process. The few times he spoke, he did not pose a question, but instead, corrected Juanita’s previous statements. The Search Committee, after careful deliberation, brought Juanita’s name as the selection for the position. Though the faculty regulations required a majority vote, it was the custom of this faculty to bring on a new colleague by consensus. The Search committee made its report and the faculty began the discussion of candidate Juanita. Dr. Van Claus spoke up quickly and said that he did not think Juanita was the person for the position. When pressed by other colleagues to be more specific, he said that "she is not a good ‘fit’ for us." The conversation progressed and the majority of colleagues saw that Juanita was a budding scholar with great potential. Again, Van Claus spoke against her. Finally, after much deliberation, the vote was called for. Van Claus and a few other colleagues against Juanita, but the clear majority of the faculty voted to accept Juanita into the position. In the past, without a unanimous vote, the search would have been scuttled, but this time was different. The dean spoke up. The dean said that even though other hires had been voted on unanimously, she was letting the majority vote stand with this hire. The dean said that the hire of a racial/ethnic colleague would mean change for the entire institution, and that the faculty would have to learn to live with the tensions that this change brought. She said that she understood people’s resistance to this hire, to this change, but that the school was moving, slowly, in new directions. Juanita accepted the position and started in the fall of that year.
Questions and Issues to Reflect upon in the Hiring Process
The questions below are meant to assist the administration and faculty in the process of welcoming and supporting your racial/ethnic colleagues. The questions are not meant to be "answered" per se. It would be a mistake to ask one person to sit and answer the questions on behalf of your institution. Instead, the questions are meant as a guide for conversation and reflection by a group or committee of colleagues. Dialogue among a search committee, a committee on faculty or an entire faculty is invaluable in getting a clear sense of your institutional identity, values, assumptions, limitations, priorities, and dreams. The conversations sparked by these questions will create a more substantive and healthier context for a racial/ethnic colleague, and for that matter, any colleague.
In your discussion concerning goal setting consider the following:
- Is it possible to move beyond simple compliance with ATS or other accreditation standards and accomplish faculty buy-in to the notion of being a changing faculty?
- What is the value of diversity to the learning experience? What will it mean at this institution to make the experience of new and different communities accessible to students and faculty?
- What will it mean for the faculty to have a different worldview represented at the table? What is gained by the presence of those born outside of the western world view to the study of religion?
- Is the faculty willing to submit to diversity training as a group to prepare for this shifting culture?
- How will the faculty and administration discuss how they might need to make decisions differently with different ethnicity and culture at the table?
- Are there established policies and protocols for dealing with issues of prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and racial/cultural harassment? The question is not IF incidences of bigotry and bias occur. The question is WHEN incidences occur, how is your institution prepared to respond with more than white guilt or denial? The racial/ethnic colleague is not responsible for designing these policies and procedures and should not be responsible to necessarily sit on the committee that oversees the policies and protocols.
- What are the established, written and unwritten, policies and procedures for hiring any new faculty? Will these policies and procedures be upheld or amended in the hire of a racial/ethnic colleague?
Once the decision is made to prioritize the hiring of a racial/ethnic colleague consider these things:
- If there has been no racial/ethnic person in the position previously, why consider one now? Why has your institution not hired someone in the past?
- What does your institution mean by wanting to be "diverse" or "multicultural"? Is it thought that by hiring one or two racial/ethnic colleagues your institution is now "diverse" or "multicultural"?
- What are the obstacles in your institution to the hire of a racial/ethnic person?
- In what ways is your institution hostile to racial/ethnic persons?
- Have any racial/ethnic persons left their jobs in the past 3 year, 5 years? Why?
- In what ways will your institution be changed/affected by this hire?
- What are the expectations, spoken and unspoken for the new hire?
- Should the academic standards and expectations for "fit" be the same as a white hire? Will you try to hire the whitest ethnic person you can find?
- What is the climate of the town, city, or village for racial/ethnic families? Is there suitable schools/child care, market place, police, medical and hospitals, etc. What neighborhoods are available for housing? Are their social outlets for racial/ethnic persons in your town, city, village?
- What steps will your institution take to set a friendly, hospitable climate for the work needs and family needs of a racial/ethnic colleague? What resources are available to support these efforts?
- If there is not an intentional and corporate decision to hire a racial/ethnic person, a myriad of excuses will arise giving reasons why the task of hiring a racial/ethnic person was insurmountable. Excuses will include, but are not limited to:
There were no racial/ethnic applications.
There are no racial/ethnic persons in this field.
The white candidate was just so much more qualified.
The white candidate is a better fit for us.
- Equally problematic, is tokenism. Faculties will hire one person of color and proclaim this hire from the rooftops as the only person that is needed or wanted in the entire institution, then ask the person to serve as the lone, token voice concerning dicey issues or issues perceived to be related to racial/ethnic issues.
- What kind of scholarly priority do you need the position to have? What is the institution’s agenda for racial/ethnic programming with this hire? Just because the person is a racial/ethnic person does not mean that their scholarship is focused upon racial/ethnic issues. Just like white people, racial ethnic people have varying priorities and scholarly trajectories. If you want the person to create and support racial/ethnic agendas in your institution (e.g. Black Church Studies Program, Hispanic Institute, the Asian Student Caucus), be clear about that expectation with all the candidates. If programming is part of the vision of this hire, what resources will be available for existing and new programming?
Additional Questions: Before the Job is Described or Posted
- What wording in the advertisement will be used to signal that a racial/ethnic colleague is preferred or encouraged to apply?
- Is there an affirmative action officer and policy at your institution? If not, who might you call upon for assistance with hiring based upon affirmative action standards?
- Are the search committee members, deans, presidents, etc. in agreement that a racial/ethnic person needs to be prioritized in the hiring process?
Additional Questions: Finding Suitable Candidates
- What existing or new arenas must be explored in order to create a pool of racial/ethnic candidates?
- Talk to other racial/ethnic persons in the field and ask how to network.
- Contact the racial/ethnic professional groups, committees and sub-committees.
Additional Comments: During the Interview
- Make sure the lodging, transportation, and meals are first-rate. The candidate might assume he/she is being slighted due to their minority status.
- Be upfront and open about the politics of hiring the "first and only" in your institution.
- Many racial/ethnic scholars’ work is interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary or are just plain unorthodox. Is this kind of scholar tenure-able at your institution? If you hire someone interdisciplinary are you prepared to make the intellectual case for their work during tenure? Make sure you are not hiring them based on their current work with the expectation that they must change their work to get tenure.
- Remember that racial/ethnic colleagues are trained in the same academy that white scholars are trained in. Resist thinking that the person is "too ethnic" or "not ethnic enough" – no one person is representative of the entire race or ethnicity. There is a vast spectrum of experience, expression and embodiment.
Additional Comments: Negotiating with the Finalist
- At the risk of stereotyping, consider that racial/ethnic scholars of religion are often deeply involved in social justice/community work as well as the work of the church and faith communities. Assist the scholar in integrating their community and faith community obligations into their scholarly commitments.
- At the risk of stereotyping, consider that many racial/ethnic candidates come from lower socio-economic beginnings and carry more student loan debt than other candidates. Significant financial remuneration will be needed for: base salaries, one time start-up funds to establish libraries for teaching, fee for professional memberships and associations (mainstream and racial/ethnic), moving fees, trips to look for housing and child care, assistance with mortgages and rent, computer equipment for campus and home office, annual research funds, annual funds if racial/ethnic programming is part of portfolio, and funds of teaching and research assistants.
- Be sure to give the candidate all institutional materials in writing, e.g. tenure and promotion policy, faculty regulations and handbook, school catalogue, etc.
Additional Comments: Now That You Have A Racial/Ethnic Colleague
- Know that students will have all kinds of wild expectations of, and place undue pressures on faculty of color. Students will assume their work is inferior or their course should be "easy." Students will give them less respect and more grief. Be on the side of the colleague as they get settled in.
- Squelch any gossip or conversation, especially the gossip that is culturally insensitive. Don’t wait for the new colleague to have to do it.
- Don’t expect the person to do all things Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American (student groups, committee work, diversity training etc.) unless negotiated upon hire.
- Be realistic about their use of time and help them protect their time as they get their feet on the ground. Racial/ethnic people usually have to serve "double-duty" on committee assignments (being placed on additional committees that have to do with issues of minority status as well as the regular duty). We also are sought out by minority students who we advise and those we do not advise. Formally and informally, we are asked by colleagues to consult on racial/ethnic issues. All of this takes time and adds to our workload.
- Do not look to the new colleague to hold the faculty accountable on issues of race, racism, and other issues of diversity. Not only is this not fair, it does not work. It will only serve to alienate the new person even more.
- Non-white faculty persons at white schools are likely to have a strong commitment to their community of origin as well as feel a particular commitment to students of color. This dynamic often time creates misunderstandings, alienation, and resentment by white students and faculty.
- Many cultures have a very elaborate network that functions beyond the obvious structure for decision making. An institution with a more transparent process might be very confusing. Also institutions with well established "good old boy" networks will work to exclude the "Other," thus frustrating the new person. The addition of persons who come from non-white cultures simply adds to the complexity and forces decision making to become more complex.
- Assign the new colleague a mentor. Have another colleague make a commitment to meet regularly with the new person to discuss on-going institutional issues and to give support. Consider that several different mentors might be needed for different aspects of institutional life.
Additional Comments: Things that Exasperate, Frustrate, and Alienate Racial/Ethnic Scholars in White Institutions
- The idea, that in the 21st century, the hire of a racial/ethnic person is cause for consternation, confusion, and political wrangling.
- Adding one or two racial/ethnic colleagues does not change the institution from being a white institution.
- Pronounce the name correctly; don’t give a nickname; don’t confuse the colleague’s name with the janitor’s or secretary’s name.
- Don’t call his/her accent "cute" or "exotic."
- Spare the colleague of hearing the one story you tell about the one racial/ethnic person you know.
- Don’t ask the person what country they are from.
- Don’t ask for an invitation to your colleague’s home for an "ethnic food" sampling.
- Don’t assume that racial/ethnic people are monolithic. Know that there are significant differences in language, culture, ethnicity, religion, social class, and nationality among racial/ethnic people.
- Don’t make sweeping generalizations about the person’s personal or family background information based on your limited understanding of their racial/cultural group.
- Don’t ask the person to serve as the racial/ethnic voice for all people of color everywhere.
- Be aware that different cultures relate to authority and structure in drastically different ways. How a person goes about being a faculty member is significantly influenced by their culture.
- Don’t exclude the racial/ethnic colleague from extra-curricular university events on the basis of assuming their lack of interest, knowledge, experience, etc., based on their racial/ethnic background.
The nature of education is to bring about change. As an institution of religion and higher learning you have some commitment to education for change. Education, in and of itself, is a tool of change and creates change agents. How will your institution educate itself for this change? How will your institution hold itself to the same expectations of growth, maturity, change, as it holds for its students? You will, in trying to institute and maintain this change, make mistakes. There will be cultural faux pas, big and small. Racism will raise its ugly head in new and previously unrehearsed ways when the new colleague comes on board. In all of the mistake-making, be open to hearing the opposing view, the view of the ones offended. Be willing to say you are sorry. Be willing to try things differently. Be willing to stop doing it the "way we’ve always done it." Remember, these conversations are likely to make significant improvements for a healthier environment for the entire faculty and administration.