In the three years between leaving NASA as a research meteorologist and landing at the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, James Marshall Shepherd ascended the academic ladder there, further solidifying his authority in the field of weather and climate change. In that short period of time he was even granted tenure.
This quick ascension is unique among academics at any college, but particularly rare for a Black professor at a predominately white institution. But the depth of Shepherd’s accomplishments made his ascension to the professorial pinnacle undeniable.
“The University of Georgia has been very gracious and even stepped up to ensure I know they appreciate what I have brought to the school,” said Shepherd, who joined the university in 2006. “At the same time, I know that historically it hasn’t been the same experience for other Black professors at other predominantly white schools.”
The goal of obtaining tenure for Black professors has thrust into the spotlight by two high-profile confrontations that played out in public. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones passed on tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — after it was offered, rescinded and offered again — and instead accepted a position at Howard University, one of America’s renowned historically Black colleges.
“To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a statement this month.
Then, Cornel West, one of the country’s foremost intellectuals, last week resigned from the Harvard Divinity School, citing a tenure debate. He said in a letter that the Ivy League school suffered from “decline and decay” and a “spiritual rot.”
These instances have not gone unnoticed by students, including Shepherd’s daughter, Arissa, a rising senior in high school who is ranked in the top 5 percent of students in Georgia and is a celebrated volleyball player. “She had North Carolina on her list of top five schools,” Shepherd said. “But she looked at what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones and she removed it from her list. It impacted her. And I support her decision.”
Black tenured professors are rare. Data from a 2007 report by The Journal of Black in Education indicated they represented less than 5 percent of all tenured professors in the country. Growth over that time has been minimal, educators contend.
At non-HBCUs Black professors “provide a level of representation and credibility in establishing a baseline of a diverse and inclusive faculty,” Shepherd said. “It also affirms and establishes, given the system that academia has put in place, that you are someone that that university wants to invest in or ride with, so to speak.”
And yet history has shown that many Black academics find the path to tenure at predominantly white colleges daunting at best. Tenure ensures job security for professors; in some cases, this allows academics to research and teach subjects that may be considered controversial, including racial inequality, without the specter of losing their jobs.
In January, Franklin Evans became the first Black president of West Liberty University, a small public college in West Virginia. He said he was astonished that the faculty of 136 full-time professors had only two Black faculty members, one tenured.
“And one of the two was recently hired,” said Evans, who was president of Voorhees College, an HBCU in Denmark, South Carolina. He earned tenure in 2005 at J.F. Drake Technical College in Huntsville, Alabama. He said Hannah-Jones’ decision to bypass UNC for Howard was a watershed moment.
“Her treatment has brought to public light how differently we are judged,” Evans said. “But it’s critical to have Black professors at predominately white schools, because it allows other folks to see us as qualified, to see us as creative and as intellectuals.
“It’s very disheartening when we work hard and do all we’re supposed to do and don’t get tenured. Sometimes the rules change for people of color or African Americans who are on a tenure track. Sometimes they’re a bit stricter when African Americans are doing their research, and it’s always scrutinized harder. Sometimes there’s a double standard when it comes to people of color at PWI. You work, you teach, and the students love you, you are engaged in the community and service activities and then you’re out doing research and doing the scholarly work ... and then your white peers will come back and may turn their nose up at it.”
Paul Harris knows this all too well. A scholar at the University of Virginia, Harris was denied tenure at his alma mater when the Promotion and Tenure Committee claimed that his publication record didn’t meet expectations. It deemed his work in the Journal of African American Males in Education to be “self-published,” even though it is a selective, peer-reviewed journal. More than 4,000 of Harris’ former students and colleagues signed a petition denouncing the decision.
“It was draining, particularly the process that ensued because the facts presented in my case were not facts at all,” he said. “Not having tenure, you are sort of quieted in a way. You’re always thinking about what it is that I’m saying and how, because there can be retribution.”
The committee later reversed its decision, but Harris instead took a tenured position at Penn State University, where he will teach graduate students in the counselor education program
“I think now we’re just seeing what has been going on for a long time,” Harris said. “And hopefully out of it comes changed policy, changed practice, and a space within academia that is truly welcoming and not just tolerating but celebrating the work of Black academics.”
The Washington Post reported in 2016 that 96 percent of Black college professors with tenure taught at HBCUs. That number has been contested by Contexts, a research magazine published by the American Sociological Association, which said Black tenured professors at HBCUs make up 22 percent.
“If we only stay at our HBCUs,” Evans said, “I think we do a disservice to other folks knowing how great and brilliant we really are. We should want to show that we, too, are on the cutting edge and we’re doing amazing things.
“Of course, it’s not an easy road. Despite great accomplishments, you still have people second-guess you. And what it really says is academia is symptomatic of what happens to us in the world.”