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The coronavirus is threatening diversity in academia

Colleges are laying off their adjunct faculty, who mostly are women and people of color.

Keisha Blain attended a top program in her field, collaborated with renowned scholars and wrote an award-winning dissertation — all of which she was sure would lead to an immediate and secure academic appointment.

But upon graduating from Princeton University with a Ph.D. in history in 2014, she discovered that she had vastly underestimated the number of scholars seeking tenure-track positions. Blain was competing not only against her direct peers, but also against talented scholars who hadn't been able to find steady work in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession and had become even more competitive applicants in the intervening years.

"That's when I realized all along that I had felt some undue sense of security," said Blain, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in African American history. "There's still this rosy-colored picture that we sell to graduate students that, yes, things are tough, but hard work and excellent scholarship will open doors."

When a position at a university fell through because of a hiring freeze, Blain decided to complete a postdoctoral fellowship — a temporary position that varies in length, during which entry-level academics continue their research at various institutions — after which she held a few other positions before being promoted to her tenured role last year.

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It worked out for Blain, but for every academic success story like hers, hundreds more involve equally qualified academics who, as The Atlantic's Adam Harris writes, are "trapped in academia's permanent underclass." And the coronavirus may only make the situation worse for these educators, who are effectively gig workers cobbling together several positions to survive and who most often are women and people of color.

As budgets are stricken and mass layoffs become routine, scholars at all levels are fighting back to make sure diversity in academia won't become collateral damage in the pandemic.

An 'open secret': academia's over-reliance on adjunct faculty

More than 70 percent of all teaching positions in American higher education are non-tenure-track roles, according to the American Association of University Professors. While the over-reliance on contingent faculty who grapple with scant pay and benefits has routinely been described as an open secret in academia, the instability of the labor framework has been further illuminated in recent months to the point where it's become unavoidable.

Education experts say early pandemic-related layoffs and hiring freezes indicate that faculty from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds will likely be among the first to be axed — and they are urging their colleagues to speak up and act in solidarity, as budget cuts will put the whole higher education system in flux.

"I worry about class and race diversity and diversity in gender identity," said Carolyn Betensky, an associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island and a founding member of Tenure for the Common Good, an organization of tenured professors across the country who advocate for their non-tenure-track colleagues.

"I worry that institutions will make fewer efforts to open the doors to underserved people," she said. "I worry that college will go back to being something only for the upper-middle, wealthier classes and that, just as the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color and lower-income people, we're going to see a heightened level of stratification in higher ed."

Among the first and most publicized rounds of layoffs were those at Ohio University, which were announced this month. The layoffs gained attention for their scope — more than 300 positions across the school were eliminated — and for appearing to threaten the existence of programs centered on elevating marginalized communities.

After the university announced that it planned to "rethink the organization" of its colleges and departments to reduce costs, a petition from the Ohio chapter of the Association of American University Professors, a national nonprofit academic organization, circulated online claiming "entire academic programs, including African-American Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies are facing elimination."

AAUP's national chapter also released a statement earlier this month expressing concern that "the ostensible decision not to renew the three faculty members in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and in African American Studies will irremediably weaken or destroy programs that directly support diversity and inclusion, one of Ohio University’s primary institutional commitments."

The school, which did not initially respond to NBC News' requests for comment, noted after publication that "at no point was a faculty member in the African American studies program 'given notice' that their position was being eliminated" nor did the school announce "it was considering eliminating" the two non-tenure track positions in the women's, gender and sexuality studies program.

"The university has been very clear that no final decisions were made regarding faculty positions until shortly before the position eliminations were announced on May 15," a university spokesperson told NBC News. "Prior to that date, we understand that conversations with department chairs may have led these individuals to believe their positions would not be renewed, but no official notice was ever given to them by the university."

Ohio University did, however, announce it is eliminating its English Language Improvement Program, a vital resource for students seeking help with language learning, a decision students behind the social media campaign #SaveOurProfs have been protesting.

At Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, the future of some programs is just as fraught. The institution announced that it was laying off a third of its faculty, including more than 30 non-tenured professors. Perhaps even more dramatically, MWSU, which doesn't have breakout ethnic or gender studies programs, is cutting dozens of majors and minors, including those that once might have been taken for granted as staples in higher education, like history, philosophy, English literature and economics.

And at Harvard University, the search for faculty specializing in ethnic studies has been indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic — a sucker punch to students who've been urging the school to institute a department focusing on such scholarship for more than 40 years. Harvard announced that it would begin a search for scholars specializing in ethnic studies last June, which was considered somewhat of a victory by students, but tensions over the institution's lack of diversity have grown since then. When an Afro-Latina professor, who was widely believed to be the only Latina on the tenure track at the time, was denied tenure in December, students and scholars from across the country protested.

Regardless of their tenure status, the news of terminations and hiring freezes is far from comforting for academics, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

"If schools have engineering and African American studies on the table and have to make a decision, engineering is going to get the focus," said Kaye Whitehead, a tenured professor of communication and the only full-time black educator in her department at Loyola University Maryland. "We were the last ones to come in, the last departments to be founded and on the chopping block. These are the courses and faculty members that will go first. I'm wrestling with that reality as a professor."

The limits of tenure

Although it's a commonly held misconception that tenured professors are permanently protected from termination, experts say these academics could be as vulnerable to layoffs as their non-tenure-track colleagues should universities choose to dissolve their departments. As for tenure-track professors, colleges can simply opt not to renew their contracts for the following semester, as is also the case with adjunct faculty.

But how does a university choose which programs to prioritize when it comes to making cuts?

Sue Doe, director of the Center for the Study of Academic Labor and a tenured professor of English at Colorado State University, said that "at times of austerity, institutions rely on narrow definitions of productivity," including research and education impact. Given that enrollment numbers are predicted to decline at nearly every higher education institution because of the coronavirus, administrators may perceive departments like African American studies and women and gender studies as "low-hanging fruit during periods of deep budget cuts" because their market value isn't as immediately evident as it is for a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) department, Doe said.

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Blain, of the University of Pittsburgh, echoed Doe's concern that departments like ethnic studies, which have served as "gateways for scholars of color, who have often been excluded from older, more traditional departments," will be targeted in cuts because their purpose has been misunderstood.

"Whereas people see African American studies as a black space or the product of black people angrily demanding more black professors, it actually exists because a multicultural coalition of students across various races and ethnicities recognized that we could not have a democracy without making sure diverse voices were included in how we teach our history and culture," Blain said.

"These programs are crucial in diversifying campuses, and not surprisingly, they serve marginalized populations at a higher rate than other departments, so when we target them for elimination, we're showing that what we articulate in terms of diversity and inclusion is simply just a matter of rhetoric and doesn't hold true in our day-to-day actions," Blain said.

Slashing diversity is 'not inevitable'

As the coronavirus continues to upend every sector of life, scholars say overwhelming lack of job security and crumbling diversity don't have to be the inevitable results of the pandemic.

"We need to think about what we as institutions want to preserve and how we can best preserve it instead of only looking at the crisis as a reason to just keep shrinking," said Rana Jaleel, an assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women's studies at the University of California, Davis. "Each institution is different and has its own models and needs, but the questions of what kind of world we want to be living in and who we want to be living in it are highlighted by the pandemic and tied to the kind of scholarship we promote."

From creating petitions and social media campaigns to writing letters to school administrators lobbying on colleagues' behalf, scholars have been relentless in pushing back against budget cuts.

According to a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 75 percent of all college and university faculty members were white in 2017, and scholars say not being deliberate about increasing diversity in the academy will only reinforce the inequality foregrounded by the coronavirus.

"I always dreamed of being a college professor, because in the academy we ask hard questions and have the ability not only to push and change ourselves, but to push and change the next generation," Whitehead said. "It brings me so much joy knowing that every student who has been in one of my classes has had the opportunity to be taught by a black woman with a Ph.D. For many of them, it was their first time."

CORRECTION (May 26, 2020, 8:30 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the extent of faculty layoffs at Ohio University. It did not eliminate three positions in its women's, gender and sexuality studies program and its African American Studies program after having said it was considering doing so. The article also misstated when Missouri Western State University announced that it was laying off a third of its faculty. It was April 29, not last week.