Blog #38: Celebrate Dr. Gay, But Recognize Continuing Impediments To Black Women Seeking Tenure
Updated: Jan 9
Harvard University announced Dr. Claudine Gay as the University’s 30th President. She will be the first Black person to lead the University.
Dr. Gay is well-educated and steadily worked her way into the highest levels of academia. She studied economics at Stanford University and then earned her Ph.D. from Harvard, winning the University’ prize for best dissertation in political science. She returned to Stanford where she became a tenured professor. She was later recruited to Harvard in 2006 where she taught in the Departments of Government and in African and African American Affairs. Beginning in 2015, she served as Dean of Social Sciences, and in 2018 she was selected to serve as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) which oversees Harvard’s undergraduate and Ph.D. programs. As Dean of FAS, she was instrumental in navigating Harvard College through the COVID pandemic. During that period, she was tasked to ensure the safety of those at the University and facilitate transparency through regular communications with Harvard students, faculty, staff, parents, and the entire college community. She also launched a faculty-driven strategic planning process to look at fundamental aspects of academic structures, resources and operations in FAS.
Dr. Gay, to say the least, has held very important roles within the University, and her experience, knowledge, effectiveness and accomplishments made her a natural choice to assume the role as Harvard’s next President.
Dr. Gay’s selection as Harvard President underscores the importance of having black women in the leadership pipeline at colleges and universities in particular. Taking from Vice President Kamala Harris, while Dr. Gay “may be the first [black] to hold this office …. [she shouldn’t] be the last.” Kamala Harris speech: “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.” - Vox. Recalling the summer of 2021, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a professor at University of North Carolina, had been denied tenure despite her status as a Pulitzer Prize winner for Commentary and MacArthur Foundation Award recipient. She later was awarded tenure at Howard University. Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC tenured position and will join Howard University | CNN.
Tenure status for academic faculty is a significant professional milestone. In addition to being a life-time position at a college or university, tenure gives a professor the freedom to spend their time conducting research and publish on important and significant topics in the arts and sciences that advance our social progression.
But, as with many professions, there is a significant under-representation of black women in tenured positions at colleges and universities. A 2019 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that as of the fall of 2019, black women comprised only 2.1% of tenured associate and full-time professors at U.S. colleges and universities. You can check out how various institutions of higher learning rank on this metric. The article contains a searchable database of colleges and universities and the percentage of black female tenured faculty in 2019 based on self-reported data. How Many Black Women Have Tenure on Your Campus? Search Here (chronicle.com). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows how black women fare across academia. Fast Facts: Race/ethnicity of college faculty (61) (ed.gov). Based on NCES 2020 data, black women were 3% of all faculty at colleges and universities.
How did we get here? There are many reasons. These impediments begin with admission into graduate programs, which creates the pool of qualified academics who later compete for teaching positions in higher education. After completing their graduate program, professors must establish themselves as nationally recognized scholars in their fields, which is demonstrated through teaching, research and service. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, at each of these benchmarks, black women have faced inordinate impediments that inhibit their progression in academia. Black women face many obstacles in their efforts to win tenure (opinion) (insidehighered.com).
So, why is this important? This is important for our children. Our children eventually become our teens who begin making college choices, and young adults making academic selections and career pursuits. When in college, it is very important that our young adults feel wanted and seen. There is greater chance of that if they have professors who look like them, relate to them, want to provide guidance to them, want them in their research labs, and advise them on their senior theses. These professors are the ones who are more likely to impart greatness into our young adults and tell them the great things that they are capable of achieving. That’s why this issue is so critically important.
So, while we celebrate the ascension of Dr. Gay as the next President of Harvard University, and her many accomplishments that got her there, let’s realize that our institutions of higher learning must dig deep to rectify the dearth of black women tenured professors. Improvements in the representation of black women in tenured positions benefit institutions of higher learning and its students, and the academic research and contributions towards societal advancement offered by black female academics ultimately benefits all of us.