Tenure and Diversity: An Interview with Patricia Matthew

By Colin DickeyFebruary 8, 2017

Tenure and Diversity: An Interview with Patricia Matthew

Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure by Patricia Matthew

RELEASED JUST BEFORE the 2016 election, Patricia Matthew’s Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure brings together a wide variety of voices to address the myriad ways in which institutions of higher learning implicitly and explicitly disenfranchise groups of academics. For many faculty, the tenure process can seem overwhelming, deliberately obtuse, and isolating; administrations benefit from a lack of transparency, and by discouraging faculty to compare experiences.

Written/Unwritten offers a valuable check against this: an edited collection featuring numerous writers and academics, it lays bare many of the mechanisms by which faculty — particularly women, faculty of color, and LGBQ faculty — are institutionally disadvantaged, and offers a sourcebook for how to respond. At a time when educational institutions across the country are pushing back against diversity initiatives, cowering to right-wing agitators, and thinning faculty ranks and job security, Written/Unwritten lays the groundwork for a new kind of conversation about the academic life.


COLIN DICKEY: How did Written/Unwritten come about?

PATRICIA MATTHEW: When I went up for tenure, I received positive recommendations from my department committee, my chair, and my dean, along with positive recommendations from external reviewers in my field. I was not expecting my provost to recommend against tenure, especially after receiving full-throated support from him in the past: his reasons against recommending tenure contradicted his own earlier statements. The president ultimately overturned the provost’s recommendation, but while I worked on my appeal I came across a number of similar stories of faculty who’d been denied tenure despite overwhelming qualifications and publications.

After my own tenure case was settled, I was struck by how often I kept hearing and seeing the same stories from faculty of color. Regardless of their institutional affiliation and what they had accomplished, they were left feeling as if they were facing arbitrary standards that were not applied to their white counterparts and that the review process was unnecessarily opaque. I was horrified to hear that four women of color had all been denied tenure by the same program at the University of Michigan. I also looked at scholars of color like Cheryl Wall, who’s taught at Rutgers since the 1970s, and Houston Baker, former president of the MLA, and wanted to know how they’d thrived over decades. Their careers have been so rich and varied, I wanted to know how they did it.

The other thing I was really curious about was how what I think of as “Women’s Studies culture” seems to be so committed to the language of diversity while still largely benefitting only white women. That’s one reason why there are so many women represented in the book. One of the Michigan scholars had a joint appointment in Women’s Studies, and I was curious to know if what I had noticed in my own experience with Women’s Studies culture and the experiences my friends told me about were true: that white women in these spaces were not allies, even when they claimed sisterhood. This is what Jane Chin Davidson and Deepa S. Reddy are getting at in their contribution, “Performative Testimony and the Practice of Dismissal.” They show that the more successful women’s studies programs are, the more they begin to enact the same oppressive strategies they were founded to resist: strict hierarchies and centering the experiences of the dominant culture to the exclusion of others.

In her 1981 address to the National Women’s Studies Association, Audre Lorde asked, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she does not see her heel print upon another woman’s face?” That little nugget still feels very current. But it’s a tough thing to get people to talk about openly, though I think we saw this conversation in the planning for the women’s march after the inauguration.

How did you decide to organize Written/Unwritten as an edited collection of essays, as opposed to a monograph?

My first thought was that I’d write a series of letters to young academics of color. You know, I’m a 19th-century specialist and love reading the conduct manuals from the late 18th and early 19th century. They are a mix of advice and moral musing, and I thought that would be an interesting form for me to think about. But I realized that there’s no way to talk about diversity in any meaningful way with a single voice, even if that voice was trying to show different experiences and points of view. I not only wanted multiple voices overall but also, as much as possible, multiple voices within each chapter. This is why you have chapters that are dialogues, group discussions, or small groups addressing a similar question.

I’m a literature professor, so I’m interested in storytelling and narratives and was playing with the idea of the notion of “narrative.” At some schools, you are asked to write a narrative that accompanies your CV during your personnel process. It’s a weird form of writing for anyone, but often what faculty of color are actually writing is a counternarrative, because there is a narrative about them that begins during the hiring process and can haunt them all the way up to tenure. It’s something you can feel, even if it’s not made explicit. And so I wanted to give people of color a space for their narratives, to write themselves — to borrow an idea from Hélène Cixous — and their work away from their institutional stories. They can’t escape institutional narratives completely, but they could really be themselves in this book.

You write in the preface that “the academy is structurally hostile to diversity.” Has it always been this way, or is this the result of recent developments?

Well, I think pretty much all institutions are hostile to diversity. It’s in their very nature. The depressing thing about the academy is that it’s supposed to be a vibrant place that fosters new thinking, and yet it’s so resistant to change from within. It took student action and protests in the 1960s to make the case for Black Studies departments, and it’s worth noting that when we hear about tenure battles today, it’s often via student-run newspapers. Today, as I wrote recently in The Atlantic, it’s student activists in the Black Lives Matter movement asking for a more diverse professoriate, and that’s part of a longer tradition of students advocating for diversity in higher ed.

One of the issues seems to be that the work of fostering diversity not only largely falls on minority faculty, but is also invisible in terms of what counts toward tenure and promotion, and thus becomes a sort of additional burden for minority faculty that goes largely unrecognized.

Overall, service doesn’t count nearly as much toward tenure/promotion as teaching and research do. It just doesn’t. It’s also historically gendered. Women take on more service work than their male counterparts, and we know that women’s work is always undervalued. Faculty governance is seen as a burden instead of a privilege, and this is a big problem when so much of the work necessary for developing and maintain meaningful diversity happens at the faculty-to-faculty level.

This institutional ambivalence about service is amplified when it’s in the service of diversity. It’s hard to pin down, but I think the feeling has been that diversity is only important to students of color. All too often we still have the “role model” approach to diversity that starts with a limiting formula: “we have a lot of students from minority group A, so let’s bring in a [and it’s usually just one] faculty member from group A.” And then it becomes that faculty member’s job to mentor and take care of that student population. And while it’s often more rewarding — because engaging with the student in front of you who thrives with your mentorship can feel a hell of a lot better than reviewer #2 telling you why your work isn’t good enough to be published — it’s labor that takes time away from the work the institution counts come tenure time.

What role should white faculty members play in reforming this system?

White faculty members have to ask their unions, deans, and provosts to make diversity a goal and not an afterthought. They have to understand that supporting diversity is not a favor they are granting to their colleagues and students of color; rather, it’s something essential to keeping colleges and universities relevant. You simply can’t have an all-white research and teaching faculty. It was always a bad model, but right now, more than ever students need to work and study with people from different walks of life. There’s an argument in support of diverse student populations that I’ve always felt funny about. It claims that one reason we should have more students of color on campus is because it’s good for white students to study in diverse classrooms. That’s true, I suppose, but it’s too easy to make it seem as if the purpose of students of color is to help their white peers, and it makes them seem like educational object lessons instead of people. But that argument makes a lot of sense at the faculty level! It is better for white students to study in classes lead by faculty of color, to see them as experts, and to respect different teaching styles.

White faculty also have to work to make their personnel processes transparent. I see the questions folks ask me when they are preparing their tenure files, and I wonder what it is about their department that makes them feel like they can’t ask those questions of their colleagues. The questions can be as basic as how to set up the process of seeking external reviewers for their files, or how to organize their CVs. Sometimes they are more complex, like how to think about negative student evaluations, which are a particular problem for faculty of color, especially women. But the main point is that people don’t feel comfortable asking their colleagues for help, and that’s a real problem that has nothing to do with someone’s qualifications for the job.

You state up front that despite the many — often blistering — critiques of the academy in the book, all the authors in Written/Unwritten write from “the vantage point of those committed to its [the academy’s] success.” Without sounding overly hostile or defeatist, why remain committed to its success?

As Sandy Darity pointed out in a great recent piece in The Atlantic, “black families have fought for education for their children against insuperable odds from slavery times.” Abandoning the academy, for all its faults, means abandoning a student population that really needs us. Some might call for revolution and tearing shit down, but in the meantime students of color are putting themselves in debt because we told them they need a degree to get a good job with benefits.

Abandoning the academy also means losing support — however meager it might be — for research, and when you look at the kind of work the contributors to the anthology do you can easily see how essential that work is to American culture. There are policy implications to the work that sociologists and historians take on. Academics of color are shaping many of our wider conversations about popular culture. The academy needs to be a place that fosters this. It’s also one of the reasons why the chapter on adjuncts addresses what we lose intellectually when we don’t have people on tenure lines. Dionne Bensonsmith, for example, is doing research on uterine fibroids and women of color. She told me about this when I talked to her for the book, and I was fascinated to know how little research there was on an issue that effects something like 70 percent of women of color. A few years after we talked, I went to a friend’s panel at a sociology conference and heard this white woman talking about this project about uterine fibroids in women of color. I was so startled because I knew Dionne was doing this work too. It turns out the woman was her research partner. Her partner had the benefits of being tenure-line faculty and Dionne didn’t, and so she couldn’t afford to be there to present her research. That’s a huge problem, and I think it’s one we don’t talk about enough when we talk about the adjunct crisis.

One of the threads that run through the book is the concept of “excellence,” and particularly the way that it can be deployed as a barrier to the success of non-white male faculty. You write:

Words such as “merit” evoke notions of fairness. The “best” or “most qualified” person is offered the tenure-track position, and evaluation processes rely on words such as “excellence,” “rigorous,” and “innovative.” These ideas are not in themselves discriminatory, but they are more subject to cultural forces than many in the academy will allow.

Can you expand on this point a bit more? How does these concepts of “excellence,” “merit,” the “most qualified,” et cetera, negatively impact faculty diversity in hiring and tenure decisions?

We know that implicit bias is real and it’s perfectly natural to be drawn to people who mirror your own ideas, especially in a situation where you are hiring someone you’ll need to sit across from in department meetings for a very long time. But what “excellence” looks like varies from person to person (this is why academics hire by committee), and we tend to have a narrow definition of it. This is, in part, because the stakes are so high. University administrators rely so much on adjunct faculty that they dole out tenure lines like gold. So, faculty who serve on hiring and personnel committees face a very heavy burden at every stage of the process. Not only are they charged with bringing in a specialist in a field they may not be able to hire in again for years, but they are also bringing someone the institution will invest a lot of capital in supporting. So when search committees bring finalists to campus, it’s their judgments that are being assessed almost as much as the candidates’ performance, and I think that encourages people to be more conservative than they would otherwise be. They default to a traditional model of academic “quality,” and that model almost always excludes faculty of color. Marybeth Gasman is getting a lot of well-deserved praise for saying it plainly:

Typically, “quality” means that the person didn’t go to an elite institution for their Ph.D. or wasn’t mentored by a prominent person in the field. What people forget is that attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.

As long as we use institutional affiliation as a shorthand for excellence, that’s always going to mean excluding excellent candidates of color.

At the hiring level, departments have to not only look at what areas of specialization they need but what they believe their department should offer their institution. I don’t think you look at your department and say, “We don’t have any members of minority group X so let’s go get some.” But I do think you look at your department and look to see what views and experiences shape the department, its curriculum, and how it serves its students. If some perspectives are missing from that, you have to think about what that means.

When it comes to the tenure process, I think there has to be a dialogue between the untenured professor and her chair or dean that happens regularly. April Few-Demo’s story is a real model here. God bless her chair and senior colleagues for having a relationship with her that allowed them to speak freely to one another, and having the foresight to see that she needed guidance.

Handled properly, the tenure review process can be an opportunity for faculty to have an intellectual heart-to-heart about the direction of their research and teaching. Instead of putting us on a treadmill where we have to churn things out, how much better would the whole process be if we could not just discuss our outcomes (I published X number of articles, and gave this many talks) but have an opportunity to think about the work we want to do? But it’s difficult to take intellectual risks if you have a bean-counter ready to pounce.

Sarita Echavez See writes quite bluntly at one point that tenure itself is a “bribe,” a means of buying off a small portion of the faculty in order to keep existing structures of inequity in place. Is there an argument to be made at all for some other kind of structure for faculty?

Yes, but I think it has to be tenure-based, especially when you see how the right is coming for professors now that we have President Trump to face. I’m not here for all these “let’s do away with tenure” people. I practically rolled my eyes right out of my own head when I saw this New York Times panel debating tenure. Just look who’s on it!

In her essay, “Still Eating in the Kitchen: The Marginalization of African American Faculty in Majority White Academic Governance,” Carmen V. Harris suggests that one of the “greatest tools for recruiting minority faculty is existing minority faculty who are satisfied.” This seems, on the face of it, completely obvious, and yet I’ll confess it had never occurred to me until reading Harris’s essay. It also seems, perhaps, among the more difficult reforms to implement — or is it?

Oh god. It’s hard. Faculty satisfaction as an idea, generally speaking, is such a behemoth (behemothian?). But here’s what I hear and read from faculty of color, particularly women, from around the country. They feel their contributions to their departments are not valued until a white person takes up the work. A woman of color will organize an event or panel that addresses diversity and people ignore it until a white person (usually a white woman) participates. They are called on to share their expertise and insights but without proper credit. They feel ignored or shut out of committee discussions, even when they have been asked to serve on these committees because they have a unique perspective. More than this, they see the way that their white colleagues make life easier for one another and bend the rules and then call on those same rules to disempower their colleagues of color.

So faculty of color who are satisfied will be just like white faculty who feel satisfied: they’ll feel that their contributions are valued by their colleagues and their institutions, they will feel like their stake in their departments and colleges is respected, and their perspectives will be valued on their own terms. What I hear so often from academics of color is that the academy accommodates some perspectives and ways of being while demonizing and marginalizing others. It’s okay for white men and women to be forceful in whatever ways they see fit, but forceful black women are dismissed as hostile and angry. What’s worse is when this dismissal comes from people who purport to understand, at least in literary texts and history books, how black women are mischaracterized. It’s all well and good to put a bell hooks quote on your office door or to wave your Audre Lorde flag, but I wonder how many people would know how to work with them in a faculty meeting or on a search committee. I guess what I’m saying is that white faculty have to respect the qualities in their colleagues that they admire in the pages of history and literature.

You close Written/Unwritten with a discussion of social media, particularly Twitter. We’re coming to see such spaces more and more as cesspools of hate and vitriol, overrun with white supremacists and misogynists, yet you see a great deal of possibility and hope in social media. How do we make the best use of such platforms to increase and enhance diversity, while also navigating the increasing hostility and targeted attacks?

Generally speaking, I’m hopeful. I’ve also been lucky and have not been targeted, so I still experience social media primarily as this space where I feel a connection to a community of faculty of color that’s missing in my own department and professional organizations. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who I talked to for the book’s conclusion, has an excellent essay on this. She explains:

With technological diffusion, critically engaged scholarship has embraced digital platforms to communicate, diffuse, and archive. Scholars who are also members of marginalized groups disproportionately take up this kind of engaged scholarship, often without commensurate credit from university administrators or colleagues […] Those activities look very similar to those associated with cultivating academic microcelebrity. There is a sense of a “public” to which we are in service. There is the ethos to disseminate scholarship and to leverage technology to de-institutionalize information.

I’ve heard Tressie talk about this, and she notes that even as colleges and universities see the market value in having their faculty engage with an online public, they don’t have the practices in place to protect them when the right shows up with pitchforks. We saw that in the case of George Ciccariello-Maher, the Drexel professor whose institution chastised him for his tweet mocking the concept of white genocide. Academics of color are even more vulnerable, and I already see it taking its toll. I am seeing more and more accounts locked, and I know many faculty of color who have quietly left Twitter, which is a shame and a loss. Having said that, I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing for faculty of color to hang back a bit and to find new ways to connect and circulate their ideas and work. If Twitter and our institutions aren’t going to do the work to protect us from harassment, then they shouldn’t profit from what we contribute to the public sphere.

This book came out a day before the 2016 presidential election, and it’s interesting, if at times unsettling, to read it in light of all that’s happened since. These issues, of course, have long been in play, but it feels far more acute now, with much of the American population (and a dismaying amount of media sources) taking Trump’s election as a repudiation of diversity that merges into outright racism. Are there essays in the book that are newly relevant in a way that they might not have been had the election gone a different way?

I can’t pick one essay, but if you think about the people represented in this anthology and their contributions to higher education, it’s easier to understand what’s at stake in the wake of Trump’s election. The whole book feels different now, more necessary and definitely more urgent. Leslie Bow wrote to me when Governor Walker in Wisconsin was making moves to gut the University of Wisconsin’s tenure system and asked me to add a coda to her essay “Difference without Grievance.” It begins:

Since this essay was written, the institution of tenure has undergone an attack in the Wisconsin State legislature. In the context of this volume, I would be remiss not to comment on the structural economic, political, and philosophical implications of this attempt to erode tenure, whether these partisan efforts ultimately prove to be the tip of an iceberg or a blip in the history of higher education.

That was in 2015, when we all thought Clinton would win. Now there are bills in the works in Iowa and Kansas to do away with tenure. I worry that, without tenure, we could lose a whole generation of great thinkers. This is especially the case if they work in fields that are commonly under attack, in smaller programs that rely on larger departments to survive. The attack on tenure is really an attack on fields of study and lines of critical inquiry that partisan legislators don’t like. That’s more than a little unnerving.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’m working with folks on a journal issue about genre and Romantic-era abolitionist discourse called “Alterities and Abolitionist Forms: Genres of British Abolitionist Literature,” and I’m writing a book on Romantic-era fiction and how it disrupts “scientific” debates of the period (things like breastfeeding, phrenology, and sugar consumption). But I’m also working on a book that will be more along the lines of this essay I wrote for The Toast, on Emma. One thing I learned during the tenure process was just how important it was for me to do the work that feels meaningful, even if my institution doesn’t recognize it. I always need to feel that way about my work: that it matters to me, even if my institution doesn’t always see its value. I suspect that view is going to take hold even more in this current political moment.


Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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