Issues November 2019

Tenure and Promotion as White Supremacy in the University: The Illness Explained and Possible Treatment

We have a way to go before we reach a fair and just tenure and promotion process for faculty of color at institutions. Change is possible if administrations commit to an overhaul of the systems and demand the impossible.

by Warren L. Miller, Jr.

For many university professors, tenure represents the highest level of investment in academic freedom and responsibility. Tenure safeguards and protects academic positions from the loss of posts due to specific speech, publications, and types of research. The strength of a department, college, and University depend on the wisdom of the decisions on tenure appointments. While tenure and promotion can be described as challenging for any junior faculty member, it is more challenging for junior faculty of color. Frequently, junior faculty of color are held to higher standards than their white pre-tenure colleagues. Junior faculty members of color hurt their academic careers by serving institutions designed to create disparate service expectations and silence their voices.

The Illness Explained

Historically, academics were identified as White males (Frazier, 2011). There was no room for academics who were women, queer, trans, or people of color. White men ruled the world of the academy. It became a standard in creating privileged spaces for privileged white men within the past decade (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2010). Institutions have attempted to make efforts such as creating diversity initiatives to change the makeup of traditional white male faculty into one that reflects a diverse background. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), there is data that shows the hiring of faculty of color has increased over the past four years but is still lower than hired faculty who identify as ‘White’. As of 2017, 23.7% (173,461) of hired instructional faculty identified as a ‘person of color’, but only 11% are tenured (NCES, 2017). Racial and ethnic diversity amongst faculty continues to be profoundly lacking. What has been the cost of this diversity initiative to graduates of color who enter the academy and take on a tenure-track position? Several years of academic and workplace bullying, with a side of exposure to institutionalized white supremacy without tenure and promotion.

As a junior faculty member of color, I often struggle with this idea of tenure and promotion and how to navigate the invisible process of what it means to attain as an Afro-Latino gay cisgender male. While tenure and promotion were created to safeguard academicians, it was not designed to perpetuate or uplift faculty of color. We see this day-to-day in the academy in targeted diversity campaigns to recruit faculty, and through search committees with a focus on hiring underrepresented minority faculty. The system was crafted and created to keep White men dominant in the academy.

To put it directly, pre-tenure faculty of color are often overworked and bogged down by the ‘invisible workload’ that keeps them from attaining tenure and promotion. Invisible workload is defined as the efforts and responsibilities that faculty of color adopt due to the positionality of their identity (Burghardt, Desuze, Bryant, & Vinjamuri, 2018). These are tasks and duties that are not in the job description (e.g., mentoring students of color due to experiences of microaggressions, tasked to work on diversity committees, consulted to ‘fix’ the racial issues within the department, etc.). After graduating from my Ph.D. program, I was warned not to join the diversity and inclusion committee or team at any prospective institution I was interviewing with after graduation. Stunned and confused, I asked why, and was told that diversity and inclusion teams are where faculty of color go and lose their ability to attain tenure. Now, that was a significant blow to my aspirations of making change in any institution I chose. Nevertheless, after two years of being in the process, that warning rings true: there is a sense that this work is of low value.

The ‘powers that be’ in these institutions recognize the work of their pre-tenure faculty of color, specifically on diversity and inclusion teams. However, they do not value it with the appropriate currency: tenure and promotion, while most White faculty that sit on these teams are already tenured prior to joining. In A Guide for Sustaining Conversations on Racism, Identity, and Our Mutual Humanity, a White male faculty member, who has been in academia for over 35 years, shares how he waited until he received tenure to voice his position on issues of racial diversity in the academy and joined committees to make change (Burghardt et al., 2018). An unfair advantage accrues for White faculty in performance that leads to tenure and promotion than faculty of color. For example, faculty of color departures from the tenure-track line is due to disproportionately heavy workloads as opposed to White faculty. When students from underrepresented groups increase on campus, it is often the faculty of color taking on the workload of mentoring and advising those students—impacting their ability to participate in a balance of the tenure tripartite of teaching, research, and service.

Tenured faculty of color often do not have pleasant tenure stories. As a junior faculty of color, I often hear horror stories and cautionary tales of tenure and promotion. When speaking with a recently tenured faculty of color, he described his experience as “horrific and challenging” with the contemplation of leaving the institution because of his experience. He stated “My colleagues were not racially conscious or nice. Certain White faculty would send messages to my mentor to influence my process. It was awful. The dean (White identified) would share how she would lose sleep regarding how I was treated.” However, no actions were taken by the dean to help support the efforts of this faculty of color. Faculty of color must adopt a double-consciousness to survive the process (Du Bois, 1903). The struggle of junior faculty of color attempting to merge parts of themselves to cope with the challenges of the academy is an accomplishment. Yet, the struggle continues to find an appropriate level of belonging.

Similarly, Black associate professor of English at Montclair State University, Patricia Matthew (editor of Written/Unwritten: Diversity and Hidden Truths of Tenure) shares how she was denied tenure after having “proved” herself to be worthy. However, her White peers and provost decided she did not belong in the academy. Matthew starts Written/Unwritten with her own story about tenure, and it follows with a collection of stories from faculty of color about diversity. The traditional Eurocentric view of achievement in the academy is not suitable for the diversity initiatives that most institutions are aspiring to.

Treatment Recommendations

Administrators at institutions, with the ability to influence tenure and promotion, will need to change the ways in which they conceptualize the tenure process of including pre-faculty of color achievements. This does not mean changing the way programs review and evaluate tenure profiles. Teaching, scholarship, and service are still the foundation of tenure and promotion. I am not asking for institutions to rate or create a “softer” review for faculty of color. However, the process should be more transparent and fairer.

At majority White institutions, junior tenure-track faculty of color frequently become victims of faulty mentorship programs, racist institutional climates that are cloaked in kindness, and isolation (Turner, Haddix, Gort, & Bauer, 2017). Tenure and promotion are the epitome of White supremacy in the university. However, there are steps institutions can take to help challenge this history of oppressive behavior.


It is essential to make the tenure process transparent. Every involved party (e.g., junior faculty, chairs, deans, provosts, presidents, and other identified parties) should understand the process. The tenure process varies amongst the school, what department, which chair, dean, or tenured faculty you speak to, who the provost is, and the current motivations of the current president of the institution. You may understand how it can be left up to interpretation. For example, upon entering my current institution, it was told to me to focus on the main categories of tenure with no specificity. One tenured faculty shared that when someone is reviewed for tenure and promotion, guidelines from the previous faculty recently awarded tenure are utilized. Another tenured faculty shared a list of do’s and don’ts. It is not clear. Therefore, leaving the entire process to be interpreted in various ways, which can expose and worry junior faculty of color on the tenure-track.

Fairness & Justice

Institutions should construct fair and just practices. If White junior faculty members are told they need a certain amount of publications, service commitments, and research requirements, then it should be the same for junior faculty of color. Junior faculty of color are told they must do twice the work to qualify at the same level as their White peers in the tenure process (Camacho, 2015). While this commentary is coming from other faculty of color, it is not far off from what people of color experience in the non-academic world of getting ahead. A standardized process for evaluation should be used to remove the ability of White junior faculty having an unfair advantage.


University administration and tenure committees should encourage mentorship in departments across races. While it is crucial to have junior faculty paired with other faculty of color, it is essential to foster relationships and experiences with faculty of different races and ethnicities. This process could allow for a deepened understanding of different research topics and scholarship and encourage courageous and candid conversations around the issue of tenure and promotion for junior faculty of color in universities. Junior faculty of color find that mentorship is crucial in contributing to their self-efficacy and productivity. The concept of pairing junior faculty of color with non-faculty of color could potentially expose racial microaggressions, unfair practices in the process, and help non-faculty of color understand the lived experiences of faculty of color.

As a junior faculty of color working toward tenure, I am fully aware that the university landscape is different for me than for my White peers. I always worry if I am doing enough to move me closer to receiving that coveted position of tenure and promotion. Actually, I contemplated sending in a proposal for this piece due to the optics of the topic. However, this must be explored in institutions across the United States. Correcting this imbalance is a slow and heavy-lift process for all integral parts of the higher education system.

White supremacy of the tenure process is deep-rooted in the DNA of most institutions. However, all is not lost. Some institutions have initiatives that are placing a microscopic look at this issue. Duke University has a Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender that has a summer institute on tenure and promotion for their new faculty. We have a way to go before we reach a fair and just tenure and promotion process for faculty of color at institutions. Change is possible if administrations commit to an overhaul of the systems and demand the impossible. 

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Dr. Warren L. Miller, Jr. is a tenure-track Professor of Social Work at Rhode Island School of Social Work in Providence, RI. Warren completed his Ph.D. in Social Work. He holds a Masters and Bachelors in social work. Dr. Miller’s research and clinical focuses are on HIV/AIDS and social work practice, HIV stigma on the use of spirituality in social work practice, and HIV stigma as experienced by aging men of color living with HIV. Dr. Miller’s recently published article: Experiences of Stigma and Spirituality of Older Black Men Living with HIV can be accessed here.

Further Reading

Burghardt, S., DeSuze, K., Bryant, L.L., & Vinjamui, M. (2018). A guide for sustaining conversations on racism, identity, and our mutual humanity. San Diego, CA: Cognella

Camacho, M. M. (2015). The pitfalls and pleasures of the academic job market. In D. A. Mack,E. Watson, & M. M. Camacho (Eds.), Beginning a career in academia: A guide for graduate students of color (pp. 15-27). New York, NY: Routledge.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications.

Featured Image Credit

Frazier, K. N. (2017). Academic bullying: A barrier to tenure and promotion for African-American faculty. Florida Journal of Educational Administration & Policy, 5(1), 1-13.

Matthiesen, S. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). Bullying in the workplace: Definition, prevalence, antecedents, and consequences. International Journal of Organizational Theory and Behavior, 13(2), 202-248.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). Full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, sex, and academic rank: Fall 2013, fall 2015, and fall 2016 [Data file]. Retrieved from

Turner, J. D., Haddix, M. M., Gort, M., & Bauer, E. B. (2017). Humanizing the tenure years for faculty of color: Reflections from STAR mentors. Journal of Literacy Research49(4), 582-589.

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