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Black Lives (don’t) Matter in Higher Education

Black Lives (don’t) Matter in Higher Education

As a Black tenure-track professor, I was surprised when I walked onto my current campus and realized the racial landscape I was facing. I became a professor because I wanted to be a part of the progress toward educational equity in the age of rising costs of tuitionrecord lows in enrollment, and struggles with engagement so that more of our underrepresented students don’t fall through the cracks–but I never thought about Black leaders (like myself) who also face challenges in higher education. I faced microaggressions and challenges as a Black student but I thought that those challenges would at least get easier with the acquisition of a Ph.D. but perhaps there is no escape.

Once I made my position announcement as an Assistant Professor in 2021 on social media, I was surprised by how many people spoke of how ‘brave’ I was because of the rarity and necessity for representation in higher education. Little did I know, the real struggle was/is not being a tenure-track professor but being a Black tenure-track professor. Nobody told me about the unequal distribution of duties, arduous process of tenure, lack of Black faces and spaces, trouble with promotion, or the rampant microaggressions that drown most Black academics to the point of career change.

As a Black professor, watching the war against Black leaders, Black freedom, and Black educators like Dr. Claudine Gay (who recently stepped down as Harvard’s first Black president),  is always made worse when I remember the ways that these efforts impact all Black leaders and have dire impacts on our mental health (though the world only sees the ‘biggest’ ones and claims they happen in a vacuum). The most glaring and recent example being the death by suicide of Dr. Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey (former Vice President of Student Affairs at Lincoln University). This battle isn’t just about Dr. Candia-Bailey or Dr. Gay, and it certainly isn’t about plagiarism or ‘insubordination’, but instead a reminder of the reality faced by thousands of Black leaders in higher education. We are all under attack and have been for some time.

How can we thrive in academia when the primary programs, people, and concepts designed to aid in their progression/awareness are constantly being attacked? 

Critical Race Theory (CRT), diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI), and even Affirmative Action are all under scrutiny. All tasked to aid in the advancement of marginalized communities. All under attack.

Consider right-wing America’s war against concepts like CRT for example. Though most people have never done their homework to understand just what the theoretical framework (which originates as a delineation from critical legal studies as a way to include race in conversations of critical analysis) actually entails, around 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to directly restrict teaching CRT since 2021. This premature silencing inadvertently limits the educational equity of scholars from marginalized populations by dictating how teachers like us can discuss concepts like racism and sexism in the classroom.

Nobody discussed the Black Tax of being the familiar face for the few Black students on predominantly-white campuses and therefore having a higher percentage of ‘advisees’ than others. The familial tax of being the quasi auntie or uncle to many students of color who come to you for everything because ‘you are the only one that ever just sees them and understands their struggles.’ Not to say we don’t enjoy being leaders for our communities, but the added workload in addition to institutional racism makes it challenging to continue without facing burnout.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Black academics in higher education. Consider renowned activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is consistently misrepresented in various politically-charged, capitalist agendas related to racial advancement. Dr. King has historically faced the exact same allegations as Dr. Gay regarding plagiarism (by his alma mater Boston University), though the committee found that it was not substantial enough to warrant revocation of his degree. Regardless of the findings, the report was still added to his file regarding plagiarism and instead of discussing impact, people like Dr. King and Dr. Gay are met with devalued perceptions of being unethical ‘cheaters.’

As Black professors, we understand the undeniable importance of academic integrity. University of North Carolina Professor Deborah Strohman mentions, “There’s a saying in the Black community that your ice has to be colder,” meaning we as Black leaders understand that our efforts have to be two or three times better than others and that our margin for error is microscopic. We can’t/won’t take shortcuts, nor do we willingly put ourselves in harm’s way because we know that we operate in a space that was not created for our advancement to begin with. We are overly-careful (some might call it anxious) about the details of our work because we know that the higher we climb, the more targets we acquire.

Another example could be seen in the connection between Dr. Gay’s ascension to president and devaluation as a leader by being minimized to a ‘diversity hire.’ Interestingly enough, another ‘first’ in Harvard’s history, Derrick Bell Jr, was not only considered to be the ‘grandfather of Critical Race Theory,’ but also the first tenured Black law professor at the institution in 1971. Bell Jr. would eventually step away from his post at Harvard due to the institution’s inability to support Black advancement and hire more faculty of color (specifically women of color). Once again, the main reasons that Black academics have been under attack seem cyclical and it seems to always end with the Black leader being maligned.

Black leaders are continually unsupported at institutions, to the degree that many of us break, step down, or leave the academy altogether. The issue is bigger than singular instances like that of Dr. Gay, but people wonder why there are disparate numbers of Black professors and educators? Because if we continually see what happens to people like Dr. Gay and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., why would we think our experiences/outcomes would be any different? It’s the same American story of attacking Black leaders, just different authors doing the attacking. That is the real plagiarism.

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