The Beauty and the Burden of Being a Black Professor: Volume 24

Cover of The Beauty and the Burden of Being a Black Professor

Table of contents

(17 chapters)

This chapter will focus on Warde's (2009) use of phenomenological and qualitative analyses employed in “The Road to Tenure: Narratives of African American Male Tenured Professors” and focus on five African Americans at various stages of the professoriate with significant tracts of those tenures at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which encountered significant executive turnover (i.e. more than two executive resignations/terminations in a 6.5 year period, equaling twice the national average according to the American Council on Education's 2017 study “The American College President”). The interviews brought light to ways that presidential turnover and constant flux in leadership at fragile institutions lead to predictable outcomes with regard to retention and tenure-track advancement, as well as provide a snapshot on the myriad ways African Americans must often adjust their career paths in order to pursue professorial employment at institutions often thought of as the most likely to support their efforts to earn tenure.


The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a cult-classic early-70s film, based on the 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee. The film deals with issues of inauthentic diversity initiatives, tokenism, and Black Nationalism. In the same manner, this chapter uses themes from the film and novel to disclose how the author navigates pseudo diversity initiatives within higher education and his experiences of being viewed as an exemplar Black male (token) by colleagues, while simultaneously remaining committed to his explicit research focus pertaining to exemplar practices and programming for Black boys and men. Theoretically, the author intersects tenets of Critical Race Theory into his essay (Delgado & Stefancic, 1993, 1994; Tate, 1997). While the author does not advocate for physical violence (as depicted in the film), he is using the training received in academia to declare war on the pernicious educational system that continues to intentionally mis-educate (Woodson, 1933), Black boys and men.


The purpose of this chapter is to share the varied experiences the two authors encountered as first-generation college students and scholars in higher education. The goal is to provide insight into how minoritized students, particularly those who identify as Black, Black American or African American, can successfully navigate the doctoral process, be competitive on the faculty job market as newly minted PhD‘s, and navigate the tenure and promotion process. One perspective follows the traditional (tenure track) faculty career progression. Another perspective suggests creating your own path, considering administrative roles, research appointments, and non—tenure track teaching roles. This chapter will be largely autobiographical, with augmented supplementation from empirical research. The implications and lessons that will be shared in this chapter are beneficial to all students and young scholars as they embark upon similar trajectories in their professional and academic careers.


To achieve tenure and promotion, an academician must demonstrate productivity and persistence in the midst of uncertainty. While there are policies in place to guide the tenure and promotion processes, at most institutions, the policies are written in a professionally vague manner such that “The Committee,” made up of senior faculty, has sufficient leeway to make a decision deemed most appropriate for all parties involved, including the junior faculty member under consideration. My essay highlights my experiences with the tenure and promotion processes at two different institutions on my academic journey and uses sayings to convey messages of importance to the process. After providing some personal background information that includes some of my strengths and fears for context, I transition to a discussion of my decision to exchange a coveted, tenure-track position for a long-term contract at a newly established state college with an opportunity of being promoted to the highly esteemed rank of Full Professor.

While the requirements and processes vary from institution to institution, and for tenure and promotion, the angst and anticipation generated can be fairly consistent, even if you are confident in what you have accomplished. Through the sharing of personal lived experiences (or biodata; Snell, Stokes, Sands, & McBride, 1994), I attempt to normalize these feelings and questions, while juxtaposing the beauty and burden of being an African-American male professor in Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) (Bell & Nkomo, 1999; Stanley, 2006; Turner, Gonzalez, & Wood, 2008; Warde, 2009). Furthermore, I offer key sayings and coping strategies (Johnson, Haynes, Holyfield, & Foster, 2014) that will allow individuals to not only survive but also thrive within these seemingly committees or make administrative decisions about said processes.


The author of this chapter is a former college professor. Sandwiched around his time in the academy, he has spent time as a K-12 educator. The author explains how he suffered horrific racism and mistreatment during his time in higher education. He filed a massive complaint (over 30 pages excluding supporting documentation) that he believes cost several people their jobs including the then Departmental Chair. At the time of his hiring, the university was going through reaccreditation and had been cited for a lack of racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity as well as a low percentage of full-time faculty with earned doctorate degrees. The author believes with his hiring the university could check off all those boxes in regards to racial diversity. The author believes the university's intent was never for him to succeed; but rather the intent was to have the optics of diversity during the reaccreditation process and then unceremoniously separate him from the university.

The author believes he won in many ways but may never gain employment in academia again. With this chapter, the author hopes to help other Black male academics to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes he made.


Women of color in academia face unique challenges that include combating societal stereotypes and the pressure of balancing interpersonal and professional roles. Theorists specializing in the examination of identity development in African American women argue the injustice of being viewed from a singular perspective can greatly impact their mental health and achievement in academics. The convergence of sexism, racism, and classism merges to contribute to systemic oppression, which is an embedded practice in higher education. Historically, African American women have balanced intersectional identities in the presence of overwhelming oppressive structures with grace and success. In academia, these intersectional paradigms can add to the research concluding the lack of representation in women of color at the Associate professorship level and in administration (Croom, 2017; Liu, 2011; Perna, 2001). Black women are more likely to hold nonpermanent positions such as lecturer, specialist professor, and adjuncts; they are equally less likely to represent tenure track positions at four-year research institutions (Gregory, 2001). Even despite the evidence of Black women outperforming their counterparts by earning more doctoral degrees than Black men, they are still less likely to hold academic positions in higher education. Therefore, the marginalization marches on.

My phenomenological experience could contribute to a shift in consciousness and encourage necessary advocacy to insist that space be made for more diversity in higher education. A lived experience is especially beneficial in providing a view of the challenges Black women have with deconstructing academia and the consideration of the advancement of their career goals.

This narrative would intend to focus on the narrative of my experiences as I navigate my way through the academy. The work would focus on my experiences with equity, access, and mentorship and its impact on my teaching scholarship creativity.


This narrative will combine stories with poetry to convey our lived experiences as Black women who took different roads to academia, and serve in differently situated institutions, but who now face similar experiences. We write this narrative, not as generic advice to new academics. Rather, it is a transparent, honest missive from sisters to sisters. It is written from the perspectives of Black women and with Black women in mind. This may be particularly instructive to emerging scholars whose work centers the intersections of race, gender, and class. It provides a glimpse into our work as scholars, teachers, activists, and writers.

We base this work on central tenets of Black feminist thought. The core objectives of Black feminist thought are to clarify Black women's experiences and ideas through self-definition, to refute stereotypical depictions, to validate Black women's situated knowledge, and to resist marginalization that occurs as a result of our intersectional identities (Hill Collins, 2000). Our work as academics is informed by our identities as Black women, and these identities continue to be shaped by our work as academics. Last, our narrative examines how both mentorship from Black and non-Black academics, and sisterhood among Black women scholars, sustain and inspire the work to which we are committed.


The author has the distinct pleasure of teaching her undergraduate alma mater, Kentucky State University (KYSU), a small Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in central Kentucky. This university was integral to her development as a young black woman and scholar coming into her own in the early twenty-first century. The author believes HBCU undergraduate experience allowed her to consistently witness successful African Americans as professors, mentors, and leaders. She further believes those individual's high expectations and intense academic rigor prepared her for graduate school at a high research Carnegie doctoral granting institution, the University of Kentucky.

It was not a surprise when she experienced both racial micro- and macroaggressions during her matriculation at the University of Kentucky. She remembers being the only African American in her classes and the only one in the entire doctoral program at certain points. The author's experiences in her doctoral program helped her immensely appreciate the HBCU experience.

After her graduate school experience, the author dreamed of returning to her alma mater and serving students in ways in which my mentors and professors influenced her. However, the return to her HBCU as a tenure-track assistant professor was a culture shock because she was the only full-time African-American tenure-track teaching faculty in the division of social sciences.

This chapter is a reflection of this author's experiences as an unapologetically black woman, scholar, professor, mentor, HBCU advocate, wife, and mother while navigating the tenure and promotion process. The author also discusses how she often grapples with how to creatively and directly speak out against intentional and unintentional racism that is a commonplace in society and reflected on campus. The author recognizes that there are a certain political and social games played in academia, and she also recognizes sometimes the rules differ for black women, even at an HBCU.


The underrepresentation of African-American faculty in the US professoriate has persisted for some time. Relatedly, adjunct faculty remain a fast-growing sector of the professoriate. Adjunct faculty include “experts” and “specialists” who teach postsecondary courses with a narrow focus and with content tailored to their full-time employment. Using a qualitative narrative approach, I delineate ways I construct meaning for myself as a part-timer. I develop a cultural interpretation of adjunct teaching that provides alternative view of professional socialization to counter the ongoing challenge of increasing the number of Black faculty in higher education. In doing so, three themes from the data (ideal worker as adjunct, historical role models, and clinical value of course content) suggest the identity of part-time faculty is situated in personal, professional, and cultural experiences.


“My introduction into Higher Education was not my plan, but clearly it was ‘The plan’” (Russell, 2016). This simple statement is loaded, bearing in mind the things that I have experienced, what I now know, and what I continue to learn on a journey still in progress. When I reflect on my journey thus far, I am often amazed considering what I thought that I was preparing for, as compared to where I have landed professionally. It is not that my vision was small; perhaps, it was limited based on my exposure at the time. However, it remains that I am a licensed psychologist who is a first-generation graduate and a black woman on the tenure track, and while I have enjoyed successes along the way, the road has not been without obstacles. I have encountered potholes, blind spots, and rerouting. Although I cannot say that my lessons to date have me coasting on “cruise control,” I can confidently say that mentors and their mentoring have made the difference in the quality of my ride. There are key moments, relationships, and experiences that I am privileged to share so that they may light the pathway for others traveling similar roads.

In this chapter, I will share about my personal journey, highlighting key moments, personal experiences, and relationships encountered at different points along the way. Hindsight provides so many lessons. When recounting my story, I tend to contextualize my experience as a “First.” A First is an individual who was once a first-generation college student, who successfully matriculated through their undergraduate degree programs, and now find themselves navigating life in their respective personal and professional spaces (Russell, 2018). For some, this may be inconsequential; however, for me, it is salient to my faculty identity because it is relevant to many things that I did not know coming into the role. To that end, I will start by referencing what I have considered to be missed opportunities or misuse of resources at the graduate level while being focused on the “here and now” and nonacademic professional pursuits. I will share how outreach to mentors at a significant point in my career contributed to my uncharted entry into higher education, and how I came to realize the currency embedded within mentoring relationships. This narrative will include discussion of “mentoring moments” or what I call the “mentors in my mind,” “the council” (key players and relationships), “jumping in the deep end” (being open to something new, being “in search of” looking to fill the gaps in knowledge through formal mentorship opportunities), and “practicing what I preach” – building the network and using my resources to further my career and to develop students.


Black faculty members navigating the tenure process in higher educational settings, especially historically Black colleges or universities (HBCU), quickly learn within their careers that the job at hand requires a lot of time, energy, and persistence. Extant literature highlights the difficulties Black scholars face in such settings; however, it is vital to shedding light on the positive aspects that occur daily. This chapter highlights a component of collaboration that is often under shadowed in the educational setting, the faculty–graduate student partnership. Given the lack of resources and infrastructural elements that often plague HBCUs, in comparison to other institutions, faculty members inadvertently and unconsciously establish partnerships with advanced undergraduate and graduate students. Without the assistance of young, emerging scholars, tenure-earning faculty may struggle with maintaining a healthy work–life balance. Moreover, forging strong partnerships with mentees aids in faculty and student development alike. This narrative encompasses the views, experiences, and perceptions of a young, tenure-earning faculty member. Additionally, past and present graduate students provide insight on perceptions of faculty–student interactions and their subsequent development as scholars, researchers, and clinicians.


This chapter outlines the efforts of two tenure-earning faculty members in distinctly different disciplines. Those navigating through a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) context face a unique set of challenges relative to institutional infrastructure that lends support for teaching, student development, research implementation, and scholastic activities. To address these shortfalls, the authors took action by implementing a novel and collaborative course redesign. While these efforts aimed to enrich existing course instruction, develop undergraduate students' research and teaching pedagogy, and provide culturally relevant teaching services to a partnering primary education institution, early incidents that emerged from the redesign revealed the utility of affording students such as innovative research experience (RE). The authors developed the novel assignment in accordance with Florida A&M University's Quality Enhancement Program, #WriteOnFAMU, which seeks to create a culture in which students become actively engaged in their learning through writing proficiency. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) supports high-impact practices, undergirded by multiple opportunities for students to participate in cocurricular writing opportunities.

Moreover, the cross-curricular integrative writing approach implemented by the instructors of these courses (the authors) provided students enrolled in the Colleges of Education and the College of Social Sciences, Arts, & Humanities a unique opportunity to become actively engaged in a multidisciplinary approach to learning. The assignment not only enhanced students' writing proficiency but also broadened their exposure to content area knowledge, afforded students an opportunity to synthesis materials across disciplines, and allowed for critical analysis relative to an action-based, translational RE. The collaborative research assignment entailed two major objectives: the developed project was to (1) improve elementary education preservice students' lesson plan writing and implementation proficiency and (2) develop emerging psychology students' ability to produce and implement an action-based research project within the realm of Social Psychology. Students enrolled in RED3013 (Teaching Reading and Diagnosing its Growth) and SOP3003 (Social Psychology) worked collaboratively to complete the course requirements. Throughout the chapter, the authors describe how this teaching approach aided in faculty and student development. The narrative elaborates on tenure-earning elements of teaching and service via peer collaboration. Additionally, the authors highlight the scanty resources that create pitfalls for affording students opportunities to develop as researchers.

Cover of The Beauty and the Burden of Being a Black Professor
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Book series
Diversity in Higher Education
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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