Erika Gault had just turned in her first book manuscript when she suffered a heart attack.
At the time, she was an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Arizona, and by all external measures she was thriving. After 10 years of feeling overworked and underpaid at a private college in western New York, she had landed a coveted position at a research university, where she taught courses in African American and African diasporic religions. The new role was an uncannily good fit for her research interests. “Hip hop and religion — that job never comes up anywhere,” she said.
Gault felt she had to accept the position, even though it meant moving across the country with her husband, Ntare, and their infant daughter. Ntare was completing his dissertation at the University at Buffalo and periodically traveled back to New York to meet with his advisers — sometimes for a week, once for a whole month. Gault missed her East Coast support network and often felt lonely in Tucson, where she struggled to adapt to the desert climate. “Academia requires you to sacrifice so much,” she said. “I thought that was the cost of the thing that you loved.”
It wasn’t supposed to feel this way. Gault believed that her scholarship brought her Black community into academe, a space that had historically excluded people like her. And she applied her family’s working-class sensibility to her teaching and research. “You keep going to work,” she said, “because that’s what you do out of necessity for your family.” But shortly after her heart attack came the Covid-19 pandemic. The University of Arizona was one of the first institutions to impose furloughs and pay cuts on its employees. Gault’s salary was cut by 10 percent. Her full pay was restored a few months later, but the experience was unsettling.
“I began asking myself some questions,” Gault said. “‘What is academia to me?’ ‘What do Black women need to flourish?’ It doesn’t have to be publish or perish. It’s OK, Erika, to do something else, to not die here.”
Many faculty of color are asking themselves similar questions. Their stories reflect the general trends of faculty dissatisfaction that I recently explored in these pages: concerns about work/life balance, inadequate compensation, and a flagging sense of purpose. But these scholars also struggle with pressures that remain mostly invisible to their white colleagues: isolation in rural communities, hostile work environments, and guilt about prioritizing self-care over the needs of their students. How much sacrifice is too much?
Over the last few years, colleges have worked with renewed fervor to increase minority representation in academe. Institutions have created toolkits to identify and counteract implicit bias throughout the job search, budgeted for cluster hires, and expanded outreach to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. They’ve tried to diversify, and better train, hiring committees and have begun requiring candidates to submit diversity statements. The goal is to hire and retain more faculty of color.
Demographic data on higher-ed faculty suggest that these initiatives have borne some fruit. Between 2013 and 2020, the total number of faculty of color increased by 28,000, as the number of white faculty declined by 19,000. Those seven years saw significant gains in Asian and Latinx representation (up by 27 percent and 29 percent, respectively) and moderate gains in Black representation (up by 8 percent).
But numbers on a line graph do not necessarily reflect progress on a personal level, where equity and inclusion are felt. A Black scholar I’ll call Dr. Bradley, who now teaches at a private university in the Southwest, initially took a job at a liberal-arts college in the rural Midwest, thinking she could make a home there. But the distance from her partner and family took a toll, especially once work demands began to limit her travel time. After her long-distance relationship ended, she struggled to make friends outside of work. “People did backflips to be welcoming,” she said. “But it was tough to find a group where I really felt a sense of belonging.” After five years of feeling like a misfit, she left. (Bradley, like the two other unnamed sources in this piece, insisted on anonymity to speak openly about her current workplace.)
Brandy Tiernan, formerly an assistant professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, said she spent years “just struggling not to be the diversity hire” — she wanted to be seen by her colleagues foremost as a scholar. She knew that teaching in Trump country would be tough, but it was worse than she had anticipated. She faced constant challenges to her authority in the classroom and had to defend herself against anonymous complaints that her assignments were too rigorous. Maxine Davis, then an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington, received an anonymous note through campus mail complaining that she “talks too Black.” She later left for a job at Rutgers University.
You just put your head down and keep going. You think maybe you’re just weak, maybe you’re just whining. It takes friends outside of academia to say, ‘that sounds terrible.’
These experiences exemplify what can happen when colleges hire Black faculty without confronting systemic inequities: New faculty members find themselves isolated, undermined, and gaslit. In fact, the cross-currents of diversity, equity, and inclusion hiring initiatives and unchecked institutional bias make some scholars wonder if academe actually wants faculty of color. Black women, in particular, face hurdles to achieving tenure that often go unacknowledged. As Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana writes, “[I]ncreasing the number of Black women with Ph.D.s does nothing to address the structural and institutional barriers that Black women face throughout the process, including microaggressions from faculty and students, invalidation of their research, and the devaluation of their service contributions in the tenure process.”
These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, which forced faculty members of all backgrounds to adapt rapidly to remote teaching, constantly changing health risks, and catastrophically inadequate childcare. For faculty of color, these challenges were layered atop, and inflected by, pre-existing inequities. The result was a spike in stress.
During one lockdown, Bradley sat down with her husband and created a calendar to divide care for their 2-year-old daughter. “We literally split it down the middle,” she said, “and we both were still drowning. Although I was stretched thin before the pandemic, teaching four classes each semester with my young child at home whittled the tightrope I had been walking down to a razor wire.” She worked past midnight nearly every day, then woke up just a few hours later to repeat the cycle. At tuition-dependent colleges like her own, she said, “there is a culture of throwing yourself on the sword for the sake of the institution.” Since her daughter was born, she’s begun to question the wisdom of making those sacrifices.
A Black professor at an HBCU in the Southeast, whom I’ll call Dr. Sanders, said she had simply accepted her workload as normal until her physician told her during an annual physical, “If you don’t reduce your stress, you’re going to have a heart attack and die.” Eight years ago, Sanders, a clinician, joined a faculty of four in a graduate counseling program, where she was responsible for coordinating internships and teaching roughly 12 semester hours per eight-week term. When her three other colleagues left, she became the interim department chair, assumed advising duties for all 50 students in the program, and shouldered an even higher teaching load to keep the program afloat. None of these additional responsibilities came with additional compensation.
“You just put your head down and keep going,” Sanders told me. “You think maybe you’re just weak, maybe you’re just whining. It takes friends outside of academia to say that sounds terrible. It’s not supposed to feel like this. I asked myself, ‘If you were one of your own patients and they were describing all of these things to you, what would you say?’”
It can be tempting, for scholars on the tenure track, to invest their hopes in the future: I may not be able to change my institution now, but one day I’ll have tenure. But faculty of color who run the gantlet to earn tenure often find the achievement underwhelming. Bradley, the Black scholar in the Southwest, has been appointed and elected to numerous committees and task forces. She told me: “I have watched every single proposed change meant to create and support a more equitable and diverse university gutted to support the status quo. In my experience, having a seat at the table does not actually mean having influence.” Pushing for institutional change now feels like a waste of her precious time and energy.
For some, tenure actually amplifies the sense of exclusion. A full professor at a regional university in the South, whom I’ll call Dr. Ximenez, said that before she earned tenure, she served on many committees — but once she felt secure enough to express dissenting opinions, her colleagues stopped electing her to leadership positions. “When you say that getting tenure means you get a place at the table, that’s exactly the opposite of what happens at my institution. Once you get the ability to have job security and speak up, they remove the opportunity to participate in policy making.”
Ximenez is the only ethnic minority on the tenure track in her academic program, and she often disagrees with her colleagues about how best to tackle departmental issues. Even if the question at hand has nothing to do with race — how to respond to an enrollment drop, say — she can’t shake the sense that her colleagues oppose her ideas because they see her as an outsider.
Ximenez feels that she has three choices. She could continue as the dissenting voice and accept that she will be marginalized as a result. She could adopt a more passive form of resistance, withdrawing from service and focusing on writing and research. Or she could accept the financial uncertainty of leaving academe. Three decades after completing her undergraduate degree, Ximenez has finally paid off her college loans. But quitting still feels like an enormous risk; if she were to leave her job now, she’d essentially have the same financial prospects that she did at age 22.
I’ve been leaving in dribs and drabs since 2016. I feel like I’ve already left.
Many faculty of color also struggle with the idea of leaving an institution that they fought so hard to enter. “You came through a certain kind of hazing,” said Gault, the religion scholar, “where you were told that the work you wanted to do didn’t matter. You understand if you made it to the tenure track, that is a rarity.” She knew that her career successes were built in part on the sacrifices of others, which made the prospect of walking away even harder. For most of her childhood in South Carolina, her father worked as a preacher and a factory worker, picking up odd jobs on the side. “If anybody got burned out it would be him,” Gault said. “But he never complained. The debt that I owe to both of my parents who worked so hard to put me in these spaces made it really difficult for me to think about leaving.”
And there are the students and mentees. Tiernan, the psychologist in North Carolina, recalled emails from students who told her what a difference it made to have a professor who looked like them. Ximenez is well aware that just 2 percent of faculty who hold the rank of full professor are Latina, and that her departure would diminish that representation further. Gault put it simply: “To leave the academy is to give up the pride of all the people that you brought with you.”
Sanders, an alum of Xavier University of Louisiana, was initially thrilled by the chance to serve students of color at an HBCU like her alma mater. As an undergraduate, she had found Xavier’s environment supportive and intellectually engaging. But after joining the faculty at another HBCU, she came to feel that the institution prioritized student success over faculty well-being. “I’m getting these students across the finish line,” she said, “and I’m so proud of them, but when I’m sitting here stagnant and exploited, it starts making me think what else I can do. I’m encouraging them, but I wonder how I can encourage myself.”
For many faculty members, working at an HBCU provides a stronger sense of history, purpose, and belonging than they would find at a predominantly white institution. But attractions like an award-winning band, beloved football team, or celebrity hire can also mask the day-to-day struggles that faculty members experience. In July 2021, a Howard University professor writing under the pseudonym Imani Light published an open letter to Nikole Hannah-Jones encouraging her to stand with the unionized faculty against the administration. “We teach at Howard by choice,” Light wrote, “but the Howard Administration’s awareness of our love for the University’s ethos and mission has resulted in abuse of the faculty.”
That sentiment resonates with Sanders, who has not seen a raise — or a cost-of-living adjustment — in the seven years that she has worked for her university, even after her workload doubled. During those years she has reported to three different deans and four different presidents. Her program was on the verge of losing accreditation, and a steady drumbeat of layoffs created an environment of distrust between faculty members and the administration. In fact, the university was so concerned about bad public relations that in August 2022 it required all of its employees to sign a sweeping nondisclosure agreement. Sanders was able to speak to me because she refused to sign the NDA, but she insisted on anonymity because she fears retaliation. “It’s like an abusive relationship,” she said. “If you try to leave you’ll be told you’ll never do any better. You’ll be back.”
Eventually, she’d had enough. She’s now working as a clinical therapist with a telehealth company, where she earns more than she did as a department chair, and has, for the first time in years, a manageable workload. She also has the flexibility to care for her daughter, who has a pulmonary condition and attends school remotely. And she believes that leaving a bad job in academe for a better job elsewhere sends an empowering message to her students. “While you want your students to have representation,” she says, “you don’t want to encourage the expectation that just because you’re Black you’ll be treated like dirt.”
As her departure date approached, Sanders thought she might feel nostalgia or sadness. Instead, she is embracing a cautious optimism. “You get to the point in an abusive relationship where it feels like this is just how it will be forever and ever,” she said. “And when something good comes, you’re so on guard and jaded. So I’m reminding myself that this is really real.”
Tiernan accepted an administrative position with a health center serving western North Carolina earlier this year. She misses her identity as a professor and still finds it difficult to watch her peers from graduate school thriving in high-profile positions at Stanford and Harvard. But she feels considerable relief at gaining distance from what had become a toxic work environment. She now earns more than she did as a faculty member. “And I don’t have to work at night and on the weekends,” she said with a laugh. “Why didn’t I do this way earlier?”
Gault, the religion scholar, is wrapping up her work at the University of Arizona and starting a new role at a federal agency where she curates digital collections featuring communities of color. She wrote to me recently that her work outside academe is a continuation of her scholarship on Black epistemologies. “I’d been having all these conversations about Black folks’ historic modes of technology building when I started rethinking how that capacity for creativity still could and does function in spaces meant to limit us,” she said. “All my career I’ve had to be really shrewd to make it in what were largely white male spaces.” Her new work, she believes, will allow her to honor her ancestors. The move will be good for her husband, Ntare, as well. He’s leaving a job as a lecturer at the University of Arizona to teach at Bard High School Early College DC, where he is looking forward to mentoring Black teens.
For now, Ximenez and Bradley remain employed at their institutions, though their hearts are elsewhere. “If I could run my own educational organization and hold seminars and write papers or go back to just being a creative writer, I would,” Ximenez said. She’s been thinking about developing an exit strategy. Bradley has reached a point where even though she doesn’t feel well-equipped to leave, she doesn’t feel able to stay, either. “For me it’s felt like a slow leaving,” she said. “The birth of my daughter was a big turning point. I felt a lot of failure at not doing my job the way I wanted. I’ve been leaving in dribs and drabs since 2016. I feel like I’ve already left.”