Faculty of color at Western: Overworked and under supported

Infographic by Stella Harvey

By Colton Redtfeldt

As Western grapples with issues of racial diversity on campus, minority faculty say they feel they’re being overworked and under supported. In response to demands from students of color to address the lack of support for faculty of color, Western administration said it’s aware of the problem and is in active discussions with deans and department chairs to address the issue.

Some faculty are concerned this work isn’t enough, as the burden of extra work starts when minority faculty first arrive on campus. Western also struggles to retain and support faculty of color already on staff, according to students and staff.

“From day one, you have a number of people lining up at your door because the percentage of faculty of color on campus is way lower than the percentage of students,” Verónica Vélez, an assistant professor in the Woodring College of Education and the director of the college’s education and social justice minor, said. “Our students on a daily have to fight for access to mentors because there isn’t enough of us to go around.”

According to Western’s webpage on diversity statistics, in 2018, 17.6 percent of faculty members, around 170 people, identified as people of color. Enrollment statistics show that in fall of 2018, 26 percent of Western’s student body, 4,195 people, identified as students of color. This works out to roughly one faculty member of color per 25 students of color. For comparison, there is roughly one white professor for every 19 students, and the number of them who will be relied upon for extra support is much lower than that of faculty of color.

“Virtually every faculty member of color that I know does an enormous amount of work in mentoring, supporting and encouraging students of color,” said Vicki Hsueh, an associate professor in the political science department.

Hsueh admitted this mentorship isn’t easy, and said the extra workload keeps faculty of color from completing research, which is vital for tenure applications and career advancement.

Faculty looking to support many students at once sometimes choose to advise clubs in the Associated Students Ethnic Student Center. Vélez has been an advisor for Western’s Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán — also known as MEChA — since 2014.

“She has her office open all the time for us and makes sure that we come if we need to just talk or anything,” third-year Joselyn Chavez, co-chair of the club, said. “She’ll provide food or her home as well. If we need extra support, she’s there.”

Vélez said she wanted to advise the club because it was important for her as a Latinx professor to mentor and support a group of students. Outside the club, Vélez said many students of color also come to her office for mentorship and support.

Addressing the problem

Vélez said faculty of color have gone to their unions and department heads to discuss being overworked, and have been told in response to spend less time with students. Vélez said she has a hard time turning students away because she sees a part of herself and her history in the students who come to her. Vélez said many faculty of color feel this way.

“You bring in faculty of color who have these experiences and who in large part were brought here because we can identify with the students,” Vélez said. “Sometimes when we mentor, we speak with our 19-year-old self. Of the kind of supports we didn’t get.”

Because of this connection, some faculty of color believe the mentoring they provide is often more emotionally demanding than the mentoring given by their white colleagues.

“Students come to us with so much pain. Where do we put that? Who takes care of the caretaker?” Vélez said.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steven VanderStaay said in an email that he is aware that faculty of color often take on more mentorship responsibilities than what is necessary.

“Teaching is a helping profession and the impulse to help where needed runs very deep for faculty of color—particularly when students of color reach out to them,” VanderStaay said. “Consequently, we continue to monitor how best to both protect and support new faculty in this and other areas.”

Faculty of color currently receive no compensation for extra mentorship, Vélez said.

“Anytime we ask for compensation and say, ‘Okay, if we are going to do this then it can’t be free labor,’ the pushback becomes, ‘Oh, well I thought that that is what you came on this campus to do,’” Vélez said. “It’s almost like we shouldn’t be asking for those things. That we shouldn’t be asking to get paid for the kind of labor we do everyday.”

VanderStaay said each department is in charge of establishing its own criteria for what is considered in a tenure application and thus recognition of the value of mentoring students and advising clubs is in the hands of individual departments. He added that faculty are compensated for the totality of the work they do, not the individual work they do in teaching, research and service.

Vélez said the work doesn’t count toward tenure service or the workloads that faculty are required by their union to teach.

“That work is invisible. It is never seen. But we do it because we see it as valuable,” Vélez said.

Fourth-year chemistry major and Associated Students Vice President for Governmental Affairs Natasha Hessami said faculty of color play a huge role for students of color in making them feel like they belong in the field they’re studying.

In October, Hessami led a group of 40 students in a protest against the College of Science and Engineering and occupied the office of the college’s dean, Brad Johnson, citing concerns about retention and treatment of faculty of color. In response to the protest, Johnson said he understood there was a problem within the college and would work to find a solution, according to Hessami.

“When you are surrounded by professors who are part of the majority and you are in the minority, it can make you feel like you are out of place,” Hessami said.

Hessami said she had trouble finding a non-white professor in the chemistry program. Last year, there were two faculty of color in the program, both of whom were advisors for Western’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Both faculty members ended up leaving over the last year, one of them because they had trouble renewing their non-tenure track contract, Hessami said.

“We came back and we had lost our most important people,” Hessami said. “So that really propelled me to look at the chemistry department and look at the whiteness and how many white men there were and how little women of color there were. It was upsetting.”

Hessami said she turned to Regina Barber DeGraaff, an astrophysics lecturer in the physics department, for mentorship. DeGraaff is also the college’s first Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Diversity and Outreach Specialist. Her job is to work with faculty and organizations to recruit, retain and support students of color going into STEM fields, according to the position’s webpage.

Fighting for retention opportunities

Receiving tenure makes a difference when looking at efforts to increase minority faculty on campus.

Data compiled by Western’s Department of Institutional Effectiveness found that from 2015 to 2019, non-tenured minority faculty had a 50 percent retention rate compared to white faculty who had a retention rate of 62 percent.

Data shows that these rates equal out once tenureship is introduced. For both tenured faculty of color and white faculty, the 2015 to 2019 retention rate was 94 percent.

Getting tenureship can be even more difficult for faculty of color because often times they feel they have to work harder than others to be recognized by their peers.

According to a 2017 Western diversity climate report, 73 percent of faculty of color said they felt like they have to work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as a legitimate scholar. Vélez said she found this to be true.

“When I turned in my tenureship application I couldn’t just do the minimum,” Vélez said. “If I did the minimum I would be perceived as not competent enough or having [not] done my scholarly side.”

Even with the additional work, when it came time for her tenure review, she said some of her colleagues thanked her for “mothering the university.” According to Vélez, another colleague had to step in and remind everyone of the scholarly work she had done.

Vélez said the comment struck her because even after all the research and teaching she had done, the service work was all her colleagues recognized.

“I think we are seen as service providers to the university,” Vélez said. “While we do it I think people forget that we wear multiple hats and are feeling like we have to be tasked to overperform the minimum because we won’t be taken seriously as scholar or as seriously as our other roles.”

Furthermore, Vélez feels she primarily gets asked to serve on diversity and equity committees because of her identity. She feels her intellectual background is ignored — something that doesn’t happen to white faculty, Vélez said.

Vanderstaay said the chairs of many departments advise new faculty of color to limit service obligations. He said in some departments, new faculty are forbidden from taking on any committee responsibilities.

“We are aware of this and are in active discussions with chairs, deans and faculty of color about this issue,” Vanderstaay said.

Western provided grant funding for two new faculty of color to participate in a semester-long faculty development program ran by the National Center for Faculty Development &and Diversity, according to Vanderstaay. He said the program is designed to help new faculty establish a healthy work-life balance while successfully completing the research they need to be promoted.

This year, Western also approved a mentorship program for second-year faculty members. The program is in its first pilot year. Of the eight people being mentored through the program, seven are women of color.

Hsueh and other faculty agree that while Western is taking steps to support faculty of color, efforts can be misguided because the university doesn’t know what it’s like to be a faculty of color.

“In retention efforts, the emotional trauma that some of us go through is never grappled with in that way and its not recognized,” a Latina faculty member who requested anonymity for fear of retribution said. “These are things that we recognize as traumatic but the university doesn’t and then having that experience and then wanting to stay here is hard.”

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