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Ethnicity, race, and marginalization

Graphic by Haewon Ma

I didn’t see any reason to submit my materials for review and rejection,” said Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora), a professor of Native American studies at Yale from 2006 through 2013. “I decided to leave because through the years I had seen patterns of denying promotion to women of color faculty in the history department.” In the 2015-2016 academic year, ethnic studies professors Jafari Allen, Karen Nakamura, Vanessa Agard-Jones, Elizabeth Alexander, and Birgit Brander Rasmussen left—many of them for reasons related to tenure. “It’s often their excellence that makes them hard to keep,” said American Studies professor Stephen Pitti, referring to professors of ethnic studies.These professors tend to do extra work for the university, and many choose to leave because they feel overworked or underappreciated. Others are not promoted to tenured positions, often because they devote time to addressing the needs of underserved students rather than spending time on research.

Rasmussen, a former assistant professor, was celebrated by her students and peers in her field but did not receive promotion to associate professor on term from the university. Rasmussen’s case is not an isolated one. Whether ethnic studies professors leave Yale voluntarily for other institutions that provide them opportunities, or are forced to leave because they are not promoted for tenure, the tenure process and the broader way that professorships work at the university discourage the growth of ethnic studies.

Say you are hired as an assistant professor. You spend four or five years doing research for Yale. You are evaluated by a departmental committee made up of tenured faculty who teach in the same department as you. For ethnic studies professors, this usually means the history and American Studies departments, as most committee members do not have work in ethnic studies. If the departmental committee approves your work through a majority vote, you’re evaluated by the humanities divisional committee: the dean of faculty, a graduate school dean, a representative from one of the other five academic divisions, and between seven and nine faculty in the humanities division make up the divisional committee. Thus, most people evaluating your ethnic studies work have no training in your field, and possibly none. Three committee members (the deans and outside representative) are not even humanities faculty. The American Studies department, which houses most ethnic studies faculty, is quite small compared to large departments like history, humanities, and English. A variety of other departments without clear relationships to ethnic studies can be represented on the humanities board, including classics, film studies, and different European languages.

If you are approved again by the divisional committee, you will be promoted from assistant to associate professorship, and continue to work on your research while also providing more labor that will not count for much toward your tenure case for another three or four years. Then, another round of new departmental and divisional committees will evaluate your research to decide whether you will be promoted to full professorship and receive tenure. Ethnic studies professors must get their research approved four times over the course of eight years by mostly white committees which are dominated by large departments with little knowledge of ethnic studies. At most universities, unlike Yale, junior faculty can receive tenure on year five or six, not on year nine.

As Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone), the only tenured Native American professor  at Yale, put it, “How will a scholar of Chaucer evaluate the quality of work on the history of Chicano activism?” Rasmussen agreed that the Humanities Tenure Appointments and Promotions Committee is often composed of professors who have no education in ethnic studies, and thus lack the proper expertise to evaluate work in ethnic studies. American Studies professor Stephen Pitti said, “It’s common for people who have some proximity to a project to have strong opinions about the work under review. If I’m listening to a report about a different part of the world using a different methodology, I’m less likely to feel connected to it, or like I can weigh in on it.”

Chair and Professor of American Studies, Matthew Jacobson, said that interdisciplinary scholars are at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion because “more traditional forms of scholarship are more legible” to older departments like English and history. For example, an interdisciplinary scholar in anthropology and women’s studies may face opposition from both the departments, since faculty with traditional anthropology training may fully not understand or appreciate the women’s studies aspects of the work, and vice versa. Blackhawk said that because of this lack of familiarity, “emergent fields of study” face difficulty, making ER&M vulnerable due to its newness and its interdisciplinary nature.

“Sometimes the numbers of how many of us are there don’t reflect the full spread of labor we provide to the university,” said American Studies professor Mary Lui. Both Pitti and Lui serve as heads of residential colleges, managing student life for around 400 undergraduates. Pitti has also been involved with the Freshman Scholars at Yale program, helping students from high schools without lots of mentorship or college preparation resources transition to Yale. This, in addition to supporting ethnic studies through his role as director of Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.

Pitti and Blackhawk both said that faculty members have agency in choosing what to spend their time on – they can turn down offers to give keynote addresses at ethnic studies events, serve on committees, or take on administrative roles. However, they also expressed a sense of responsibility to students. Pitti said, “I knew that if I didn’t say yes to the admissions committee then there wouldn’t be a certain perspective.” Mary Lui expressed similar feelings of responsibility to student activities and ethnic studies events on campus, “In my right mind I probably should’ve said no [to attending many ethnic studies and events regarding Asian American studies]. But on the other hand it sort of feels like, ‘who else is going to do it?’”

Ned Blackhawk was recruited to the university with tenure upon arrival on account of outstanding leadership in his field. In Yale’s history, no Native American studies professor has gone through the full tenure process. Blackhawk serves on various committees and is heavily involved in the Native American undergraduate and graduate student communities. He is the Faculty Coordinator for the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies of American Studies for three years, and was an advisor for Mellon-Bouchet Fellowship students for five years. He has also advised many senior theses, and since as the only professor in Native American studies, he is the most qualified to advise any advanced work in Native American and Indigenous history.

Albert Laguna, an assistant professor in American Studies currently on the tenure track, is similarly faced with feelings of responsibility toward students while he works on research for the university, and will be evaluated in 2018 for an associate professorship with tenure. Laguna taught Introduction to Latino Studies, the only Latino studies class at Yale in the Spring 2016 semester, because all of the other professors who work on Latino studies – Camacho, Pitti, and Ramirez – were on sabbatical. Laguna is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration this semester, which is unusual for junior faculty, but necessary because, “faculty affiliates are spread too thin across multiple departments and programs.” Similarly, Lui served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the American Studies department during her time as junior faculty because “there was no one else who could.”

Ethnic studies professors and professors of color at Yale are often recruited away from the university with promises of tenure upon arrival (and thus job security and higher salaries) and cultures more respecting of their fields of study. A professor in American Studies, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “when ethnic studies professors feel like their work is not valued and there are more obstacles for [them], they are easily poached.”

Despite the structural barriers presented to ethnic studies faculty, students and faculty have continued to advocate for growth of ethnic studies at Yale. In 1995, the precursor to the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) program was born when a group of students called the Coalition for Diversity organized for more ethnic studies classes and majors. In response, the university allowed the American Studies department to hire three more part-time lecturers: one in Asian American studies, one in Native American studies, and one in Latino studies.

The next year, the university committed to upgrading the three temporary positions to full-time professorships. Yale also committed to establishing ER&M as a secondary major, meaning that ER&M could be declared alongside another established major, so students would have to complete the requirements for both in order to graduate. “They thought that ER&M was too soft a major and didn’t merit a Yale degree or they thought that Yale didn’t have the resources to offer a full ER&M major, or both,” said Pitti.

American Studies Professor Michael Denning said that while he and his colleagues asked for more department resources to be allocated to ethnic studies, student activism was what brought about change. Following explicit student demands for an ethnic studies department in the fall of 2015, Yale created the Center for Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. While it provides resources for speaker series and graduate students in ethnic studies, the Center does not represent any commitment toward the growth of ethnic studies as a structurally supported department: Almost two decades after the original establishment of the three ethnic studies lines, in the 2015-2016 academic year, the university offered fewer courses in ethnic studies taught by tenured faculty than it did nineteen years ago.

Yale University prides itself in being one of the world’s leading educational institutions, yet scholars with new and interdisciplinary work are systematically denied promotion. Despite teaching the course with the highest enrollment in all of Yale College during the Spring 2016 semester (Race and Gender in American Literature) and receiving one national and one Yale College award for her work in American Studies, Rasmussen was denied tenure by her divisional committee. The tenure process is a window into what Yale values and whom it prizes. Though these examples of exclusion are the result of institutional practices that are on face neutral, it’s hard to imagine that the Yale administration is unaware of their effects. For KZ, YC ’16 , a recent graduate in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, the question is about the integrity of the liberal arts education—an education that is about “being able to challenge the material, that is a space of academic innovation.” In its treatment of ethnic studies faculty and allocation of academic resources, then, “the university is strategic in who it eliminates.”

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