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“Oftentimes, you’re put on these committees not really for your insight, but just for representation. And they really don’t care if your argument runs counter to what they want," said Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies and literatures in English. "It’s going to happen anyway.”

July 2, 2021

‘I Don’t Want to Be the Only One’: Cornell’s 8 Black Women Full-Professors Face Disproportionate Burdens

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When Prof. Emeritus Josephine Allen, policy analysis and management, joined Cornell in the fall of 1977, she went on to become the first Black woman professor to be tenured at the University. Disheartened by the lack of diversity she saw among professors, she spent much of her career advocating for the hiring of more Black women as faculty

Prof. Josephine Allen, policy analysis and management/Courtesy of Cornell University

But 44 years after Allen first joined, a lack of representation, and the ripple effects that come with it, persist at Cornell. 

According to a 2019 National Center for Education Statistics survey, Cornell had 703 tenured full professors for the 2019-2020 school year. Just nine were Black women. Since the survey was conducted, two Black women professors have left, two are retiring and two more have been promoted to full professorships as of July 1. 

Cornell is not alone — the low representation of Black and female professors in academia is a nationwide issue, with women only making up 36 percent of full professors at four-year institutions and Black women making up a mere 1.9 percent. Cornell University, though long projected as a token of diversity and inclusion, is no exception. 

The implications of these statistics reach far beyond the numbers. Black women professors say they are feeling the burdens of a limited support structure, heavy mentoring and advising responsibilities and additional administrative expectations.

Mentorship and committee work: ‘There’s only so much of me to go around’ 

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Africana studies and literatures in English, has seen these issues amplify during her time at Cornell, most notably in the form of administrative work. 

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies and literatures in English/Courtesy of Cornell University

“The one person that [the administrators] recognize who is willing to serve [the community] begins to be that one person they call to do every single thing, which is really ridiculous, because that wears on that person eventually,” Boyce Davies said. 

Prof. Jamila Michener, government, has seen similar patterns during her eight years at Cornell. In her view, the need for diversity on University committees turns administrative officials to ask the same eight women to fill many different roles. 

She describes these extra responsibilities as an interplay between a structural problem — not having enough representation among the faculty — and an individual problem that overwhelms her and other Black women with requests from all sides: administration, students and fellow faculty.

Prof. Jamila Michener, government/Courtesy of Cornell University

“The other layer is, it is difficult to say no,” Michener said. “And [the reason is], I know what it feels like to be a student of color and to want to be able to have some connection to that one Black faculty member.” 

“I know what it feels like to go to a panel and to see only white people on the panel talking about something that’s really relevant to race and racism, but not seeing any perspective from a person of color,” Michener continued. “So knowing what it feels like on the other end, I want to be able to fill these roles.”

But in Boyce Davies’ experience, being placed on these committees as a token of diversity also has its downfalls, creating an atmosphere where many women of color do not feel heard in administrative decisions.

“Oftentimes, you’re put on these committees not really for your insight, but just for representation. And they really don’t care if your argument runs counter to what they want. It’s going to happen anyway,” Boyce Davies said. “I think it’s healthy for faculty of color, women of color, when they’re asked to be on these committees to look at what the impact is really going to be: Is this really a committee that is planning to change things or advance things?”

Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources and the environment, is one of two Black women professors being promoted to full professor this July. Throughout her 14-year tenure at Cornell, Allred said she’s anecdotally noticed an increase in the diversity of students pursuing environment and sustainability, the major she advises — a trend that she said has not paralleled faculty diversity. 

Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources and the environment/Courtesy of Cornell University

“Students of color do seek us out for mentoring opportunities, because they may not be able to get them in other places and there aren’t that many of us,” Allred said. “And so I do try to be there for those students as much as I can. [But] I’ve had to limit committee work and things like that because there’s only so much of me to go around.”

But it’s a commitment to her students, and the reminder of the value of mentors during her own educational career, that motivate Allred to continue putting in the extra work. 

One student’s response in a spring 2021 teaching evaluation has particularly stuck with her: “I cannot overstate how essential (and overdue) it is to see professors who look like me and come from similar backgrounds as me at Cornell. Dr. Allred is so kind and intelligent and her dedication to her work and our learning has strengthened my motivations to remain in academia post-grad.”

Retaining Black women faculty members: ‘Those losses are so personal for us’

With national conversations around race and racism at the forefront, many classes taught by the few Black women professors are increasing in popularity, leading to observed higher enrollment numbers than in previous years. 

Michener said she’s had to add numerous additional office hours just to keep up with student demand. 

Though she enjoys the work, Michener said “so long as the numbers [of Black faculty] remain as low as they are, there are always going to be disproportionate burdens.”

But barriers persist even before potential faculty enter the Cornell community, some professors said. The thin support network within Cornell’s faculty for Black women pursuing the tenure track also may deter future professors from joining the faculty. 

The main problems these professors see at Cornell? The failure of large-scale efforts to recruit and retain Black women faculty members, as well as no representation in top administrative positions.

Prof. Riché Richardson, Africana studies, who was recently promoted to a full professorship, said Black women need to feel like their work is respected and valued — that their authority will not be challenged in the classroom because students aren’t used to seeing a Black woman in that position.  

Prof. Riché Richardson, Africana studies/Courtesy of Cornell University

“Institutions tend to approach hiring in a more tokenistic way,” Richardson said. “And so when the outlook is to recruit minority scholars as basically tokens or as being more isolated in their fields, then it cuts down on the possibilities for building intellectual community.”

Though some individual departments have attempted to actively search for applicants of color, as Allred has begun to see in CALS, all of the faculty interviewed said there remains little progress in encouraging Black women faculty members to stay. 

“It’s also important that they have an incentive to stay, and that there’s not a revolving door because they lack intellectual community or intellectual support,” Richardson said. “Otherwise, when the first good opportunity knocks, then some people are more likely to move on.”

And it’s the “moving on” that cuts deep every time a Black woman professor leaves Cornell. 

As Michener puts it: “Those losses are so personal for us, faculty of color, because we are a really important support structure for each other.”

Looking to the future: ‘I want to pave the way for other [Black female professors] to come and make their mark at Cornell as well’

But these losses are not inevitable. All four professors push back against the idea of the “pipeline” — the notion that lower numbers of students from marginalized groups pursue Ph.D.s and therefore make up less of the hiring pool.

They also disagree with the notion that Ithaca’s rural setting and majority-white population deters Black women professors from staying at the University. As they put it, it falls on the University’s shoulders to make an effort to retain these faculty members.

“Institutions just have to be very aware of the intellectual assets they have and understand the unique voices and perspectives that those scholars bring in,” Richardson said. “It definitely is important to be conscious of building diversity, and not just in a cosmetic sense, but ensuring that Black women’s leadership is valued, and that our presence is valued.”

Despite these challenges, many remain hopeful that Cornell will take calls for faculty diversity seriously. 

Just last month, faculty elected Prof. Eve De Rosa, human development, to the position of Dean of Faculty, making her the first woman and first person of color to hold this position. Though the appointment comes 156 years after Cornell’s founding, it is nevertheless promising for other women of color in their respective fields. 

“I’m the first in my department, but I don’t want to be the only one in my department,” Allred said. “I don’t mind paving the way, but I want to pave the way for other [Black female professors] to come and make their mark at Cornell as well.”