Structural Racism in Academia: Breaking the Sounds of Silence

One of the conventional lessons of leadership I was told by those I respect is to never look back at what happens in your former leadership positions. It is a given that your successor will espouse her or his philosophy, policy, and practices that may or may not align with yours. That is okay. It is the nature of leadership. When holding an office of leadership, one must exercise integrity when advancing its mission while protecting and supporting those who have committed their lives and careers to serve the organization. This prism on leading with integrity has been expected and upheld in presidential leadership. That is, until four years of Donald Trump’s presidency forced many leaders to conclude that the axiom of “never look back” was untenable.

The confluence of the double pandemic, 400 years of systemic racism and COVID19, has forced many leaders to question the value of their long-held beliefs about their institutional responsibilities as former leaders. In particular, the killings of Blacks, culminating with the public murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, began a season of racial reckoning for many institutions of higher learning, particularly universities. The resulting protest galvanized by, and embodied in, the Black Lives Matter movement, which challenged President Trump’s policies and pronouncement of support for White supremacists, forced leaders to depart from the conventional trend and begin to speak out. One of the most consequentially moral and ethical leaders of our generation, President Barack Obama, decided to speak out against the actions and behavior of his successor, President Donald Trump. The choice of voice over silence, as past leaders, did not end with President Obama but became a new expectation for former leaders of pivotal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC’s former leaders spoke out against the agencies’ misdirection and practices as it relates to COVID19 and the disproportionate burden on Black and Brown racialized bodies. Nationally, many of us came to welcome the voices of former CDC leaders, like Drs. Frieden and Besser, who could no longer remain silent as they observe the misdirection of their former agencies on matters of protecting the public’s health. While COVID19 presented an unprecedented challenge for agencies, it is the murder of George Floyd that became the catalyst for institutional racial reckoning to confront systemic inequity.

At the height of the global outrage and protest resulting from the murder of George Floyd, universities began creating ad hoc committees in the forms of commissions, councils, and task forces. They charged them with offering recommendations on how to achieve institutional racial equity and inclusion. As often is the case, the burden fell disproportionately on Black faculty (part of the Black tax) to ensure that these committees’ goals were not only relevant, but also far-reaching in their impact, at the institution. This Black tax burden in the academy is partly due to the poor record of universities in hiring Blacks for faculty positions. For those like me who have held academic leadership positions (I have served as a department head and a Dean of a college), the responsibility did not end with the contribution we make as senior academics but included the expectation to lend our voices to addressing racial injustice, by drawing on our leadership expertise, to help tackle structural racism at other institutions. We lend our voices when called upon to do so for others while we wrestle with our own silence by not looking back as we read about Black faculty expressing frustration at the lack of Black faculty hiring in our previous institutions. Meanwhile, we continue to applaud President Barack Obama and former agency directors for not being silent in the face of widespread racial inequity in the country and agencies.

On Sunday, February 14th, I read a letter to the editor by Professor Gary King at Penn State, published in the Penn State University student’s paper, The Collegian, entitled ‘Imagine all the people.’ As a former colleague, I periodically receive the good news of progress made in this department typically, about faculty members that I know who have been promoted and tenured. Unfortunately, this letter was not good news and left me with mixed feelings that deeply unsettled me. Professor King wrote about the hiring of a Black PhD for a staff position for which the minimum educational requirement was a high school diploma. He writes about the racial trauma he experienced upon receiving the news that a Black PhD had been hired to be an administrative assistant while his repeated call for Black faculty hiring were being ignored. I was the head of this department for several years and I know many of the faculty and their commitment to addressing matters related to racial equity. More specifically, the department has many full professors who were not silent about decisions they held different perspectives on or felt were unfair while I was the head. I recall reminding my senior colleagues that as full Professors, they had the responsibility to support and guide the department in achieving its mission, not the least of which was fairness and equity in hiring. After all, faculty searches are conducted by faculty search committees, and this is where the work to increase the hiring of Black faculty begins. So, I want to use this blog to reach out to my colleagues, particularly the full professors. To be fair, the problem with the lack of adequate Black representation in the professoriate is not unique to this department or Penn State. The lack of Black faculty has become a national crisis; therefore, task forces charged to address racial reckoning recommend that the hiring of underrepresented minoritized faculty become a priority, coupled with an effective mentoring program.

The growth and direction of an academic department cannot depend solely on the head or chair, albeit they must lead in shaping the department. Therefore, upon reading this letter, what troubled me was twofold:
1. Given that Black faculty hiring has become a key recommendation for racial equity at universities, are my former White colleagues in the department, particularly those who are full professors, also actively seeking solutions or, is this left to the Black faculty alone?
2. Given that the staff member hire that prompted this letter is Black, when Black faculty and staff born outside the US, like me from Nigeria, read this story, would they understand this letter’s focus on structural and systemic racism against Blacks or would they consider it a criticism of the Black person hired? Critical race theory was developed to unpack issues of structural and systemic racisms in institutions and society. Under President Trump, training on this theory was banned at federal agencies in September last year, but fortunately, President Biden has lifted the ban. As a co-author (with Chandra Ford) of Public Health Critical Race Praxis, I have addressed many academic audiences on this matter and will continue to do so. I also shared some thoughts on the global nature of racism in a 2020 blog entitled “racism is global” (https://u-rise.org/racism-is-global-time-to-wake-up/) in an effort to open up spaces for Africans and African Americans to have a more in-depth conversation around the intersection of structural racism and colonization. I would have more to say about this on a future blog because there are lessons about the intersection of anti-racism and decolonization that deserve more attention in this era of global racial reckoning. For now, I want to focus on #1 above.

Now, more than ever before, we are faced with examples of the absence of leadership accountability for decisions made or not made in response to visible and invisible threats to equity and social justice. Last week, on Saturday, February 13th, the United States Senate voted on the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump and acquitted him of the charge of inciting a bloody and deadly insurrection at the US capitol on January 6th, 2021. Many commentators and academics decried the Senate vote result and excoriated the 43 republican senators who voted to acquit the former President. I imagine that many academics would like to believe that had they been members of the senate, they would have cast a guilty vote. Yet, it was not lost on me that many of us, particularly Blacks in the academy, may draw a parallel, rightly or wrongly, between the silence of our colleagues to address systemic inequity in their institutions and the action of these senators in failing to hold their leaders accountable. For many Black academics, silence by our White colleagues means support for the status quo, particularly when changing the status quo is what universities need to achieve racial equity. A Black faculty is calling attention to the lack of Black faculty hiring, particularly as such a call, in the form of a letter, is occasioned by the hiring of a Black PhD for a staff position. How is the staff to react? Of course, she has no choice but to respond, if nothing else, to make her case. I felt terrible for her and feared that good people, like some of my faculty colleagues I know there, will remain silent about a system that would place her in this awkward position. She felt compelled to respond to an issue for which she had no control over while pledging to begin to pay her share of ‘the Black tax’ because the systemic inequities raised in the letter were really not about her. Yes, her hiring triggered this most recent attention to the lack of Black faculty hiring. Still, she should not have to shoulder the responsibility for responding to structural inequities. Nor should such responsibility belong to Black faculty alone, for that matter. Now, I sit and wonder what follows? Will this indeed be an opportunity to address the issue of Black faculty hiring or, will her response to the letter be the end of it? We would have to wait to find out.

What I do know is that the matter of the lack of hiring of Black faculty as an indication of structural racism is as much about the faculty members who participate in the searches and screening as it is about the leader who makes the final decision. So, I began asking myself what my former colleagues are doing, if what the letter says is correct that Black candidates are not being interviewed. Is that acceptable to my White colleagues? Faculty have as much responsibility as their responsible administrators for decisions and priority about diversifying the professorate in a department, college, and university. If faculty support Black hiring (in any university) but do not have the support of their leader (head/chair or dean), are there steps to address such oppositions? The question is, who is willing to speak up when it happens? Who is willing to lend their voice to protest unfair hiring practices that could reinforce racial injustice in academic departments? I cannot speak to what happens in my former departments and universities. Still, I do know that the problem is not unique to them even though it is the letter published by a Black faculty and the response by a Black staff, in my former department, that prompted me to write this blog.

Black on Black discontent has been one outcome of structural and systemic inequity often reinforced in White silence. This is not about the choice to seek a position for which one is overqualified because everyone deserves to be able to pursue job options without judgment from any of us. Rather, it is about the choices that the current system presents to a well-credentialed Black woman. Whatever the reasons are for not hiring Blacks or interviewing Blacks for faculty positions, the future for racial reckoning will continue to look bleak for many universities unless immediate action is taken. And for this to happen, we need White faculty who believe themselves to be friends of social justice to speak up. In the end, according to Martin Luther King, “we remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Silence, which is a form of consent, gives voice and power to systemic and structural inequities. This is why Audre Lorde cautioned that ‘your silence will not protect you.’ During this February as Black History Month, I am calling on White colleagues in every university around the nation to reevaluate why this issue of Black faculty hiring remains unaddressed and commit to not be silent in addressing the issue. We all have much to gain by collectively voicing our commitment to advancing racial justice in our academic system. The time is now!

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa