Last month a faculty member resigned from Salem State University. While such comings and goings are common in academic settings as elsewhere, this resignation should be cause for alarm. The university has lost yet another faculty member of color, the sixth in the last three years. In this instance, they have lost a campus leader, the first African-American woman to chair the department of social work and only the second African-American woman in the history of the school to achieve the rank of full professor. This is not just another resignation. It is just the most recent example of a pattern that is at best troubling and at worst harmful to the students we serve.
During his inaugural address, President John Keenan asserted “we often and rightly boast about being the most diverse of the state universities.” Indeed, as of October of 2018, 39% of all undergraduate students identified as non-white, and of the 1,111 incoming first year students, 21.4% identified as Latinx and 10.98% as African American. Our undergraduate student population looks like our region and like the U.S. of the 21st century. While SSU has identified the recruitment and retention of students of color as a strategic goal, our inability to retain Latinx and African-American faculty severely undermine our student success goals.
The literature is clear, seeing themselves represented among faculty is a key contributor to the success of students of color. And while President Keenan observed in the same address that “we must be as inclusive as we are diverse,” currently at SSU we are actively recruiting Latinx and African American students while denying them the indispensable role modeling and mentoring that only faculty of color provide, often despite the lack of institutional recognition.
And while the administration would argue that SSU simply cannot compete with the higher salaries offered by private institutions, data from our own campus climate survey contradict such assertions. Others in the community would insinuate that New England culture is to blame and that faculty are leaving for bigger, more integrated urban centers. In fact, recent departures have been for positions in institutions within a few miles from SSU.
The reality is the institution has not made a priority fighting elements of our campus culture such as the racist and sexist microaggressions faced by faculty of color. A much-advertised bias incident report system is deeply flawed, resulting in a long, painful process for the victim before the aggressor is notified, if ever. It is also clear that the administration has not established the processes needed to quickly respond to and try to avert the loss of key African American and Latinx faculty. Willfully blind to the hiring dynamics in higher ed., it is appalling that the resignation from a groundbreaking African-American campus leader is met with “good luck” rather than with “how can we support you as you shoulder more of the invisible labor of mentoring and guiding or students of color? How can we proactively address microaggressions that follow you through your days? How can we find ways to recognize and trumpet all the work you do that falls outside neat evaluation categories but is critical to our ability to claim commitment to diversity and inclusion?
In the wake of the most recent departure questions swirl and our campus community is poorer for this loss. The future of a critical first year seminar and learning community for women of color is in jeopardy, the faces around the table when all department chairs gather to take up the work of academic leadership will be noticeably less diverse, and the work of transforming SSU into a leader in areas of inclusion and equity will be harder. But most critically, our students they will have one less opportunity to see a future for themselves. The adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” is true, and when students see fewer and fewer faculty who look like them they see fewer and fewer pathways for themselves. Retaining and supporting faculty of color must be at the center of any renewed effort to live up to the goals of our strategic plan, and the language coming from the top has to be plain and unambiguous: We can’t afford to lose any more African-American and Latinx faculty who so visibly and generously devote themselves to the success of our diverse students.
Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, PhD, is a professor and Guillermo Avila-Saavedra, PhD, an associate professor at Salem State University.