Finding rainbows in the clouds: Learning about the full professorship from the stories of black female full professors
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There is little empirical research about the benefits, privileges, and experiences associated with faculty at the rank of full professor. This dissertation focused on the experiences of seven black female full professors, in various higher education programs and departments across the U.S., who successfully navigated the faculty promotion processes and attained the highest rank in the professoriate. Currently, black women comprise 1.26% of faculty at the rank of full professor nationally. Further, the number of black women at this rank in the subfields of higher education (e.g., higher education administration, student affairs, community college, adult education) is so low that it fails to meet reporting standards for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
While the lack of research and underrepresentation of black women in the rank of full professor is problematic, even more troublesome is the unexamined racial and gender hegemony that exists in the upper ranks of the professoriate (Delgado-Bernal & Villalpando, 2002). The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore and understand how participants perceived their promotion to full professor and promotions effects on their professional status and influence in their departments, institutions, and fields of study. Particular attention was paid to the ways in which both they and those around them enact power to influence their teaching, service, and research activities. Of particular interest in this study was how racism and sexism intersected to create unique experiences of oppression and empowerment for black female full professors.
Research design revolved around black feminist epistemology, critical race theory (CRT), critical race feminism (CRF), and a critical race feminist methodology, which drew upon methodological practices employed in critical feminism and CRT. Specifically, the tenets of racism as endemic, critiques of liberalism, challenges of ahistoricism, experiential knowledge, whiteness as property, anti-essentialism, and intersectionality were used to illuminate the ways race (and racism) and gender (and sexism), and the confluence of both, influenced the process of promotion to full professor and the ensuing experiences of the participants subsequent to promotion. Findings were drawn from three semi-structured interviews with each of the seven participants, as well as documents collected from participants, and institutional data.
Findings indicated that race (and racism) and gender (and sexism) played a major role in the professional experiences, particularly those related to promotion to full professor and subsequent experiences, of the women in this study. Further, racial and gender hegemony exist to limit the power and influence the black women in this study were able enact. Participants were able to articulate tensions related to being promoted into and persisting in a rank that is predominately occupied by whites and males. The women provided a narrative related to why their black female colleagues do not persist to the highest faculty rank, which included specific practices by faculty and senior level administrators that were (and are) incongruent with institutional policy, procedure, and, often times, common practice. Despite the negative encounters, the participants recognized and articulated the importance of their presence in the academy and in the role of full professor.
Broadly implications from this study directly relate to the need to assess institutional promotion practices, procedures, and policies. Assessments may uncover systemic issues prohibiting the promotion of black women to the rank of full professor and access to its accompanying benefits. Future research implications focus on further understanding the role of full professors in the institution and the power and influence inherent in the position.