Sunday, August 7, 2022

Why They Left

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They started out eager and optimistic.

Then came the anonymous note that said a professor “talks too Black.” The complaint that a scholar wrote too much about her Asian American identity. The repeated instances when colleagues were confused with others of the same race. The feeling that academe was an indulgent hobby for anyone who didn’t come from family wealth.

These experiences, colored by race and class, are among the reasons why faculty members at institutions across the country quit their jobs. The Chronicle interviewed five professors of color who spent years feeling overlooked, underappreciated, misunderstood, or even attacked because of their racial identities — and ultimately decided they needed to move on.

Here are their stories:

‘My Letter Is Now Part of a Genre’

For Bradley Onishi, former associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, the decision to resign was “death by a thousand cuts,” he says.

There wasn’t one moment he could pinpoint that told him it was time to go. Instead, the sum of countless microaggressions on the basis of race, sexual orientation, and gender that Onishi either experienced himself or heard about pushed him to leave.

Courtesy of Bradley Onishi

Bradley Onishi

“It was definitely just one of those things that continues to build and build and build,” Onishi says. “And at some point, you realize that it’s just part of the culture of the place.”

In the resignation letter he posted on Twitter in June, Onishi describes a “hostile work environment” where colleagues of color regularly face microaggressions that white colleagues ignore, and LGBTQ+ students are asked to name their identities in class.

One repeated offense seemed especially egregious to Onishi: Several of his colleagues, mostly women of Asian descent, told him they were consistently called the wrong name by faculty members in his department while walking to his office to meet for lunch. They even started to meet Onishi in the cafeteria to avoid the interaction.

And his office was only 10 steps away from the cafeteria, Onishi says.

“It’s not just that they haven’t learned the names or learned about their colleagues. It goes a step further,” Onishi says. “It’s not realizing how hurtful it is to work at a place for years and for someone to address you by the wrong name because they simply have not invested the time or energy to realize that you’re not someone else, and that all of the Asian people on campus are not the same person.”

Onishi raised concerns about the religious-studies department to Michael Orr, dean of faculty at Skidmore, regarding instances like these and explained that, in his view, “a leadership change was needed in order to create an environment where people could flourish as professionals and as students.”

But his concerns were not heeded, Onishi says. Orr referred The Chronicle to a statement from a spokesperson for Skidmore, which says the college takes Onishi’s concerns very seriously.

“We are deeply committed to being a community where everyone feels welcome and has the opportunity to participate to the best of their abilities, and where the perspectives and viewpoints of all are respected,” the statement, sent to The Chronicle via email, says. “Skidmore is engaged in constant efforts to live up to these values.”

But Onishi says Skidmore’s promise of being a “forward thinking” college was “incredibly hard to marry” with the reality he and his colleagues experienced.

If you take a campus tour, “you’re going to hear all about these amazing programs and teachers who will enrich your educational path by offering classes about Asian religions or Asian histories,” Onishi says. “And yet so often Asian colleagues, colleagues of Asian descent, Asian Americans were called the wrong name at a party or in the hallway.”

There were personal factors pulling Onishi away from Skidmore, too — “upstate New York is probably the farthest I could have gotten from my friends and family, who are all in California,” he says.

Walking away was still not an easy choice. Onishi had a community of students and colleagues that he had grown fond of during his six years at Skidmore — and, on top of that, he was months away from being eligible for tenure.

“In the humanities, getting a tenure-track job in this day and age is akin to winning the lottery,” Onishi says. “I made that decision” to quit “knowing that that probably wouldn’t ever happen again.”

But ultimately, Onishi began asking himself: If this job “is the only thing keeping me here, and the thing that’s keeping me here is disheartening and frustrating and in many ways so hurtful, then why am I still here?”

So, he left Skidmore on June 1. Now, he’s teaching part time as an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and co-hosting a podcast called Straight White American Jesus. He tutors students writing their college essays and even worked part time for a brief stint at a tech company. And he’s considering becoming a copywriter.

“It’s one of those situations where I’m 41 and I’ve been working in this profession, at this guild, for 20 years,” Onishi says. Now that he’s left, “there’ve been moments of feeling free and liberated. There’s been a lot of moments like, ‘What am I doing? I need to go throw up because I’m so nervous and I can’t believe I did that.’”

But Onishi is adamant that he is “not a trailblazer.” According to Onishi, several other professors of color have resigned for similar reasons over the past couple of years. One former Skidmore professor even joked on Twitter that an “edited volume” could be made from their resignation letters.

“My letter is now part of a genre of letters from Skidmore — resignation letters — and I am not an isolated case there,” he says. “I’m following in the footsteps of others. And those others are women of color who are incredibly courageous and brave in the ways that they went before me and expressed their dissatisfaction and frustration with the institution.” —Brianna Hatch

‘You Have More Power Than You Think’

The first signs for Maxine Davis that her new workplace might not be all she’d hoped for showed up soon after she started as an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2018.

There was the job talk Davis attended during her first weeks on the faculty. The presenter’s research, Davis remembers, raised troublesome implications about Black people living in urban settings. But when Davis and another newly hired Black faculty member questioned the rigor of the research, she says, they were chastised on a faculty listserv for a lack of collegiality.

There was the anonymous handwritten letter that arrived in Davis’s campus mailbox, telling her of complaints that she “talks too Black” and unlike someone with a doctorate. The note, she says, was “essentially hate mail telling me to shut up during faculty meetings.”

There was what Davis perceived as a troubling lack of response by the School of Social Work to George Floyd’s murder, and how she felt retaliated against by administrators for imploring them to take action.

A black woman with long, tight braids smiles for a portrait. She is wearing large earings and a light blouse.

It was, she says, like “a thousand little needles over time.” But the effects of her experience became more concrete when she was denied a one-year extension on her mid-tenure review, an accommodation she says the university allowed any faculty member to apply for to make up for pandemic-related halts in productivity and research. While Davis was doing all she could to meet performance metrics, she says, she was also serving as her children’s primary caregiver and had been forced to cancel a trip to Chicago for fieldwork.

Leaving Arlington was already on her mind, but she wanted to be able to do so of her own accord. So Davis submitted her mid-tenure review, without the benefit of an extension, and hoped — naïvely, she now says — that it would be considered fairly.

“At the end of the day,” she’d reasoned, “you have to recognize what I accomplished and the impact that I had. You can’t steal that away.”

But that’s not, she says, what happened. Instead, a panel of three associate deans in the spring of 2021 voted unanimously not to renew Davis’s contract, despite a faculty committee voting to retain her. The panel’s written rationale, she says, was rife with inappropriate comments and misrepresentations of her professional work. One comment in the review says that Davis’s “participation in the school and university is often disruptive and controversial” and that some faculty members harbored a “fear of her aggressive and bully-like behavior.” Davis, in a rebuttal, said such comments “perpetuate a negative trope and stereotype of me as an ‘angry Black woman’” and marked an “insulting and unfair description of my behavior.”

Jeff Carlton, a university spokesman, told The Chronicle that during Davis’s three years at Arlington, “she made contributions to the university’s mission of teaching, research, and service.”

“It remains UTA’s practice to respond seriously and appropriately to concerns and allegations raised by faculty, staff, and students,” Carlton said. “UTA appreciates her service to the university and wishes her continued professional success.”

As is the convention for faculty members who are not renewed, Davis would have a year to find another job. But she won’t need it; she’d begun applying elsewhere months ago and soon had in hand three competitive tenure-track job offers. Davis began her new job as an assistant professor at Rutgers University in June 2021.

Now, she says, her career is flourishing. She’s grateful she entered the job market proactively, but “the whole fact that the choice was stolen from me is just what really infuriates me.” The racism and retaliation she said were present in her evaluation prompted her to speak up about her experience.

“That was going to be my gift to society, to be a warning: ‘Whatever you have to do, you go anywhere else. You do not want to go there,’” Davis says.

So Davis has taken to the internet, sharing her resignation letter on YouTube and encouraging other faculty members of color to take similar steps.

“I don’t speak out just for me but for the many people who are enduring these abuses of power,” she says. Her message to them: “You don’t have to take this, and your voice is important. You can use it. You have more power than you think. And it’s only right to speak out about it.” —Megan Zahneis

‘When They Attack My Research, They Attack Who I Am’

It was the email that did it. Just weeks earlier, Nancy Yuen, a longtime sociologist at Biola University, had been weighing whether to leave the Christian college she had called home since 2008.

There were many reasons to stay. She had just been made a full professor. She had been granted a sabbatical, from which she was now returning. She had won an internal grant to support her podcast on faith and culture. She had been the first Asian American woman to chair her department.

An asian woman with shoulder-length hair poses for a portrait wearing a dark blouse.

Courtesy of Nancy Yuen

Nancy Yuen

Structurally, Biola was doing nothing to stand in her way.

But even as her profile was rising off campus — through her research and writing on race, racism, and Asian Americans — she felt increasingly invisible on campus. The college was not, she felt, effectively promoting her work. And she was disturbed by university leaders’ criticism of social-justice issues of importance to her and her research, including white privilege, Black Lives Matter, and critical race theory.

Yuen reconciled with being one of the more progressive people on campus — and one of the few Asian American professors.

Then came the email. Her dean, Melissa Schubert Johnson, asked for help responding to a parent who had written to the president.

The parent, Johnson relayed in an email exchange that Yuen shared with The Chronicle, felt that secular universities were rife with “destructive anti-Christian ideologies” and “radical sexual and racial views.” How, the parent wanted to know, was Biola different in its approach?

Given that Yuen’s “voice for racial-justice concerns” is “public-facing,” the dean wrote, “this parent asked a number of questions about your viewpoints as they relate to what students at Biola will experience from the faculty and the Biola environment.”

While Johnson felt she was “well positioned” to speak about how Biola values diversity of thought and to affirm Yuen’s commitment and excellence, she continued, “it would be difficult to answer [the parent’s] concerns without your input.”

Why, Yuen wondered, would she even want to?

The email writer was a troll, she says. Such people like to challenge conservative colleges’ commitment to orthodoxy, often by attacking something that an administrator or faculty member said or wrote. And their goal, says Yuen, is to stir up trouble. Yet the university seemed to want to respond, she says, to avoid offending its conservative base.

She was a particularly visible target. She has an active Twitter account where she writes about racism in Hollywood, based on research for her book, Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. In this case, the parent was pointing out something Biola’s president, Barry Corey, had written about how one must put one’s Christian identity above any group identity. Given that, the writer wanted to know why Yuen was tweeting so much about the Asian American experience and not enough about the Christian experience.

“I felt like, why didn’t anyone else see the inanity in all of this?” Yuen asks. “I’m tweeting too much about Asian Americans? I mean, that is not controversial at all. And this is my identity. So I felt like my identity was being attacked. But my white president and my white dean, they have no clue on what it is that I already deal with.”

The dean, Yuen, and her chair — also an Asian American woman — met over Zoom and talked for more than an hour, Yuen says, a conversation in which she felt like she had to justify her work and make her case on why it would be better simply not to respond.

The request triggered something in her.

It reminded her of the way in which Biola seemed to belatedly promote or ignore her work, like an article she wrote for the LA Times about being an Asian American woman in academe or her podcast about faith and culture. And she felt even more alienated by the positions campus leaders had taken on social-justice issues.

“I felt like I was doing everything I could to legitimize myself as a part of this Christian university, always within my expertise and within things that I cared about,” she says. “For someone to attack me as a person of faith, to basically say, ‘She’s not really Christian because she’s doing this,’ and the university to kind of say, ‘Yeah, answer this,’ it really felt like a betrayal.”

Yuen decided it was time to go.

“It was the feeling of, do I really want to be doing this, even if it’s just once every semester with my life,” she says. “Maybe I could be using my gifts in a way where I don’t have to feel like I have to hold back. Like, I think that I couldn’t be fully myself.”

Yuen wonders if campus administrators will truly understand her experience there. In the past two years, 46 faculty members have left Biola, especially women and people of color, the LA Times reported.

In a written response to a request for comment, Biola administrators said they respected Yuen as a colleague and as a researcher on racism. They attributed any limitations in promoting her work to staffing shortages and said that she was one of the top faculty members they promoted on Biola’s website and to the media.

Johnson called Yuen a “beloved teacher, colleague, and leader at Biola,” and wrote that she is “grateful for her scholarship and her work giving voice to the Asian American experience and battling racism.” Johnson said that she regularly fields concerns and questions from parents, “without an interest in appeasing a base.” She contacted Yuen so she “would not overstep by speaking for her,” was sorry that Yuen had a negative experience, and had met with her “to understand her perspective and repair harm.”

A spokesperson for the university also said the president never saw the initial email: It was passed along to the dean by his executive assistant as a matter of standard protocol. Yuen says that doesn’t sit well with her.

“That compounds the erasure that I’ve felt over the years.”

This summer, Yuen will start a new career as a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant with Peoplism. She plans to continue her public scholarship and is working on a book about her life through the movies and TV shows she watched growing up.

She will miss being an academic, she says, but the cost of staying was no longer worth it.

“I advocate for Asian Americans because I am Asian American. I care about Asian Americans. So when they attack my research, they attack who I am. You can’t put a price on that.” —Beth McMurtrie

‘I No Longer Feel Safe’

Brian K. Mitchell was the second Black faculty member to work in the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His predecessor, the department’s first Black faculty member, had encouraged Mitchell to apply for a full-time job at Arkansas, where he’d been an adjunct for years.

“The Black and minority students need you,” Mitchell says the senior faculty member told him. “We need to have a physical presence here, and they need mentors.”

A middle-aged black man with a gray goatee and thin-framed glasses smiles slightly as he poses for the camera. A facemask is hanging around his chin. He is wearing a button-up shirt and a blue blazer.

Courtesy of Brian Mitchell

Brian Mitchell

But his words came with a warning about Mitchell’s would-be colleagues and the Arkansas administration: Be careful. “These people are going to stab you in the back, even though they’re going to smile at your face,” Mitchell remembers being told.

So when Mitchell became an assistant professor in 2015, he did so knowing “it’s all about my work. I really have to work hard. I don’t have the breathing space to slow down.”

That didn’t mean that Mitchell was prepared for the microaggressions he says he faced. He’d greet colleagues in the hallway with a “good morning,” only for them to walk past “as if I was a ghost.” He was passed over, he says, for openings on committees and the Faculty Senate — opportunities he heard being offered to the white male historian in the office next door, who was hired the same week as Mitchell.

But there were more insidious barriers, too. A year into his full-time work, Mitchell discovered that the white male colleague who’d started at the same time as him — and who had significantly less teaching experience — was being paid thousands of dollars more than him.

Mitchell said his evaluation scores were consistently lower than he expected they would be, usually only a point or two above failing. He was told that his digital scholarship, and a manuscript he’d recently completed, might not count toward tenure. (The digital project, he noted, was covered in The New York Times, while the manuscript went on to win seven book awards.)

At first, he says, he just worked harder in hopes of raising his scores. “We’re taught that by our families: ‘You’re Black. You’re going to have to work harder than someone white in that position.’” But his scores stayed the same, he says, and his health started to suffer.

There was more, including an institutional review board complaint against Mitchell that he says was spurious and retaliatory.

All of it prompted Mitchell to sue Arkansas, alleging race and age discrimination, and then to resign, just a year after being awarded tenure. His last day was this month.

“I am resigning my position because I no longer feel safe, professionally or physically, at the university,” Mitchell wrote in his resignation letter, which he sent to a faculty listserv and which was later made public. “My fears are rooted in the widely held belief that the university’s social climate is one of pervasive and entrenched systemic racism and discrimination, and that the administration has dedicated itself to covering up the acts of those that participate in harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.”

Lawyers at the University of Arkansas system are moving to dismiss Mitchell’s lawsuit in federal court, saying he failed to show he’d experienced “a material disadvantage or change in employment conditions.” (The federal Office for Human Research Protections is investigating the university’s institutional-rReview-board complaint against Mitchell.)

The Little Rock campus does not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation, according to a statement provided to The Chronicle, but the campus is “committed to supporting an inclusive environment” and “takes discrimination claims very seriously.”

Mitchell, who is now employed outside academe, says that he and other faculty members of color had tried to advocate for change.

“I’m hoping that that evokes change,” Mitchell said. “But right now, I can’t see where the university is doing anything different.” —Megan Zahneis

‘We Deserve Financial Viability’

Casey Stockstill’s job was good “by a lot of standards.” As an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Denver on the tenure track, she had what she thought was a dream job right after graduation, teaching and researching race, class, gender, and childhood.

It was “a challenging package of expectations,” she says. To make tenure, she needed to produce great scholarship and teach well, but there was more to it. As one the few Black faculty members at the university — Denver says there are currently 33 on its 800-member faculty — she said she also felt the need to get involved in diversity and inclusion efforts to help make the university a better place.

A black woman with shoulder-length curly hair poses for a portrait, smiling directly at the camera. She is wearing glasses and a three-tiered necklace of large red beads on a blue blouse.

Courtesy of Casey Stockstill

Casey Stockstill

Stockstill had done well on her mid-tenure review and felt confident she would have made tenure. “But I felt like there was no actual wiggle room, especially with the pandemic,” she says, which forced her, like others, to reconstruct her courses each semester.

If that were all, she says, “I probably would have kept with it.”

The breaking point was financial. In the Denver area, rents rose 13 percent between the first quarters of 2020 and 2022. On her salary, Stockstill said, she and her husband were spending nearly all of their income on rent and childcare for their two children, ages 3 and 6. The situation wasn’t sustainable.

Meanwhile, Stockstill’s colleagues told her they were doing OK. They came from family wealth, or had purchased their home years ago, or had a spouse who was able to help support them, she says.

“My financial position and my ability to not really weather the low salary … is very shaped by race and class,” Stockstill says, noting that she is a Black, first-generation college graduate who grew up in a single-parent household. The job, she says, felt “alienating and punishing” for a Black faculty member and was only feasible for others.

“I was like, this is like an indulgent hobby, to keep doing this,” she says. “It’s a privilege to do this job, and I don’t have the wealth to just get to make this work.”

Jon Stone, a spokesman for the university, wrote in a statement that the University of Denver “seeks to compensate our faculty fairly while recognizing that recent inflationary forces nationally are presenting challenges to many.”

Stockstill says she thinks about families as systems, considering the needs of her husband, her children, and herself equally. Though she loved certain aspects of her job in academe, it wasn’t working for the whole family’s needs. In February, she left the University of Denver.

Stockstill posted a thread on Twitter detailing her experience. Stockstill had built connections with other academics online, and she wanted people within her network she didn’t know personally to know why she had left.

Leaving the university worked out for her, she says, and she now works as the research director at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. Stockstill wants others to know it is possible to find a place where they can do the work they love and make ends meet, whether in or outside academia. “We deserve financial viability,” she says. —Wyatt Myskow





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