This is how Black women leaders do not survive

OPINION: Former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation is now a reminder of the irreconcilability of successful Black womanhood with powerful, wealthy and predominantly white institutions.

Dr. Claudine Gay testifies before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building on December 05, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Reading of Dr. Claudine Gay’s resignation Tuesday from the Harvard presidency, the words of Audre Lorde in the poignant poem “A Litany for Survival” come to mind: “For all of us / this instant and this triumph / We were never meant to survive.”

A presidency that for many of us stood — in and outside of academia — as a symbol and actualization of the possible quickly became a demonstration of the power of forceful campaigns that coalesced against Black women leaders. Her resignation is now a reminder of the irreconcilability of successful Black womanhood with powerful, wealthy and predominantly white institutions. Even when you have all the accolades, all the knowledge, all the skills and attributes, it is hard to know the way forward. How is success achievable when the scrutiny is so vast and extensive? This is how we die, even if it may have felt for a moment that we triumphed.

The challenges of being a Black woman and woman of color academic are well documented. National statistics display severe underrepresentation of Black faculty. The National Center for Education Statistics shows that in the fall of 2021, only 6% of faculty were Black and 6% were Latino. Underrepresentation is but one problem. For those who do make it, academia proves to be a tough terrain. Women, faculty of color and first-generation faculty face grave challenges in navigating university structures that inhibit advancing to and beyond tenure, promotion and achieving overall fulfilling and “successful” careers. 

In a synthesis of 252 scholarly publications on the topic of faculty of color in the academy, the authors of “Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 Years of Literature Tells Us” sum up the challenges facing faculty of color as undervaluation of their research interests, approaches and theoretical frameworks; student challenges to their credentials and intellect in the classroom; isolation/marginalization; and perceived biases in hiring processes. More recent qualitative and testimonial scholarship paints a fuller picture that faculty of color, and Black women specifically, are, as one volume aptly notes, “presumed incompetent.” During the 2020 racial justice awakening, Black academics reported exhaustion when the claims for diversity collided with their experiences, according to an Inside Higher Ed article. One leader described that institutions need to examine how “white supremacy culture is baked into the structures and practices of the campus.”

As hard as it is being a Black woman faculty, becoming and being a Black woman leader reveals the iron bars above the glass ceiling. The public view may think of an academic career path as cryptic at worst but rather comfortable. More accurately, the path is arduous and long. At every turn — through four years of undergraduate education, four to six years of master’s and doctoral work, dissertation writing and defense, getting an academic position, six plus years of tenure probationary period, tenure and promotion reviews that scrutinize every word you have said and written, and ongoing considerations for promotion, professional advancement and consideration for leadership — there are hoops to jump, points to prove, checks to cross. For underrepresented scholars, and particularly for Black women, there are also gender and racial biases to challenge. Every step of the way research shows that every single one of these steps is more pronounced and taxing for people of color. 

For the few Black women academics who find their way to leadership positions — inevitably by demonstrating talent, skill, qualification, impact and vocation — success is hard-fought. 

Academic leadership remains largely white and inhospitable to Black women. According to an American Council of Education survey that oversampled presidents of color, only 5.4% or 3% of all university presidents are Black or Latina women, respectively. Black women academic leaders report greater scrutiny and the need to prove and validate their qualifications.

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The scrutiny manifests in multiple ways. Black women university presidents exhibit a longer time between aspiration to presidential leadership and application, and they report less overall transparency from universities and boards about expectations and institutional conditions. And the scrutiny and challenges come at great personal and professional cost. 

As a Black Puerto Rican-Dominican Caribbean Latina scholar currently serving as a departmental chair, I know the academic path. Being an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1990s always came with questions — within and beyond — about capacity, belonging, being intelligent enough and being an “affirmative action” student. The questions haven’t stopped, though they might have changed in style. Later, in my first graduate department, I was asked to leave by a department that, at the time, saw most students of color as incapable of earning a Ph.D. Indeed, I have managed to disprove many but not all of these structural blocks to continue an academic career. The questions, as a scholar and a leader, nonetheless, creep in. 

The educational road for academics of color through political climates continues to make us susceptible to whatever adaptable policies, practices and language of racism emerge, whether it’s the attack on affirmative action, diversity, equity and inclusion, critical race theory or accusations of being a “diversity hire,” or “unprofessional behavior” and “incompetence,” etc. The story of racism is not only about how scholars of color are overly scrutinized. It is also about how our non-Black counterparts hardly ever face the same levels of scrutiny. How many Harvard presidents’ works have been scrutinized at such levels as Claudine Gay’s? Given the documented widespread racial disparities in evaluation across a wide variety of society’s institutional settings, it is not hard to understand the disparate lens applied to research. As scholars of race know, the findings about racial disparities are numerous and conclusive.

Being aware of the vast landscape of racial disparities proves daunting. When I consider putting myself up for professional scrutiny of any ilk, I think of the experiences of Black people and people of color in all sectors. The personal, health and professional costs of such relentless sieges and discrimination are as true for the common citizen as they are for the academics and academic leaders. I can only imagine the professional and personal dimensions of the storm that has enveloped Dr. Gay. Her and the Harvard Corporation’s letter briefly hint at the racial content of the attacks. I can not imagine what kinds of attacks have been privately levied at Dr. Gay from the moment of her appointment as Harvard president.

More than a century ago, a young African-American man from Massachusetts by the name of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois became the first African-American to earn a Master’s and a Ph.D. degree from Harvard after earning a college degree there in 1890. W.E.B. Du Bois would bring great glory to Harvard, but only in hindsight. For many years and into the 21st Century, Du Bois has been recognized as the founder of the NAACP and perhaps most famously known for making an impossibly prescient declaration in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” 

More recently, as a corrective to the history of American science, Du Bois has been lauded as one of the founders of American sociology. Praise for Du Bois is unending, though, in his time, Du Bois struggled to get an academic position in the top institutions such as the one that trained him. His published study on the Black community in Philadelphia, “Philadelphia Negro,” conducted as a temporary assistant in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is now celebrated as a masterpiece of social scientific research. On the occasion of honoring the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth, the Harvard Gazette describes him as one of “America’s intellectual giants” and “a revolutionary thinker far ahead of his time.” On the topic of attending Harvard, Du Bois famously said: “I’m in Harvard, not of it” and, upon completion of his Ph.D., “The honor, I assure you, was Harvard’s.”

With the rabid political and social push to undo the gains in inclusion that Claudine Gay’s appointment as president signaled, universities and all institutions need to decide who they want to be. If they value a democratic, inclusive and diverse society, they need to do the work and take preemptive, actionable steps to safeguard those values. This means taking responsibility and educating themselves in the machinations of gendered racism to understand the protections and support needed to ensure the success of Black and underrepresented leaders, students, staff and faculty. And they have to be firm, clear and unapologetic about how unacceptable the alternative is for all, and especially our future generations.

No amount of evidence is sufficient to convey the devastating impact that comes from Claudine’s Gay resignation. Are we, as Lorde reminds us, not meant to belong and survive in these environments, despite the gains we have supposedly made across centuries? I hope that history will prove Du Bois’ point right and that Harvard remains proud and does the work to retain the honor of naming Claudine Gay as president and signaling to the world, and to those of us who have an affiliation with the university, that we indeed are “of” and not merely “in” those institutions. One way or another, we will survive, as we have always, even when we weren’t meant to.

Zaire Z. Dinzey-Flores is a sociologist and urban planner specializing in the study of race, class, and the built environment. She is currently an associate professor in sociology and the Department of Latino and Caribbean studies, where she serves as chair. She is the author of “Locked In, Locked Out: Gated Communities in a Puerto Rican City” (University of Pennsylvania Presss, 2013).

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