Hiring “Qualified” People of Color is not Enough
November 10, 2021
By Phuong Nguyen, Associate Professor of US History, Humanities and Communication Department
Back in the spring of 2015, I was finishing up my second year at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. We had organized the region’s first Asian American film festival and given the larger community something to be excited about as far as diversity, equity, and inclusion were concerned. Being from California—and having lived in big cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Chicago—I would’ve never expected to end up at a campus that was 80% white, in a town that was only a little more diverse. But such are the turns in a profession where any tenure-line job is a good line, no matter the pay, the place, and the people. Especially with a name like mine. So I would teach Asian American Studies at a school that was only 5% Asian at best. And very frigid during the winter months. Any advisor, mine included, would welcome this great news and urge me to do whatever necessary to get tenure. For people like him, getting tenure meant finishing the book manuscript on time.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. I should’ve known my advisor’s blueprint for success needed updating when I learned that this position in Asian American Studies was created only after years of agitation by activists on and off campus. The person who was already teaching these courses on the rare occasion her schedule permitted greeted me in a display of jubilation I had never seen from another colleague in my professional life. The lunchtime part of my interview was conducted in a windowless room where two faculty members gave me the fifth degree. They didn’t want me to recite my CV or regale them with my theoretical insights. They needed to know if I was worthy of this honor that was made possible by the collective sacrifice of so many dedicated souls. For them it wasn’t just a job. Whomever got this job would be a part of their family.
It didn’t take long for me to see why. On the first day I arrived in my new role, an HR representative of Dominican background who I had never met recognized me on the spot and said the campus was very excited to have me here. During my first year, people were reeling over the loss of an irreplaceable Black faculty duo. During my second year, the only Black faculty member in my department—someone who was instrumental in uniting the campus and inspiring his students—was denied tenure. His annual parties for Halloween and Afrish—his version of St. Patrick’s Day given his heritage—were awesome spaces where African Americans and other folks of color could mingle. It was through luck and foresight that another department on campus rectified this error by hiring him for another tenure-line position. One by one, we lost valuable Black faculty and staff from the Office of Legal Counsel, student affairs, and multicultural affairs. It wasn’t just that we were losing people of color. In all honesty, we had other people of color in other departments. But it seemed like we were losing folks who cared about more than just their individual careers. Our HR representative organized periodic coffee hours for the ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, and Native American) community, our deputy from the Office of Legal Counsel hosted large super bowl parties every year, while her husband was likely the town’s first and only African American police chief. These are the kinds of folks who went above and beyond to make the institution a place you wanted to work at, and made the town the place you wanted to be a part of. They were ones we should always be trying to hire. Their presence was so valuable that it should have made sense for the administration to retain them at all costs.
Instead, the college president at the time tried to divide people of color against each other. When the on-campus anti-racism movement of 2015 exposed the hostile racial climate at our institution, this president assembled the Black junior faculty in a cynical attempt to inoculate himself from charges of bias and pressure them against siding with the student protestors. Luckily, his ploy failed and he wound up stepping down a year later, but not without firing some faculty of color along the way.
Believe it or not, the same dynamic applies here at CSUMB. This campus is far more diverse, but any sense of community among people of color would vanish if only a handful of people left for other opportunities. If we want to become a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution, we can’t just think about faculty who have great traditional qualifications. Of course we want everyone to get tenure, but people don’t work hard in isolation. They need mentors, colleagues, and friends. We need to support those people who go above and beyond, and make them the standard by which we hire more faculty. That’s probably one of the easier ways to make recruitment and retention more of a reality here.