Current Date: Mon, 10 Mar 2014 22:38:13 -0400
She didn’t mean to make history — she only wanted to study it.
“I was born in the 1970s, so I generally don’t go down for being first anything,” Blair Kelley said.
Yet she recently became the first black woman to be tenured in N.C. State University’s history department after being hired on the tenure track in 2002.
“My department has a pretty good reputation of really wonderful women faculty, but we’re the minority, as I think we are in all kinds of places,” she said.
This underrepresentation of females, as well as racial minorities, in tenured positions is not confined to Raleigh — it is a national issue, and it is one that UNC is also dealing with. Instead, women are overrepresented in fixed-term positions.
“In general, we have seen that as the academic profession has seen growth of contingent faculty — that those positions tend to be more occupied by women faculty,” said Anita Levy, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors’ Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance.
In the fall of 2013, 31 percent of UNC’s tenured faculty consisted of women, as did 43 percent of tenure track faculty — on the other hand, women made up 56 percent of UNC’s fixed-term faculty.
Associate research professor Sue Tolleson-Rinehart said while one can still rise to full professorship as a fixed-term faculty member, they don’t have the long-term security and freedom that comes with tenure.
“Probably the biggest difference is the sense of security — unless the University collapses or unless I’m out there having sex with animals on the street,” she said. “In some ways a tenured academic position is one of the real bastions of real job security left.”
While tenure does provide this sense of permanence, Executive Vice Provost Ron Strauss said many faculty members — both women and men — choose not to pursue tenure.
“I’ve watched people write about the fixed-term as if it’s a second-class citizenship, and that is just not the case at Carolina,” he said. “Some of our most dedicated and celebrated faculty, award-winning teachers, are fixed-term faculty. They hold all the rights and privileges of other faculty members.”
Strauss said the University is trying to make improvements to attract more women to tenured positions, including publishing faculty studies, adding time to the tenure clock and targeted hiring programs.
“Nobody will pretend to you that things are okay,” he said. “With a woman at the helm of the University in the chancellor’s position, there is no question that the campus aspires to having gender equity.”
The Appointments, Promotions and Tenure Committee is in charge of promoting faculty to tenure at UNC. Rosann Farber, a member of the committee, said there is no discrimination involved in the tenuring process.
“There are probably more females than there are males on the committee, if anything,” she said.
Farber said she thinks many women with families, especially those with young children, feel like they have to spend more time with their loved ones instead of pursuing their careers.
“(This) is often the case for people who are, for example, going for promotions to associate professor because these are the people who are still in their childbearing years,” she said.
N.C. State’s Kelley, who has two young children, was able to obtain tenure. She does, however, acknowledge the difficulties.
“Thinking about the things that you can’t do because of your family is hard,” she said. “It gets easier as the kids get older, but I made the mistake of being a mom again, a late blooming mom — it’s been quite tricky, but it’s worth it, and I like the challenge.”
Tolleson-Rinehart, who was a full professor with tenure at Texas Tech University before accepting her fixed-term position at UNC, said she hopes to see younger female faculty members pursue promotions.
“It doesn’t mean there’s active discrimination against women academics — it does mean we haven’t succeeded in having men valuing their family responsibilities as much as they do their career responsibilities,” she said.
“I think one of the things we have to ask is when will these kinds of family considerations matter just as much to young men as they do to young women.”
Kelley, who shared Tolleson-Rinehart’s sentiments, also said she agrees the presence of female professors is necessary to set an example and lead to further progress. She said the impact she can have on her students is why she entered academia in the first place.
“I‘ve had women students come up to me saying, ‘Oh, you have kids? I didn‘t know you could have kids and be a professor.’ That hurts a little because you want women to think, ‘I can have a whole life and do this if I choose.’”