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The Color of the Classroom

A lack of black faculty on tenure track and difficulties recruiting professors of color complicate Kenyon’s effort to increase diversity on campus

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On an early morning in April 1996, Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield and Professor of English Ted Mason met with urgent business to discuss.

The College had just delivered the results of its tenure review, and half the black faculty found themselves out of a job. Assistant Professor of History Robert Hinton had been denied tenure, Assistant Professor of Psychology G. Renoir McDonaugh was denied a second reappointment, and, suddenly, Sheffield and Mason found themselves the only two black professors remaining at Kenyon.

The men looked at each other and made a solemn pact.

“If you go, I go.”

Twenty years later, and 40 years since Kenyon hired its first black professor, an English instructor named Kenneth Bluford, the number of black faculty members has increased significantly. Kenyon now has 12 black professors, all tenured, across various departments. But with no new black faculty currently on tenure track, several retirements on the way, and difficulty recruiting professors of color, the College may be taking a step back in its commitment to diversity.

“Some of us are 60 years or older, which means that we may not be here for much longer,” Sheffield said. “It’s quite possible that two or three of us … could be gone before there’s another African-American who becomes tenured to the faculty.”

Sheffield pointed out that when compared to losing faculty of another historically underrepresented group at Kenyon — women — this idea seems rather jarring.

“Let’s say you’re a young woman at this college [in 1969, when women first enrolled],” he said. “And someone said to you, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re not going to tenure any more women to our faculty for oh, seven years, 10 years.’ That would be one of the most absurd things you would ever hear.”

The intricacies of tenure

The tenure process itself is extensive. The Tenure and Promotion Committee (TPC) is tasked with reviewing faculty members at three different stages in their Kenyon careers — a pre-tenure review in a faculty member’s third year, a tenure review in the sixth year, and a review for full promotion to professor (as opposed to associate or assistant professor) generally in the 13th year.

Comprised of seven tenured representatives from each academic division of the College, the TPC reviews a prospectus, a CV, a department letter, five letters from colleagues at Kenyon, three letters from colleagues not affiliated with Kenyon, course evaluations, and as many as 20 letters from students in deciding whether to grant a professor tenure.

The decision to grant tenure is based primarily on merit and whether the faculty member under review meets or fails to meet expectations in teaching excellence, scholarly and artistic engagement, and collegiate citizenship. Factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation do not play a role in this process.

“There is no explicit instruction anywhere in terms of what this committee is supposed to do that enjoins upon it to consider diversity, race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic background, or any of those things. … Each case is considered as an organic whole,” said Professor of History Jeff Bowman, who heads the TPC.

“We don’t think that simply having an ethnic or racial identity contributes to successful teaching,” Provost Joe Klesner echoed. “Now, it may well be that somebody who is African-American can bring to the classroom an important, different perspective. But the question is whether they are [doing so] successfully.”

Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84 agreed. “I think all my colleagues would say that they would never want to feel that the reason they were given tenure was in any way influenced by … their race,” he said. “I think they would want to say, ‘I am as good a teacher as anybody else who is here. My scholarship is as good as anybody else’s scholarship. My work and engagement with this community is as good as anybody else’s.’ I don’t think that’s something that anybody would ever want to question, and I certainly wouldn’t want anybody to question that about me.”

Within the faculty, 76 percent identify as white, 6.6 percent identify as Asian or Pacific islander, 6.1 percent identify as black, 4.8 percent identify as Hispanic, and 0.4 percent identify as American-Indian or Alaskan. The racial background of 5.7 percent of faculty is “unknown,” according to data from the Provost’s Office.

Some students of color explained they take comfort in having a professor of a similar background, and many remarked it can even add to their classroom experience.

“At a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), having a professor of a similar race (preferably non-white) matters and means a lot,” Abraham Lawal ’16 wrote in an email to The Collegian Magazine. “It allows for the student and professor to build a connection with each other.”

Benjamin Adekunle-Raji ’17 echoed Lawal. “Seeing a professor of color in your classroom immediately soothes the soul, almost as if you get that, ‘Thank God, I know at least in this class I probably won’t hear some super ignorant mess or be singled out as living anecdotal evidence because I’m the only the black student in the class, or maybe even the only student of color in the class,” he wrote in an email to The Collegian Magazine. “It’s comfortable being able to explore the differences in perspective between members of a common identity, rather than having to be the sole representative of that identity.”

Investigating diversity

The College’s attempt to foster diversity in the classroom is not a recent effort. After the events of 1996, for example, Bill Lowry ’56 — the fifth black man to graduate from Kenyon and the first black trustee — worked with faculty including Mason and Sheffield to start a variety of programs targeting diversity, including task forces and a dissertation/teaching fellowship.

The 1987 Task Force on Diversity, 1989 Colloquium on Diversity, and 1991 Task Groups discussed diversity issues within the student body, faculty, and staff, with a particular focus on supporting underrepresented groups on campus and developing a well-rounded curriculum that would enhance the experiences of all.

“Diversity is not [only] about students of color; it’s about really the climate of the College,” Sheffield said. “What we confirmed through the diversity task force was that diversity was absolutely essential for the learning experience of all students.”

President Sean Decatur agreed. “I think that [diversity is] the piece that really does enrich the academic and intellectual experience on campus,” he said. “An educational experience can be strengthened … [by having the] opportunity to have conversations or interact or talk with people who have different backgrounds, different experiences than yourself.”

The College’s teaching fellowship aims to help promote this diverse academic experience. Named after a former trustee and editor of the National Black Law Journal, the Marilyn Yarbrough Dissertation/Teaching Fellowship provides a stipend for one or two scholars to live at Kenyon for a year, complete their dissertation, teach a course, and learn more about the liberal arts environment. The scholarship requires applicants to be members of “underrepresented groups” such as ethnic minorities, first-generation college attendees, women in fields traditionally taught by men, and men in fields traditionally taught by women.

The program serves to usher in new talent, welcome diverse perspectives, and show fellows that Kenyon can provide the same opportunities as research-based institutions. While the program is not specifically intended to facilitate the hiring of new faculty, the College has, on occasion, considered fellows for a job if one later becomes available. Current faculty members who participated in the Yarbrough program include Professor of Sociology Marla Kohlman, Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld and James D. and Cornelia W. Ireland Professor of Music Reginald Sanders.

“I found it a really good opportunity to feel what it feels like to be faculty,” Schoenfeld said. “At one’s graduate institution (at least for me), I was firmly entrenched in my identity as a graduate student. So I had a chance to do some teaching, but I felt very much a gulf between myself and my professors. And here, I was invited to attend department meetings. … It felt almost like an apprenticeship and it was really helpful.”

Mason, current head of the fellowship and associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, also praised the program’s mission. 

“One of the great things about the program is that it has succeeded in bringing vibrant, new faculty members here who enriched the curriculum and the life of the College,” he said.

Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld, only the third tenured black woman in the College’s 192-year-old history, reads in her office.

Forming support systems

While the College has worked to increase racial representation, it has also attempted to provide resources for those it brings to campus. In recent years, Kenyon has founded a series of affinity groups — support groups for faculty, staff, and administration based on ethnic or cultural background. Among these networks are groups for faculty members who identify as women, Asian, African-American, or LGBTQ+.

Monique L. Jernigan, the assistant director of diversity, equity and inclusion, helped start the Professional Women of Color at Kenyon (PWOCK) group after arriving at the College three years ago.

“I think it’s definitely made me more fond of Kenyon, just because I’m young, I’m of color, I don’t have any kids, I’m not married, so what else is there to do when [I’m] not working?” Jernigan said. “It allowed me to build connections outside of my professional role, and not just with people I work with, but with people I wouldn’t necessarily come into contact with.”

Jernigan said the affinity groups serve as a support system for faculty who may experience difficulties establishing connections or acclimating to the College’s more isolated environment. 

“With college students, it’s different because you’re already in a cohort of your own. You’re all first years,” she said. “For employees, it’s more difficult to find your group. But I do know it’s not impossible.”

The College also holds a faculty development seminar every summer, called “Crossroads,” to examine issues related to African and African-American studies.

“One of the things it has developed for us is a common ground and a community that is both academic and social so that you can engage with people who share your cultural background but also share your intellectual interests,” Tazewell said.

Searching for faculty

Despite these measures, problems remain regarding faculty representation and the ways in which Kenyon attracts and evaluates candidates.

Within the faculty ranks, there is a “relative paucity of black women,” according to Sheffield. Of the dozen tenured black faculty, nine are men. And until the last few years, only one black woman — Kohlman — was a tenured professor. Associate Professor of History Sylvie Coulibaly earned tenure in 2013, and Schoenfeld earned tenure in 2014, for a total of three black tenured women faculty in Kenyon’s history.

Schoenfeld isn’t personally bothered by the gender gap, but thinks Kenyon should work to reduce it. “It has not made me uncomfortable because they are wonderful men,” she said of her tenured colleagues. “But it does suggest that Kenyon has work to do. There does need to be a better balance. From an experiential perspective, it’s been fine, but from an equity perspective, I think Kenyon needs to look at that.”

According to Sheffield, Kenyon finds some of its faculty through an “old boys’ network” that stems from current or former faculty members’ connections and recommendations. “I suspect some of [the lack of black tenured women] has to do with faculty networks,” he said. “Who are your colleagues? Who are the people with whom you study or with whom you’ve done research or collaborate? If those networks don’t include women of color, then they oftentimes don’t come to the attention of this college and the hiring process.”

Despite the “old boys’ network,” Kenyon practices equal-opportunity employment by making its positions open to everyone, regardless of background. Candidates do not list their race, gender, or other identifying information on their online applications but can report them to the Equal Opportunity Office if they so choose. However, departments making hiring recommendations do not have access to that information.

Tazewell believes this non-discriminatory stance can, at times, be problematic. “I know the reason for [equal opportunity hiring] is to avoid the negative, to avoid the possibility that there would be any discrimination against those people, but at the same time, by not having that information at all, it doesn’t allow us to be positive and opportunistic and aggressive in making sure those people get on the short list.”

The administration recognizes the issue’s complexity and hopes to shorten the hiring timeline, “if it meets the important collegiate goal of adding diversity to the faculty,” Klesner said. “But you see that the goal runs at variance with the goal of equal-opportunity searches.”

Further challenges

Kenyon’s hiring process is not the only deterrent to a diverse faculty. Limited resources and competition from other higher-education institutions can pose a problem as well, Klesner said.

“If Yale is throwing $50 million at [increasing diversity] and Brown is throwing tens of millions of dollars at the matter, and you kind of go around to different places, you can see a challenge there,” he said. “We think that Kenyon is a great place for someone to work as a professor, but when Yale comes knocking, it’s pretty hard to say no.”

Knox County’s demographics also complicate matters. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 report, 96.8 percent of the residents are white, and one percent is black. Coupled with Kenyon’s isolated, rural location, these factors could dissuade applicants hailing from more diverse, urban areas, according to Jernigan.

“I think there’s a challenge there [in that] students, faculty and staff that come from diverse backgrounds are used to living in a diverse area,” she said.

Sheffield, who grew up in Mount Vernon, agreed. He said his students often doubt his roots, because they rarely see people of color around town.

“The incredulity that I saw in their faces revealed to me their assumption that I couldn’t be from here because ‘there are no black people in Mount Vernon,’” he said.

Moving to a predominantly white community might intimidate potential black professors, according to Jernigan.

“I think for some faculty of color in particular, moving to a not-diverse place in the middle of Ohio might not sound appealing, and they might not bother to apply unless someone they know said, ‘I know someone at Kenyon, and it’s actually a good place to work,’” she said.

Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield leads a discussion.

Decatur agreed. “I think that part of our communication to prospective candidates is making sure that we are giving people the information they might need about how they can build a life here,” he said. “Regardless of race or gender or background, rural Ohio isn’t going to be for everyone. And that’s something that I think we need to recognize, but I think we can make a good case for how it can work out for a range of families.”

Forming a better relationship with the surrounding Gambier, Mount Vernon, and Knox County community is essential to ensuring all candidates feel comfortable, Tazewell said.

“I do think the College could use its influence as one of the largest employers in the county, and as one of the oldest institutions in the county, to work with the local community to say, ‘What is it that you’re doing to make this a more welcoming place?’” he said.

Future prospects

Though location, demographics, and recruitment and hiring strategies can pose challenges to fostering diversity at Kenyon, the College is working to find solutions.

According to Klesner, Kenyon could increase diversity within the faculty by refining the College’s recruitment process and being more “aggressive” in targeting candidates of color. “Efforts that I think are important are reaching out to people we know who are at the graduate schools and letting them know that we are especially eager to hire candidates … from minority backgrounds because we want to make gains there,” he said.

In addition, Decatur wants to expand the Yarbrough program to “cast the net as widely as possible.” As a dissertation fellowship, the Yarbrough program is only available to students completing a dissertation. Graduate students doing post-doctorate programs or pursuing a Master of Fine Arts do not write a dissertation, making them ineligible for the fellowship. This, in turn, can limit the number of candidates of color who are drawn to Kenyon.

Changing the program’s structure or considering alternative options may make Kenyon more appealing to candidates. More flexible policies could also impact visiting professors of color deciding whether to apply for a more permanent position. This past year, for instance, the College allowed Arianna Smith, an assistant professor of biology and a woman of color, to take time off in order to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship at Michigan State’s medical school for the next three years. When she returns, she will be put on tenure track, but it could take at least five years before the TPC hears her review.

Even if Smith becomes tenured, the College cannot be complacent in its efforts to recruit a diverse range of people, Tazewell said. “The institution gets to a place where it feels like, ‘We have kind of arrived. Oh, look, now we have more faculty, so we must have done something right.’ And then complacency sets in, where you no longer feel there’s a crisis, and you no longer feel that there’s any need to be opportunistic.”

The College has made strides, though. In the past few months, Kenyon’s faculty and students have worked together to create dialogue surrounding racial politics and representation, as well as join in the #BlackLivesMatter movement that has surfaced at colleges across the country. From a solidarity sit-in in November to the Black Student Union’s Black History Month events (which included historical trivia, a professor panel, workshops, and a #BlackIs photo gallery, among others), Kenyon is hoping to stimulate more conversation — and action — on campus.

“We’re being ahistorical if we say, ‘Race doesn’t matter anymore; we’ve arrived at a place in American society where everyone is equal, where the law protects everyone, and, therefore, race isn’t significant,’” Sheffield said. “That’s not true. We’re not in a post-racial America. And Kenyon, I think, is a beneficiary of a change in culture, nationwide and worldwide, but at the same time, there’s more to be done. … It is a complex story whose endings have yet to be written.”


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