Dear College President and Provost,
I hope this letter finds you both well. Since spring 2019 was my last semester, I am writing to share some of my experiences with the hope that my insights might offer you a different perspective of life at the college for BIPOC. Since my campus interview in 2013 up until my departure, I worked under two presidents, three provosts, three deans, three chairs, and four program directors. To say that the university was unstable in those six years is obviously an understatement, so I admired the peace that you were trying to instill which, in turn, motivated my decision to reach out to you here. I am not expecting a response to this letter, but I felt it was imperative that I write it anyway.
My sincere apologies that I could not write this letter sooner as family issues got in the way. I never had any intention of choking my voice and always planned to offer you an image of the structural oppositions that people who look like me face in the predominantly white and hostile departments and programs that permeate the college. In my inability to write this sooner, I fear that yet another dominant, racist white narrative at the college has gone unchecked: namely, the willful ignorance surrounding the racial delusions that my departure, as well as that of other folk who look like me, was rooted in the simple desire for better resources and prestige elsewhere. You must know better than this.
You must know better than this!
For far too long, the conversations about retaining BIPOC faculty at the college have centered on support for tenure. This logic assumes that tenure and promotion are something difficult for us. I assure you that this has not been the case for me or my peers. My generation of successful Brown and Black professionals are a mobile generation and the most decorated amongst us do one thing when an institution continually devalues us: we leave. This is as true for academia as it is for law, medicine, and business, especially for successful Black women, as I am sure you are both well aware given the ready availability of such statistical data. This is also especially true for people like me who worked for six years at a salary much lower than male counterparts when their comparative CVs did not justify their higher salaries. While there were no attempts to correct this wrong against my labor and intellect, there were plenty of ploys to get me to do MORE uncompensated work far beyond the scope of what would ever be considered reasonable or equitable. All of this is just to say that Brown and Black faculty are not out here struggling with tenure and promotion requirements; none of us would have made it into and out of PhD programs, racially exclusive and hostile as they are, if we were struggling with research and writing processes. Like most places, the college excelled in: 1) the continuum between outright neglect and layered silencing of BIPOC faculty; 2) shrouded guidelines and continual shifts around tenure and promotion requirements; 3) unacknowledged exploitation of uncompensated BIPOC labor towards service and away from scholarship (resulting in a white-racialized structure of who is supported materially and symbolically as a serious researcher/ scholar/ writer), and last, but certainly not least; 4) the chronic mismanagement of hot-mess departments that couldn’t direct somebody through empty traffic much less a university procedure. When my former colleagues and administrators claim that I left the college because this is just my personality, you must know that this is merely a cover-up for all that is wrong with them. When top administrators feel emboldened to declare that a Black woman professor is only leaving because that’s her personality (that was said to me), that is a sure sign of the institutional incompetence in retaining them and will require a radical facelift in the colleges’ rogue team of untrained/untheoried leaders who have vacated a research expertise of their work. I have only ever left a university when I found its racialized exploitation, anti-blackness, organizational incompetence, and misogynoir intolerable. Any discourse about my departure that deliberately ignores the hostile and inept environments that make a place unbearable for faculty of color like me obfuscates the college’s failure to develop effective recruitment and retention models for BIPOC and promotes the racism that the institution sustains. After teaching at multiple universities in the NJ/NY area, my experiences at your college remain the whitest and the most alienating. Any explanation for my departure outside of these terms is just another example of routine gaslighting or, to quote Mary J. Blige, some real basic hateration/holleration in this dancerie. When non-Black faculty and administrators insist that positive, racial change has arrived to campus and yet struggle to recruit and retain Black, tenured faculty, the empirical evidence is simply not on their side. I share these experiences to contend that a university which does not value we high-achieving Brown and Black scholar-researchers is not a place that can ever critically educate students who look like us either.
Real basic hateration!
The fact of the matter is this: being a professor at the college meant career and financial sacrifice. Even the difference in the larger contribution that my previous university made to my retirement funds (though I worked at your college longer) was SIGNIFICANT. For sure, we do not choose the City University of New York (CUNY) to become rich and famous; we know that the resources and salaries will never be competitive. And truth be told, with the exception of those who have wealthy spouses and/or family backgrounds (a significant percentage of the faculty, by the way), employment at CUNY cannot financially sustain even basic housing in NYC today. When I look at all of the professional and financial sacrifices, just to be at a place where I was ignored, disrespected, and marginalized, I have real questions about the institution’s commitment to diversity and equity and why any BIPOC stay. The most strong-willed will leave or, when that is not physically possible, find a way to do the work they are called to do in scholarly communities far away from the campus. Attrition rates do not even begin to convey what you have really lost.
It is not my intent here to run a discursive style that might sound like I am singing an old Lou Rawls tune: You’re gonna miss my lovin. Institutions pick up and go along as if we were never there, but they do so at the grave risk of repeating past mistakes and never truly moving forward. My experiences as woman of color/Black Feminist/first-generation college-goer/working class Hip Hopper/AfroDigital Humanities teacher illuminate more mistakes than successes. Though my negative experiences have been countless, I will share a few instances here.
More than attrition!
I’ll begin with my last semester at the college as part of the Gender Studies advisory board who attempted to revise the undergraduate major in Gender Studies, particularly those parts that promoted horribly whitewashed and white colonized historical content. In fact, the history curriculum in Gender Studies was more Western European in its content and racist in its outlook than anything I had witnessed in schools, even going back to when I began teaching in NYC public high schools in 1993. The response to our curricular revision in Gender Studies was met with such hostility from white faculty and administration that I felt the need to address the issues in a letter to the dean (that letter is attached here… click and read this mess). After learning of our proposed changes to the Gender Studies curriculum, history faculty secured letters from faculty across CUNY (with the HIS chair praising their efforts) about our work in Gender Studies. The most prominent CUNY faculty who wrote letters in support of HIS faculty rescinded their support after learning what these HIS classes really entail. That formerly supportive faculty also informed me that the HIS faculty themselves wrote the prose, merely asking faculty across CUNY to cut and paste their words into an email to the Dean. When they began quoting from these letters, they knew that they were, in fact, merely referencing their own words. When the advisory committee withdrew the revisions to the curriculum, the HIS department then sent emails to their original letter writers thanking them with the following message: “we accomplished our goal.” The only thing that they seemed to achieve was a bullying of the faculty who volunteered without any recognition or compensation to run an interdisciplinary program and the maintenance of a recalcitrant white colonized curriculum. This kind of curriculum, pedagogy, and discourse are quite literally rewarded and protected at the college and it is an embarrassment.
This particular instance with Gender Studies serves as an example and not an exemplar. I arrived exhausted by the battles and racist attacks that I had witnessed and fought at my previous colleges. Your college only added new dimensions and taught me that I can trust no institution to treat BIPOC well and hence I no longer expect it. That pessimism is, in fact, the only gift that your college gave me.
It was simply routine for faculty of color to describe senior white faculty who had reprimanded them for congregating with other faculty of color in the physical spaces and meetings of the college. I am not sure what shocked me most: 1) that POC faculty obeyed these plantation-styled surveillance regimes; 2) that the university does not face more discrimination law suits, or; 3) that the college has chosen these same white faculty as administrators today. I mean, really, this is the kind of stuff that made Marvin Gaye write songs like “What’s Going On” because this kind of madness needs its own whole melody. The outrageous behaviors of hostile faculty against BIPOC went unchecked in all of my encounters, especially in the first semester of my arrival with a dean and chair who remain the most unsupportive of any that I have encountered. I tape-recorded the discussion of my first classroom observation and, unsurprisingly, the tapes revealed major discrepancies between what was said and what the administrator recorded as evidence of the discussion. I secured a lawyer to review my legal options given the egregiousness of the encounter and the final record. I only decided to forego pursuing the obvious legal breaches so that I can present and write freely and openly about the events on a national stage. Since then, I have advised countless Brown and Black faculty to consult their state laws about recorded conversations and their allowance in court rooms, a lesson courtesy of my experiences at your college where a routine classroom observation did not follow basic, ethical employment guidelines.
In my time at the college, I was further accused by a white faculty member of stealing his property. My mail was opened and damaged on three, separate occasions. Since these three items included a paycheck, an honorarium, and a contract, it seemed obvious to me that my mail was targeted. On yet other occasions, when I would, for instance, inadvertently leave a text on the photocopy machine in what was then a locked room in the department (that only faculty could access), my papers were shredded with careful attention paid to ripping words and sentences that represented racial critique by BIPOC. I have actually kept these pieces of paper so that I can show national audiences exactly what macro-aggressions look like for BIPOC. None of these events are particularly surprising or new, but these kinds of routine experiences call into question the college’s market campaigns about “educating for justice” with a predominantly Brown and Black student body in a city with the highest concentrations of Black/Brown populations in the country. To keep the old skool R&B playlist running here, I’ll go with Keith Sweat on this one: “sumthin, sumthin just ain’t right.”
…Sumthin sumthin just ain’t right!
As a discourse community, the culture was further troubling. I heard, on countless occasions, faculty and administrators describe their desire for administrative work in terms of being able “to get out of the classroom.” When I arrived, I had left an administrative position with a 1/1 load, then turned down a more competitive offer at a state university campus with a 2/2 load and smaller classes, just so that I could get back into the classroom. I chose the college for the heavy teaching load and for its students and ended up traveling all over the country to cull and share research-based ideas and theories about 21st century Brown and Black classrooms because there was NO such intellectual exchange at the college. To say that I was disappointed would be a compliment. It was also incredibly difficult to listen to faculty talk about minimizing their time in Brown and Black classrooms while performing a self-congratulatory righteousness that they were doing the greater good by racking up years of course releases with their “service.” A very specific language was consistent and repetitive: doing administrative/leadership work meant getting out of teaching and being able to pick up one’s children in time from school (and in each of these instances, the speaker meant an expensive, private or parochial school). I heard so many public, paternalistic pronouncements about us doing “the best that we can” from faculty who sent their children to elite and/or private schools and colleges (even expending extra endowments to them) that it became nauseating. What does it mean to celebrate doing “the best with what little we have” for what education scholars call “other people’s children” when you would never call those same things good enough for your own children (or the children in your segregated neighborhood)? I share these re-occurring instances as an indication of the kind of toxicity experienced by a woman of color who had to constantly hear the students of color and people in her communities discussed in this way.
It also became increasingly more intolerable to hear faculty comments about the allegations of sexual misconduct that were investigated in 2018-2019. I appreciated the Climate Review process but did not feel safe in attending a focus group with faculty given the nature of many of their attitudes. On multiple occasions, faculty initiated conversations with me defending the actions of the male faculty members who were investigated. Most often, faculty insisted that each of these three men, naming each of them separately as longtime friends/colleagues, had consensual sexual relations with the undergraduate students who filed the complaint. I did not solicit these conversations and yet these were the so-called “facts” presented to me. I heard very little sympathy for the accusers, but all manner of excuses for the accused. I didn’t know what to say to my faculty peers other than to simply insist: my momma taught me betta than that. At one point, the lawyer of one of the accused emailed countless faculty, explaining that the accused did research in poor and Black and Brown communities and learned to mimick these people’s lingo and affect for greater street-cred; students, in turn, merely misinterpreted the casual, street vibe. As someone who comes from these po folk and these very same streets, I can assure you that we do not look and sound anything like what this lawyer suggested and we most certainly were not groomed to commit acts of violence to people under our care as representative of our “street lingo.” Like I said before, we were taught betta than that. Listening to all this became, in of and of itself, another form of violence. It should come as no surprise that for someone on the outside of the old-crony gangs that roam the college, and as someone on the outside of the mainstream/ whitestream ideological apparatus that seemingly dominates all space there, the campus climate just became more and more unbearable.
It deeply saddened me to leave the young people at the college who gave me life for six years. My entire career has been dedicated to the education of Black and Brown youth so it was an honor to do part of that almost 30-year career work at your college. Though it was difficult to leave them, it was more difficult to watch institutional actors refuse to see or match students’ brilliance in ways that are commensurate with a culturally-sustaining and critical education rather than the current colonial, rudimentary-skills-based, vocational training that racism and white settler logics have designed for them. My only salvation today is in knowing that the communities and ancestral heritages that myself and BIPOC college students represent have sustained far worse and will survive and thrive despite these new colonial regimes.
My heartfelt wishes for the work ahead of you!
p.s. You should know that I plan to go public with this letter (of course, omitting all specific references to the college) in the hopes that my unsilencing helps other BIPOC faculty out there somewhere. You should also know that when my former colleagues reach out to me to assuage their white guilt or racial complicity, I have no intention of responding to or comforting them. They have done enough damage and will no longer have access to my mind, body, or spirit. I have refrained from using the names of the perpetrators who I have catalogued here because they simply are not important enough (they are merely generally representative and not especially individual in their routine acts of violence), but should you ever want to know who I am referencing: I will be more than happy to spill that tea.
A BLOG NOTE: Part of my desire to write this letter has also been to add to the archive of Black and Brown feminists who have taught at CUNY. There is increased interest, for instance, in the archives of Black feminists like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and Toni Cade Bambara who started their teaching/writing/activist careers at CUNY. We learn important things from these archives: 1) that radical Black feminists were treated with disdain and disregard in their time at CUNY, despite the public celebrations performed for them decades later; 2) that radical Black feminists left behind a record such that their critiques and larger visions could never be appropriated without the truth behind their experiences; 3) that radical Black feminists worked with their students, often in isolation, to imagine alternative definitions and processes for a transformative, critical education for Brown and Black youth. I aspire to follow in their footsteps and also leave behind my own record. I hope that CUNY will someday end up on the right side of history when it comes to a radical Black feminist presence. It didn’t see it in my time there, but I remain hopeful that CUNY’s students might one day experience a culturally-sustaining and critical education. In the meantime, we can get real about what stands in the way.