My teenage daughter is a bit obsessed with TikTok, and watching a few videos here and there has become my guilty, not-so-secret-anymore pleasure. A young black woman, perhaps in her twenties, made a TikTok that popped up on my cell phone screen and she said, “The higher up we go, the fewer of us there are.” She was referring to her own industry, but I couldn’t help but think how accurate that statement is for those of us in higher education administration, too. According to a 2020 College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) report, one in five higher education positions are held by racial and ethnic minorities and the disparity among administrators and executive leadership is even greater. Racial and ethnic minorities are best represented in fiscal affairs leadership (28 percent) but vastly underrepresented in academic affairs (19 percent), athletics (11 percent) and research/health science (11 percent). Black and Hispanic women fare even worse, holding only 2 percent of athletics leadership positions and 3 percent of facilities, information technology, and research/health leadership positions (Whitford, “Who Holds”).
So often the lack of ethnoracial diversity among higher education professionals is chalked up to a “pipeline problem,” wherein there are not enough Black or Brown Ph.D. students, faculty members, and entry-level staff members to rise through the ranks and achieve racial parity among the faculty and upper-level administrators (Whitford, “There Are So Few”). However, as Emma Whitford points out, “…the pipeline problem is not the sole answer to the lack of diversity in higher ed. Flooding the pipeline — hiring people of color and admitting people of color into Ph.D. programs — doesn’t necessarily change the demographics at the top” (Whitford, “There Are So Few”). Higher ed as a whole has not taken enough action to recognize or address the ways that racism has been built into processes, protocols, and the very foundation of colleges and universities, never mind issues of microaggressions BIPOC faculty, staff, and administrators face. Much has been written about the invisible work that BIPOC faculty, staff, and administrators do in academia, as well as the lack of mentorship, sponsorship, and coaching we receive. The triple pandemic (COVID, social injustice, and the economic downturn) has served to exacerbate these pre-existing conditions. Despite these issues, there is work to do! So, what are some survival strategies for BIPOC higher education administrators (HEA) around common concerns? How can we thrive in this environment? I certainly do not have the answers bit wanted to share some thoughts about what has worked for me.
Something that I hear frequently from BIPOC HEA is that their work, their contributions, seem to be undervalued – particularly when the work is centered on or related to student equity issues. It is difficult not to let that kind of reaction steal your ganas. The translation of the word ganas from Spanish to English is a tough one – but I would explain it has your drive, your motivation, your desire to push ahead. When faced with this particular type of challenge, I try to ground myself by remembering WHY I do this work and WHO I am doing this work for. For me, I am on this path as a HEA to pay forward the opportunities that were offered to me and to invest in the students, faculty, and staff who have been under-resourced so they can pay it forward. I do this work because I have three young daughters, and I want better for them than I had. It also helps to seek out important professional relationships with those who have become my squad. These are the people who know the higher education landscape and know me. If you don’t have a squad – get one ASAP. Talking through the day-to-day grind as well as the big disappointments and accomplishments is essential for survival.
A good friend and colleague, Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean, recently said, “grit” is a four-letter word (Love). I couldn’t agree more. As BIPOC and women, resiliency, perseverance, adaptability, and the like have been tools in our toolboxes since grade school. Grit is in our DNA! What does resilience look like for me? It means cultivating a sense of humor, asking questions rather than reacting, reclaiming my agency in situations where others limit it (un/intentionally), and seeking pathways toward solutions. As BIPOC HEA, my authority, position, and expertise have been challenged; the literature is replete with examples of BIPOC leaders being undermined, worked around, and questioned. The strategies outlined here are key to survival, especially when paired with concrete actions around documenting troubling interactions and informing human resources, your supervisor, or witnesses when it is safe to do so.
While the work is important, and the aforementioned strategies can help, I must note that your mental health is paramount. Remember, you are a front-line worker during a triple pandemic and your need to engage in self-care—self-care that works for you. The rules offered to us by flight attendants before each flight during the pre-flight safety demonstration says it all: passengers should always fit his or her own mask on before helping children, the disabled, or any persons requiring assistance. Take care of yourself so you can do good work. That may mean you have to re-prioritize your schedule, adjust your own expectations about what you are able to accomplish, and process stress and emotion. None of these things have been easy for me, but I have accepted that they are essential for my ability to thrive in this profession.
Love, Bettina L. “’Grit is in our DNA’: Why Teaching Grit is Inherently Anti-Black,” Education Week, 12 February 2019, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-grit-is-in-our-dna-why-teaching-grit-is-inherently-anti-black/2019/02
Whitford, Emma. “There Are So Few That Have Made Their Way” Inside Higher Ed, October 28, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/28/black-administrators-are-too-rare-top-ranks-higher-education-it%E2%80%99s-not-just-pipeline
Whitford, Emma. “Who Holds Professional Positions In Higher Ed, and Who Gets Paid?” Inside Higher Ed, 6 May 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/05/06/report-details-gaps-women-and-minority-professionals-higher-ed