Discrimination, Microaggressions, and Unfair Treatment: FIU Professors Explain What It’s Like To Be Black in Academia

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

By: Teresa Schuster / Staff Writer

Amidst protests for racial justice, Black faculty members have taken to Twitter, using #BlackInTheIvory to share stories of racial bias in universities around the world.

FIU is no exception.

“I think [the movement] is necessary during this time, and can depict what it is like to be a Black faculty member on a day-to-day basis,” said Isaac Burt, an associate professor in FIU’s Counseling, Recreation, and Social Psychology department. “It sheds light on something a number of people may have ignored in the past.”

Academia is purportedly a meritocracy, but the way meritorious is defined is problematic, Burt said.

“Sometimes, as terrible as it sounds, people simplify ‘being meritorious’ and unconsciously link it to how a person looks,” he said. “These conscious and unconscious decisions amalgamate, and then a person, regardless of their efforts, is deemed ‘unworthy’ for recognition, promotion, or tenure.”

Burt says he’s experienced some of this himself.

Isaac Burt.

“I have had instances of white faculty commenting on my ‘appearance,’ insinuating that I do not belong here,” he said.

Black faculty are often made to feel they don’t belong, according to Antoinette Smith, an FIU accounting professor.

“If you google ‘professor’, a white male is going to come up, [or] a white female is going to come up,” Smith said. “Someone who doesn’t look like us.”

This mentality can spread to everyone on a university campus, and frequently extends to the classroom, said Smith.

“[Students] feel entitled to treat you inhuman[ly],” she said. “I don’t really have a better way of saying that.”

They feel entitled to challenge Black professors’ authority, and submit complaints about them more frequently, said Smith. The professors are forced to compensate by overemphasizing their credentials and accomplishments.

“We should not have to prove our worth,” Smith stated.

“We should not have to prove our worth,” Smith said.

Some of the animosity towards Black professors is due to their manner of teaching, according to her.


Antoinette Smith.

“We come from a history of being excluded from history books, and also of people not telling the whole truth [about] us, so we tend to have a different teaching style,” said Smith, explaining that Black professors often encourage students to do their own research apart from textbooks, which can be seen as unconventional.

“Professors of color have all seen the phrase ‘I didn’t learn anything’ from a student when we know that we have mastered the material and delivered it exceptionally well,” she said.

While Smith encounters less bias from students now, as a more senior professor, she says it remains common.

“It happens to all of us,” she said.

It’s especially harmful to Black professors since student evaluations play a role in tenure and promotion decisions, Smith pointed out. Complaints can determine a professor’s future.

“The wrong step, phrase, or look could end your career,” said Smith.

Sheryl Weir-Latty, an instructor at FIU, agrees, saying instructors’ security is “so heavily weighted on the words of students.”

Sheryl Weir-Latty.

“My position is temporary and I can be fired at any time,” said Weir-Latty, who teaches marketing. “There are two of us in [my] department of African descent. We’re both visiting [instructors]. We fear that a student could say something, and we are no longer able to do what we love to do.”

Weir-Latty believes there should be mechanisms to identify racial bias in student evaluations and complaints.

“There needs to be something in place that really examines the foundation of a student’s remarks when they’re complaining,” said Weir-Latty. “Is it a valid statement?”

Taking the bias against Black faculty into account when using student evaluations should be required, according to Smith.

“Executive administrators must be able to consider all factors when evaluating professors of color,” she said. “What’s the demographics of the classroom? Do students in this field typically encounter a professor of color? Did the executive administrator ask the professor about racial biases?”

Black faculty face more difficulties beyond the classroom.

Burt says a “mob mentality” can form in departments, hindering black faculty from achieving tenure and pursuing their research interests.

“Excessively criticizing a Black faculty [member’s] work in a prestigious journal, but applauding a white colleague’s research in the same journal with minimal judgment or critique,” he explained.

Some faculty do not consider researching race, bias, or discrimination “truly scholastic endeavors,” according to Burt, and look down on it “especially if a person of color is the researcher conducting those studies.”

Weir-Latty remembers a Black professor whose department refused to grant him tenure although he “met and surpassed” the criteria.

After he appealed to FIU’s provost, Weir-Latty said they granted it to him.

“But just imagine working in that position where you know that everyone you’re going to work with now was against your tenure,” she said.

Being a Black professor at FIU is “somewhat difficult,” according to Burt.

“I have experienced being completely invisible to my colleagues, but simultaneously hyper-visible,” he said, recalling FIU’s annual Martin Luther King Breakfast.

“I have experienced being completely invisible to my colleagues, but simultaneously hyper-visible,” he said, recalling FIU’s annual Martin Luther King Breakfast.

“A previous administrator never spoke to me except for when they asked me to attend the breakfast and sit at their table during the ceremony. At the time, there was only one other Black faculty member, whom they also ignored but asked them to attend as well,” said Burt. “After two years and recognizing the pattern, I politely declined their offer to attend.”

Burt says the environment in his department has been unrewarding, he’s experienced “numerous cases of microaggressions, unfair treatment, and discrimination,” and seen it done to others.

“An example is intentionally keeping information hidden from Black faculty, then blaming them for not knowing it when they ask,” he said.

Meetings are sometimes toxic as well, according to Weir-Latty, and some professors look down on Black faculty members.

“If you don’t view them as your intellectual equal, or knowing just as much as you do, you’ll see them and their input as unimportant,” Weir-Latty said.

FIU offers ways to report instances of bias, but according to FIU’s Title IX coordinator, Shirlyon McWhorter, cases are “not always easy to prove” although the implicit bias is prevalent.

“We can see it in hiring and firing decisions that we make every day in terms of promotions and things like that,” said McWhorter.

FIU offers training on implicit bias, but McWhorter said it is non-mandatory.

“I tend to think that the people who need it most are the people who are less likely to attend these trainings,” she said. “I don’t know [that] there’s a ton of people, but I know that when it comes to diversity and discrimination, biases, prejudice, things like that, people [who] consciously engage in them are less likely to attend training voluntarily.”

If the office of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access determines a person was biased, sanctions can range from a written reprimand to firing, depending on the allegation’s severity and whether it was the first offense.

“Be willing to say something if you see something,” McWhorter said. “If I’m an African American student and I’m sitting in class and I raise my hand and I never get chosen, [and the professor] always calls on the non-Black students, that shows up as maybe unconscious bias he’s not even aware of.”

This harms everyone involved, according to McWhorter.

“[It] impacts the students heavily, which is why it’s so important for FIU to work and make sure that we have more professors of color in the classroom,” she said.

Weir-Latty agrees that this is important.

She says a Black student of hers was inspired to become a professor herself, after seeing Weir-Latty in that role.

“If you don’t see a person [like you] in a job position, you’re going to choose another path,” she said.

Black professors are viewed as less capable, one reason why they aren’t hired as much, according to Vanessa Vieites, a psychology Ph.D. student at FIU.

“Biases have been shown to affect employers’ hiring decisions, even when given fake but identical resumes,” said Vieites. “Black and Latinx PhDs, especially those who are women, tend to be viewed as less competent or hireable than comparable white or Asian PhDs”

Intersectionality plays a role in this, Vieites pointed out.

“A Black man may be thought of as more competent than a Black woman because he’s a man,” said Vieites. “A Black woman, on the other hand, may not be perceived to be as likable as a white woman because she is Black.”

Vieites says this is detrimental to Black faculty and students’ mental health.

“It’s going to affect the way you see yourself and the way that you walk through the world,” she said.

While this problem is important to fix, it’s difficult to solve.

Burt says that while there’s a lot to be done at FIU, these issues extend far beyond it.

“The problem is not just with FIU, but with academia, which includes all the institutions in the nation,” he said.

“The problem is not just with FIU, but with academia, which includes all the institutions in the nation,” he said.

He believes FIU should bolster the resources it offers, such as the STRIDE and Bystander teams in the Office to Advance Women, Equity, and Diversity, and create a Black faculty association.

“I believe enhancing and expanding these movements…can help change institutional culture and shape a new, inclusive environment which appeals to, and is more welcoming to Black faculty,” he said.

FIU recently held a virtual town hall to discuss how it can address racial issues, and president Mark Rosenberg created the Equity Action Initiative advisory group to recommend policy changes on campus.

“The provost has committed to developing faculty lines and increasing Black professors at FIU [and] the recent announcement of the president’s [Equity Action] Initiative is a step in the right direction,” Burt said.

The Equity Action Initiative group’s members say they’re focused on finding solutions to Black faculty members’ struggles.

The team is currently in a period of information gathering, according to El Paginer K. Hudson, FIU’s vice president for human resources and one of its members.

“We haven’t gotten to the point where we find a cure or remedy yet, but we’re fact-finding,” said Hudson, pointing out that FIU tenured 25 faculty at its last Board of Trustees meeting.

“Not one of them was Black,” she said.

Improving equity for Black faculty begins with better mentoring and recruitment opportunities, according to Valerie Patterson, a professor in FIU’s Department of Public Policy and Administration and a group member.

“It starts with being to identify emerging young scholars,” said Patterson. “[Developing policies] to recruit Black faculty as they emerge from their doctoral programs.”

FIU’s leadership is trying to think beyond what they’ve normally done, according to Hudson.

“Because maybe what we’ve normally done got us here,” she said. “Which is not where we want to be.”

The team will draft its recommendations by mid-July, and want faculty, students, and staff to reach out to them with ideas for improvements at FIU.

“None of us have ever seen this level of commitment and passion by the president and the executive team about this issue, and it’s refreshing, all of us being Black professionals,” said Delrish Moss, the group’s third member and FIUPD Captain. “It’s a different level of hopefulness that we believe is going to cause us to look and be different next year.”

Burt, Smith, and Weir-Latty are also hopeful things will change for the better.

“I’ll tell you one thing I do when I’m on campus,” said Weir-Latty. “[If] I pass anyone I tell them good morning. Because I want to remind myself that I’m not invisible.”

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