Letter to the editor

This letter was written by Dr. Gary King, a Penn State professor of biobehavioral health.

Imagine that you are a Black full professor with more than two decades of service at a predominantly white university that is well-represented at the administrative level with three Black deans, two vice-provosts, two vice-presidents, a Black football coach and a single Black member of the Board of Trustees.

Now imagine if this university has an abysmal record of recruiting and retaining Black faculty of which it acknowledges.

Imagine, even further, if Black faculty at this university released a major report about one year ago, on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, detailing a 15-year pattern of institutional racism in hiring and retention.

Now, with just a little more free association, imagine if this university, in an era of America’s “great racial reckoning” with its history of racism and white supremacy, established a Presidential Commission, and even a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to make recommendations (final report pending) to address structural racism among other important issues.

Imagine too, if a Black student organization on this same campus was recently bombarded with racist and hateful invectives by some 51 white supremacists during a Zoom meeting.

Moreover, imagine if genuine outrage and righteous indignation were widely voiced by the well-meaning president and numerous faculty departments and organizations deploring this racist act.

Now, I want you to let your imagination really run wild and imagine if you woke up one morning and saw an email from your department head excitedly lauding the “unique qualifications and skills” of a Ph.D. who was just hired as an administrative assistant. This person’s job will consist of clerical tasks to: “administer department HR processes including support of promotion and tenure, maintain our website and social media presence, manage dissemination of department information to constituents, support student academic engagement programs, support alumni relations efforts, and serve as department facilities coordinator.”

Now, here is the kicker: imagine the utter dismay and insulting race trauma you (as an African American) experienced when you discovered that this overqualified newly hired administrative assistant with a Ph.D., is Black. And to make sure that you were not in the midst of some incredible nightmare, you pinched yourself and asked a few sobering and perplexing questions:

  • Am I to believe that this department head can successfully recruit a Black Ph.D. to answer the phone but cannot even interview one, never mind, hiring him or her to teach a class or do science?
  • Am I to believe that a “uniquely qualified” white woman or man of any classification with a Ph.D. would have been offered a position as an administrative assistant?
  • Am I to accept the response from a “higher up” that this individual was judged to be the best candidate and that they accepted the position so, essentially, what’s the big deal?
  • Am I to believe that an overqualified Black Ph.D. is really precisely, “uniquely qualified”?
  • Am I to believe that Human Resources and the Office of Affirmative Action, as a matter of policy, will approve the hiring of Ph.D.'s to fill positions advertised as requiring only a high school diploma, and salaried accordingly, and thereby exclude all others?
  • Am I to believe the proclamations of the “higher ups” that they are truly dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), changing the academic culture, and increasing the number of Black faculty and other underrepresented faculty of color?
  • Am I to believe that this is how the university intends to fulfill the inclusion goal of DEI?
  • Am I to believe that the website optics and caricature of a Black administrative assistant with a Ph.D. is the image this university wishes to present to the world as part of its perspective on diversity and faculty of color recruitment strategies?
  • Am I to believe that this employment practice constitutes another form of systemic racism in undervaluing and exploiting people of color?
  • Am I to believe that in the culturally celebrated month of 2021, this is how Black History is being made in this department, college and university?

Imagine all the people who struggled and died throughout the ages fighting to make Black History Month a time of remembrance, exaltation, inspiration and pride. Imagine all the people who accepted demeaning jobs and lower wages and salaries below their qualifications because those were the only openings for which they were “qualified.” Imagine all the people who were excluded from university faculty positions because they were unwanted or feared, and thereby “less qualified.”

Then, imagine being at my university and living for today… you may say that I’m a dreamer.

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