Juanita Simmons is an associate professor in the MU College of Education. Her expertise is in equity issues in public school leadership, national achievement gap and school renewal.

One lesson that I learned early in life was that failure can have many advantages. What you do with failure determines future success. When I was asked to share my tenure and promotion experiences at MU, I thought about my failed attempts at tenure, the many appeals, and my eventual success in achieving it.

I also reflected over the many positive changes that have taken place in my department since that time. The strategic, intentional efforts to recruit, promote, and retain underrepresented faculty and students have been remarkable. In fact, our division is believed to be one of the most racially and ethnically diverse faculties on campus.

I am grateful to have participated and to witness that major transformation. With my college division’s efforts, our social justice focus, and the initiatives of certain university organizations toward honest and intentional inclusion, I trust that others will not have to repeat my tenure experiences.

I must first explain that my tenure experiences interconnect with my position as an African American, middle-aged woman, mother/grandmother, wife, former inner city school teacher and administrator, and former community activist in a large urban city of a southern state. It is appropriate for me to state my position as a researcher and human being because much of what I present here is centered or connected with who I am and why I am.

I was a mid-career public school administrator when I accepted this tenure-track position at MU. In addition to researching, teaching, and giving service, my assignments included helping to facilitate the university’s urban school partnership. The partnership required commuting to the urban center in order to teach the district’s aspiring leaders. During the same time, I taught a pre-service teacher course on campus and attempted to maintain research productivity and service.

The assignment was actually ideal for me considering my knowledge and direct experience with urban education issues. Even though the reduction in salary and the relocation from family and friends were a challenge, I perceived that an opportunity to help aspiring teachers and administrators gain knowledge about teaching and leading diverse populations to be worth the sacrifice.

I also welcomed the opportunity to study, write, and research the various pitfalls and hopeful possibilities of PK-12 teaching and leadership, particularly my concept of emancipatory leadership — an ongoing study about social justice leaders who intentionally design their leadership platforms for the liberation and emancipation of self and others (Simmons, 2014). Editors' note: References are at the end of this post.

As a school administrator, I had interviewed young White females who desired teaching positions in public schools. I was surprised to find that few, if any of them, had any experience or knowledge about diverse populations. Even though White females comprise three-fourths of the nation’s teaching core, so many of them originate from mono-cultural backgrounds, and most states require little or no diversity training for their certifications (Akiba, M., Cockrell, K., Simmons, J. M., Han, S., & Agarwal, G., 2010).

Yet, the nation's largest population in public school students are high-poverty, minority, and school-dependent children. In that the position offered me an opportunity to have one class of pre-service teachers, I embraced the opportunity to help aspiring teachers. I thought that my experiences and critical instructional platform would aid them in being better prepared for future success with poor and/or minority children.

I understood the importance of transforming school climate to include such practices as socializing intelligence by helping teachers to broaden their expectations of children. I also had success increasing advanced academic opportunities, combatting disproportionate special education placement and disciplinary referrals, and infusing culturally diverse materials into state-mandated curricula.

I had fought and successfully replaced low-level classes with more advanced academic replacements, reviewed-identified-prescribed remediation to combat disproportionalities in special education placement and disciplinary referrals, written and infused culturally-relevant literature and courses to align with state-mandated curricula standards, designed and implemented rites of passage programs for mentoring and socializing minority teens, and implemented programs to increase and inform student knowledge for civic service and engagement. 

I was proud to witness the subsequent academic success of poor and/or minority students.

Most important, I understood the power and influence that teachers and administrators had in helping students to become informed leaders with intentional platforms to flourish the lives of others. I felt confident that I would be successful, and I was excited to begin this new career as a tenure-track professor.

On the other side of my successful urban school experience, I understood how policies, infrastructure and design, traditions and habitual actions of educational institutions created challenges and barriers for school administrators who attempt to establish such programs and endeavors mentioned here. That experience expanded my task in rethinking leadership administration in a manner to better prepare leaders. But I was soon to understand how those same factors (policies, institutional practices, etc.) found in public schools can also become barriers to tenure and promotion in the academy, especially for African-American females in predominantly White institutions.

It was not until I began preparing for tenure that I came to understand that the priorities were different from my naïve dreams. I was confronted with the fact that my focus really should have been on three major areas: socialization into the academy, collegiality, publications and grants.

I also discovered that the actual tenure process began the day I accepted the position. Socialization into the academy? With my assignments, I neither knew nor had the time to become saturated into the main elements of successful tenure and promotion. Rather than my being mentored by accomplished professors, I was commuting to urban school centers to teach aspiring leaders. I was loving it — it was my dream come true! But, ultimately, I was to be measured against others who had the privilege on focusing on their research, many of whom had been socialized by way of post-doctoral appointments or previous assignments at smaller universities. Collegiality? With whom?

I was the only African American in my department. And although I never sensed any direct isolation from colleagues, I thought that my work with the partnership and my classes were valued by my colleagues. Besides, the MU Black Studies Division (now a department) reached out to me and provided the needed social network. Unfortunate for me, there were no professors of color there who shared my same discipline of study nor department/division knowledge.

It is said that tenure success is directly aligned with one’s success in collegial relationships, including research support and opportunities, and general socialization into the academy. Well, I had never even seen a dossier. Anyway, my energy and time were focused on what I believed to have been critical circumstances of our profession.

When it was time to submit my dossier to my colleagues, issues surrounding one of my first semester end of course (student) evaluations suddenly became a calamity. Remember that class with pre-service teachers who had little or no experience with diverse populations? Now, I understand why so many of them escape diversity training in their pre-service programs. Nobody wants to risk the students’ resistance to content (especially anti-racist content), nor does anyone welcome the potential damage that student resistance to race and gender content hold on their teacher evaluation ratings from students.

The derogatory evaluation was only one of the many episodes that resulted in my having to appeal my department’s decision to deny me tenure. Next came the issues with my scholarship productivity. Mind you, I’d spent my formative years working with the wonderful partnership. Although I still have no regrets for that experience, I blame myself for my own ignorance to the actual expectations of tenure. During that time, research worthiness was measured by counts, placements of articles, and grants.

Although my research did not really require grants, I had applied for a few small grants to support a couple of rural school districts’ professional development. The university partnership program was expensed by a major grant and the university’s support. My research agenda, leadership development for women and minorities in public education, led to publications in the few journals which, at that time, trail blazed publications about oppressive content. Besides, having not been socialized into the academy, I was not familiar with journal ratings and publication tiers. I only knew that I needed to fulfill a count, and I believed that I had been successful in accomplishing that.

Mentoring was greatly needed and appreciated. I knew that the one person appointed to me for mentoring was swamped with administrative duties and teaching. She was a great asset, but her time was very limited. Although supporters were limited, I had the comfort and advice from one colleague who, along with a cadre of African-American tenured faculty, fought with me from my department/division, to the college’s denial, and on through the university appeals procedures. Volumes could be said about their support. I witnessed the power of a semi-critical mass (Black tenured faculty) and will always be grateful for the one colleague from my division who stood with me.

In addition to collegiality and socialization, having a critical mass is essential while preparing and bidding tenure, especially when appeals are necessary. The Black Studies department at MU has served as a haven for many professors of color and others whose research surrounds oppressive content (race/gender/SES, etc.). However, the small number of professors of color at MU are not quite a critical mass. This was especially so five years ago when I was bidding tenure.

Although our numbers have increased, retention is still a challenge. Some departments still have NO faculty of color. As an example of the representation of African American faculty in comparison to other ethnicities, see the chart in MU's 2014 Fall Employee Census Report.

MU reported 2,034 full-time ranked faculty in the fall of 2014. The total includes all ranks: tenured, on tenure track (OTT), and non-regular (Non-Reg.). Of a total 2,034 faculty, 61 faculty listed themselves as Black/African American — 3.00%; 65 faculty listed themselves as Hispanic/Latino — 3.20%; 258 faculty listed themselves as Asian — 12.68%; 4 faculty listed themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native — 0.2%; 1,532 faculty listed themselves as Caucasian/White — 77.73%.

Although statistically insignificant, beginning in fall 2010 the faculty questionnaire consisted of two new racial demographic categories: two or more races, and native Hawaiian/Pacific islander. With that, comparative data from years prior to 2010 may show minor changes due to change in data collection.

The percentages for American minorities (domestic minorities) suggest that recruitment, promotion, and retention of domestic minorities remains a challenge at MU. Although numerous efforts and gains of several departments, colleges, and university organizations have been made, this challenge still remains.

Admittedly, several organizations and departments have implemented initiatives to promote cultural competence across the campus. There has truly been a major thrust for diversity in university-wide initiatives such as the Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity and the College of Education Dean’s Diversity Committee, to name a few. Efforts of certain departments and divisions have resulted in 50% (or better) increase in minority faculty representation (i.e. the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis division of COE).

However, more conversations and safe platforms are needed to dialogue about how to effectively recruit, promote, and retain more American domestic minority faculty (African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian). This conversation is overdue and is greatly in need of amplification. Recommendations and solutions are easily found but difficult to implement without intentional strategies from the various colleges and their divisions/departments.

Examples of such recommendations for the recruitment, promotion, and retention of African-American faculty were gathered during a 2007-2008 study on fourteen African-American tenure track, women professors at a predominantly White Midwestern university.

Recommendations from the extensive interview responses about their tenure experiences included the following:

  1. level the playing field for tenure and promotion;
  2. provide explicit orientation and mentorships;
  3. value research agendas on oppressive issues;
  4. project workloads;
  5. increase minority faculty hires, including senior minority senior faculty;
  6. collect and report demographic data to track hiring;
  7. revisit promotion and tenure policies (especial focus on service loads, definitions of quality scholarship, tenure-track stoppages, hearings, etc.);
  8. increase the morale of retention of underrepresented faculty;
  9. conduct exit interviews;
  10. collect and report demographic data to track promotion and tenure stats, including division/department disaggregated data;
  11. Promote SAFE open dialogue spaces (Simmons, 2010, pp. 179-182).

Important also to this study was that the women expressed a need for networking and social opportunities for minority faculty. Some of the women left after their tenure experiences. In fact, one participant commented that the tenure experience was so trying for one Black woman that she left before her tenure award was ever announced.

This was unfortunate because in addition to being alone in their private lives, many of these women were sole minorities in their departments and felt alienated by their colleagues; therefore, they felt that they had limited opportunities for racial socialization to help them buffer the many challenges. Sadly, twelve of the fourteen women in this study claimed that their experiences with racial encounters were more challenging than meeting the requirements to earn tenure. Interestingly, the study found that almost all of the women were eventually successful in earning tenure, but few of them remained to tell the story.


Akiba, M., Cockrell, K., Simmons, J. M., Han, S., & Agarwal, G. (2010). Preparing teachers for diversity: Examination of teacher certification and program accreditation standards in 50 states and D.C. Equity and Excellence in Education (43)4, (TBA).

Simmons, J. M. (2014). The pedagogy of Emancipatory Leadership: Reinventing Freire to Neutralize and Deconstruct the Current Neoliberal Educational Climate. University Council for Educational Administration (55)3.

Simmons, J. M. (2010). Perceptions of African American female professors at a Midwestern White university: Pride! Determination! Respect! Retention? In S. E. Moore, R. Alexander, Jr., & A. J. Lemelle, Jr. (Eds.), Dilemmas of Black faculty at U.S. predominantly White institutions: Issues in the post-multicultural era (pp. 159-184). Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

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