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Respecting Race-Based Research

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I do research about race. When I was a graduate student, a professor warned me against doing this research, noting, “you’ll be ghettoized for studying Black colleges.” Although I ignored the comment, I knew what he was saying. Based on how faculty members who do research on race are often treated by their colleagues, he was trying to warn me. Many scholars who are interested in issues related to race, gender, sexuality and other “controversial” issues are cautioned by their advisors and mentors to stay clear of these issues.

At DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, several professors of color who also do research on race are accusing the institution of denying them tenure based on the subject of their research rather than its rigor. For instance, Dr. Namita Goswami, an assistant professor of philosophy, who does research related to postcolonial race theory, was recently denied tenure by the university. Although she appealed the decision to a faculty review board that recommended she receive tenure, DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider denied her appeal and confirmed the original assessment of her work as “insufficiently philosophical.”

Although the facts of tenure cases are always murky and various colleges and universities have differing standards, calling the research of a race scholar “insufficiently philosophical” is suspect. Far too many faculty members of color (as well as Whites interested in race) have been denied tenure because their race-based research has not been taken seriously. Oftentimes, those making tenure decisions are uncomfortable with the research and deem it to be “less than” research on more mainstream topics. However, nothing could be more mainstream than the topic of race in the United States, or in most places around the globe. 

We can choose to deny it, but race is a vital factor, construct, and issue in our world. It permeates all of what we do and the study of race deserves more respect. Of course, research on race needs to be intellectually rigorous. No one is arguing otherwise. Scholars who study race often push back against traditional theories, methodologies, and ideas with their work. This may make more traditional scholars uncomfortable. But, imagine trying to interrogate issues of race using the tools of the majority. That just doesn’t make sense. We need to open our minds.

Race scholars are working hard to push us to think differently, to examine our systems that reinforce racism and privilege, and to develop new ways of analyzing and interpreting data. Would it be so difficult to sit back and take a look, to perhaps listen to these important scholars? We might learn quite a bit and we would certainly be more likely to tenure them.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).

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