The Politics of Difference in Academia: Maintaining the Status Quo

Today, I received the third rejection out of four potential campus visits that I thought I would certainly get extended, based on inside information, my stronger than average CV, extremely high teaching evaluations, and practice experience. I realize that most of us have over inflated views of ourselves when we hit the academic job market. I went through this last year and quickly saw that I was merely an average candidate in a sea of many overachievers. The thing is that I worked hard over summer and this past year to publish articles, build my CV up, contribute to the schools that I was teaching part-time at, and engage in organizing and advocacy. I now have six publications in strong journals, more publications under review, accepted presentations to the two most prestigious social work conferences, six successful classes taught between two universities, and strong service at both universities that I currently work at. So, now as I am being denied visits after strong interviews, I am beginning to wonder what is wrong with me?

After I missed out on a position last year that I thought I was a shoo in for after an awesome campus visit, I was told by one of the faculty that my CV, interviewing skills, experience, and promise were not why I did not have an offer extended to me; it was because my values were too radical for the conservative nature of the school. I was a bit floored when I heard this, because despite being a bit of a critical theorist and conflict oriented, I honestly thought that if you had the qualifications and worked hard enough to be better than the next person, the best person would get the position.

This past year I was involved in very outward advocacy against major policies and practices of CSWE and SSWR; two of the major players in academic social work. The board members and leaders of these organizations are the deans and directors of many schools around the country. My advocacy called into question the elitism, transparency, ethics, and social responsibility of both organizations. I was taught as a student of social work that advocacy inside and outside the profession was a responsibility of social workers; however, they did not prepare me for the politics and consequences of advocacy.

During an interview with a prominent school this year, I was told that one of my articles on the negative consequences of neoliberalism on community organizing was not really scholarship. I was told by another search committee that community organizing was not an area of research, but a method of practice. Another dean asked me why on earth I would do a qualitative dissertation in today’s day and age, when quantitative research was the dominant paradigm. I was told in so many words by two schools that they were looking for a person of color to fill their positions; one off the record, and another indirectly, when the search committee member exclaimed how happy they were to have such a strong person of color with community experience interviewing for the position. When I told her that I was not a person of color, the entire rest of the interview became very uncomfortable. Finally, this week I was told that the position required five years of post MSW practice, and I did not meet the requirement. When I pulled out my CV and showed them nearly six years, they said that I was fluffing it and stretching it by trying to count grass roots organizing, unpaid community organizing, and anything related to macro practice within higher education. I was essentially told that only clinical practice and a small narrow lens of macro practice counts in academia. Despite that in the six years since I received my MSW, I created domestic violence curriculum and training that was disseminated across an entire state, completed over six community based program evaluations, successfully started a community block club and citizen led child care program, helped advocate for two different communities of people experiencing homelessness, helped lead up efforts to relocate the SSWR conference in the name of worker’s rights, successfully developed a mentorship program from scratch, and am currently working in a task group to address community violence. This is simply a snapshot of my practice experience, which also included paid clinical and macro practice within the context of community mental health, outreach, clinical supervision, and supportive housing. My point is not to brag on myself, but to raise some serious questions about what is valued and not valued in the current academic landscape.

What I learned this year is multifaceted and bleak for my professional future in academia. First, my research and scholarship is not being looked at as seriously as that of others, because my scholarship is primarily qualitative research and critical scholarship. The fact that search committee members are down playing the publications, despite the fact that they are in highly regarded or acceptable academic journals. Social work academia highly favors clinical social work, evident by my many rejection letters from clinical focused schools and by lack of understanding by search committees about macro practice. Search committees are narrowly defining macro practice as only consisting of work done in government, top down community development, and executive management. Grass roots organizing, evaluation, and policy advocacy is not considered as highly important to schools nor is anything unpaid considered practice. What they do not understand is most of grass roots empowerment based community organizing and policy advocacy work is done for free or nearly free. What is happening is that the historical legacy of citizen led organizing and grass roots advocacy is being de-legitimatized professionally by schools because it won’t bring in the big funding that schools desire from new faculty members.  Another problem is schools with clinical faculty interviewing macro practitioners is that they do not understand how empowerment based CO works. They only want to know what my research area is, and when I say it’s community organizing, and the issues are defined by each community in a specific context, they either do not understand me or do not approve of my process.

Lastly, schools that on paper I should be a perfect fit for what they are seeking are not even giving me interviews. When I look at the schools and committees, I have learned that many of them include power players from CSWE or SSWR, which leads me to believe that their is more to the rejections than my CV. When I didn’t get a position last year that I should have gotten, I was left wondering what on earth they thought was radical about me from the visit? I was told that my CV screams radical as does my teaching and research statements. The fact that I allow students to propose alternative assignments, create classroom rules, and encourage them to advocate against the schools and universities that they reside in is considered radical. My views that universities should not be run as corporations was also not heavily popular and the fact that I believe social action should be taught as an appropriate intervention in community organizing was also seen as going against the status quo.

What I have realized most is that politics are everywhere, but people in academia continue to believe that at “their school” the processes and decisions are objective. I and others are made to feel like the problem, we are inferior, don’t have enough pubs, have too high of expectations, are just not a good fit, etc. Additionally, I learned more about difference in social work academia. Quantitative is always valued more than qualitative regardless of what people say on the record. Clinical practice dominates schools of social work in a time when people want to try and minimize the dichotomy between macro/micro practice. By saying you want to lessen the dichotomy, you are essentially closing the door on macro practice in favor of clinical and expert driven macro practice. Finally, radicals are not to be hired onto faculty at most schools. While we are admired from afar, we are far too dangerous to the status quo of schools that are seeking to further perpetuate the business model, let fund development trump teaching excellence, and allow students, adjuncts, and junior faculty voices to be marginalized as standard practice.

The race factor is harder for me to digest as someone who supports diversity and equality, I find it hard to be against it. The problem is that faculties have been comprised of whites for so long that now many are shuffling to fill what feels like are quotas, guided more by appearances and politics than by the needs of the school and qualifications of the candidates. What else is happening is many schools are hiring the most conservative of faculty of color, which helps them meet the look test, but does little to change or advance issues of race, gender, class, etc. within the school of university, and ignores other criteria for diversity that may not always be easily seen. I will continue to support diversity and fairness in academia and any profession, but I do question some of the processes for attaining it.

While I am still applying to positions and hoping to land somewhere, I have realized that the politics and difference in academia and social work are not in my favor. There is a strong possibility that I will not land an academic position for next year and could be froze out of the market, essentially exiled to the ranks of being a lecturer because I am seen as damaged goods. Some people will see this as my own fault and a result of my values, stubbornness, and high expectations. Some will say that I will be irrelevant without an academic home. Maybe they are all right, but for now, I will beg to disagree with them all, because if I always listened to everyone who claimed to be giving me advice for my own good or even if I listened to them most of the time, I would never have gotten or achieved this much in my life. The problem is, I didn’t do any of this for a job, I did it for power and access. I did it because I was tired of others trying to show me to the door or keep me at the kids table. I was the one that was never supposed to be here, and now I scare as much as I excite people. I will be relevant for as long as I choose to be, in however I choose to be, and I alone have the power over my own relevancy. What I did not expect is that the very profession and  societal institute of higher education that helped be to find my way here, has done everything to push me out the door before it has even opened. If I decide to walk away, it will be because I feel like I can make a bigger difference elsewhere, and I just may not have the stomach for the politics of difference in academia.


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