The color of the classroom

Marking the thirtieth anniversary of African Americans on the faculty, Kenyon ponders the challenges of recruiting minority professors

Ric Sheffield looked out at the audience in the Olin Library auditorium last October and recalled the moment when he and Ted Mason found themselves alone, facing the prospect of being the only two black professors at Kenyon.

It was April 1996. Robert Hinton of the history faculty had just been denied tenure. G. Renoir McDonaugh of the psychology department had been turned down for a second reappointment.

"I'm not interested in debating the merits of those cases," Sheffield told the Olin gathering. "More important are the consequences."

An immediate consequence was that he and Mason felt bereft. Here it was, more than a century and a half after Kenyon's founding, and two short decades after a young man named Kenneth Bluford had joined the English department as the College's very first African-American faculty member. Recent years had produced lots of discussion and a little progress. And now, in April 1996, the black faculty had been cut in half. From a meager four, to two.

"Professor Mason and I looked at each other," Sheffield told the Olin audience. Then he gave a mischievous grin. "We cut our palms and pressed our hands together, blood brothers," and he allowed the grin to widen as the crowd laughed at the playful fabrication, a nod from the happier present to a more troubled past. "We made a pact," Sheffield went on, and the smile faded, so that the laughter ebbed as he said, "We told each other: If you go, I go."

Laughter shadowed by somberness, optimism tinged with concern. The October gathering was a celebration, marking the thirtieth anniversary of black faculty at Kenyon. But it was also a forum for discussion about difficult issues that persist as the College seeks to build on another consequence of April 1996: a track record of greater success in recruiting--and keeping--African-American professors.

"Kenyon has really turned things around," says Provost Gregory Spaid, noting that between 1996 and 2005 the number of black professors rose from four to eleven. "Over that period, we've had two presidents, four chairs of the board, and three provosts," Spaid points out, "but there's been a consistent commitment to recruit more minority faculty. The will is there. I'm proud of what we've done."

The challenges are complex, though, for both recruiting and retention. They include factors that affect faculty in general, such as whether new professors will feel at home in rural Ohio or whether their spouses will be able to find good jobs. But they also embrace issues unique to members of this historically excluded minority, such as the pressure to be an all-purpose mentor for black students as well as an always-available racial representative for collegiate committees and social functions.

"We have a good record of retention," says Spaid, "but we do lose minority faculty for a variety of reasons. We can never rest."

The debates and demands of the civil-rights era were slow to emerge at Kenyon. A civil rights conference in February 1967 brought Jesse Jackson to campus, but there was controversy about whether this ferment from the outside world really had a place in Gambier. Some remember a Confederate flag hanging from a window of Old Kenyon that weekend.

In 1969, as Kenyon was initiating the biggest social transformation in its history--the admission of women--black students (there were about ten) drafted a "Statement of Policy" calling for the hiring of black faculty, the inclusion of black culture in the curriculum, and increased financial aid to recruit more African-American students. They ultimately formed the Black Student Union, which was officially recognized by the College in 1970.

The administration, meanwhile, established a "Commission on the Disadvantaged" to ponder Kenyon's responsibility in addressing the social problems arising from poverty. The commission's proposals, issued in November 1969, ranged from minority scholarships to a teaching internship program for black graduate students. But little changed. In the entire faculty and staff, there was still just one black face: that of Ms. Gene C. Payne, the resident nurse, who had come in 1962.

It was affirmative action of sorts--that is, a deliberate effort--that brought Kenneth Lee Bluford to Kenyon as a visiting assistant professor of English in 1975. Galbraith Crump of the English faculty contacted Houston A. Baker, an eminent black scholar then teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, and asked whether he could recommend a black graduate student who might be interested in interviewing for a position. Baker suggested Bluford, a graduate of New York University and one of his dissertation advisees at Penn.

Bluford, then twenty-five, had a mixed experience at Kenyon, but not because of pressures related to race. Years in mainly white institutions had "immunized me against routine racial prejudice," he wrote in a recent e-mail exchange. "As a shirt can be preshrunk, I was pre-traumatized."

He taught contemporary American literature, Afro-American literature, and fiction-writing. He liked most of his colleagues, and the black students welcomed him. But he wasn't sure he was committed to teaching. Moreover, he was a loner.

"In four years at Kenyon I never bothered to get a phone," he wrote. Although colleagues "graciously invited me to dinners and parties," he went on, "I didn't form any lasting relationships. I wasn't putting down roots." In 1979, with a second two-year contract nearing expiration, he told the department chair that he didn't want to return. He currently works as a human-resources specialist for the Department of the Navy in Philadelphia, writes and publishes poetry, and has taught for the past fifteen years as an adjunct writing instructor at the Community College of Philadelphia.

"It was a gig," he said of his years at Kenyon, "not the best, not the worst." Do any memories stand out? He learned to drive in Gambier, and once Paul Newman accidentally took his shopping cart in the grocery store. Does he have a place in Kenyon history? "If it took Kenyon 150 years to invite someone like me to visit," he wrote, "the most I could hope was to be the thin edge of the wedge."

That wedge widened, slowly.

Mary Elizabeth Rucker joined the English department in 1978 but, despite making some close friends at the College, had a rocky tenure and left in 1981.

The next few years produced a handful of hires--black professors who stayed for two to five years--and an impressive amount of discussion. A 1987 Task Force on Diversity was succeeded by a 1989 Colloquium on Diversity, which spawned "task groups" that reported back in yet another colloquium in 1991.

Meanwhile, Theodore (Ted) Mason and Ric Sheffield arrived in 1989. Both are still at the College today and serve, in a sense, as the elder statesmen of the black faculty. Mason, a specialist in literary theory and African-American literature, was the first black to earn tenure at Kenyon, in 1992. Last fall he was promoted to full professor, the first black to attain the faculty's highest rank. He is currently chairing the English department.

Sheffield is an associate professor of sociology and legal studies who is serving a stint as an associate provost. He is also the son of a working-poor family from Mount Vernon, Ohio, who became a lawyer and who, before joining the Kenyon faculty, served in the civil rights division and then led the consumer protection division of the Ohio attorney general's office. So he brought with him a close familiarity with diversity issues, the ability to argue a case with thorough documentation, and a sense of obligation to "pave the way" for other blacks.

"When Ted and I came in 1989, there were six black faculty members," says Sheffield. "It was down to four the next year, and three the next year. Notwithstanding the rhetoric of commitment to diversity, we seemed to be going in the opposite direction."

Sheffield dug through the College archives to create a "social history of minority appointments." When Robert A. Oden Jr. was chosen as Kenyon's new president in 1995, Sheffield sent him a memo detailing that history. He would do the same with current President S. Georgia Nugent in 2003. "I knew that no one else would take the time or have the interest to do this," Sheffield says. "I wanted to make sure that these people, coming in, knew our history."

Mason and Sheffield pushed, aided by Robert Hinton, who had joined the history department in 1991. Sheffield smiles to recall how the three styled themselves "The African-American Faculty Caucus."

Then came the April day in 1996 when Hinton lost his tenure battle and McDonaugh was denied a second reappointment. Mason acknowledges that the College must have had its reasons, given that the decisions were bound to be controversial. Ugly e-mail exchanges erupted, and there was a rally on campus.

"That was the low point," says Mason. But he notes that it also was a turning point. "The administration, while standing by their decision, said, 'We need to do something about this.'"

Trustee William H. Lowry Jr. '56 H'99 recalls feeling "devastated" by the 1996 events. Lowry, one of the early black students at Kenyon, spoke as part of a panel at the October 2005 celebration. "The board talked about what we had to do if we were really serious about this," he said. "We had to take firm action. It has to come from the top."

Oden opened the 1997-98 academic year by declaring "Difference at Kenyon" as a major agenda item. In traditional collegiate fashion, that meant all-campus colloquia--there were two of them that year. But there were significant changes as well.

Recruitment picked up momentum, as academic departments got into the habit of aggressively seeking to bring minority candidates into hiring pools. With assistance from Sheffield and Mason, the College created the Dissertation/Teaching Fellowship for Minority Scholars and the Visiting Minority Artist Program. Both initiatives got under way in 1998-99.

The fellowship has had an especially profound impact. The competitive program, now named for the late trustee Marilyn Yarbrough, provides a generous stipend to one or two gifted young scholars from under-represented groups. They take up residence at Kenyon for a year, completing their dissertation while teaching (one course each) and getting a taste of the liberal-arts environment in a small-college setting.

"It has become a prestigious and well-known program," says Mason. "I'm talking about some of the best graduate students from some of the best programs in the country."

The fellowship is not designed as a "pipeline" to the College; the goal is primarily to benefit the graduate students. But the regular infusion of minority scholars enriches the intellectual environment at Kenyon. And several have in fact won tenure-track positions.

"The dissertation fellowships are one of the secrets of our success," says Spaid. "We've had extraordinary success in attracting enormously talented young faculty to Kenyon." Spaid points out that between 1996 and 2005, while the number of African-American professors rose from four to eleven, the number of Asians climbed from four to thirteen. Professors of Hispanic background increased in number from five in 1996 to nine in 2004, then dipped to six last year.

Momentum is hard to maintain. In 2004-05, for example, the College had fifteen tenure-track openings, the most ever in any single year, but was able to hire only one minority candidate. Institutional commitment doesn't guarantee results.

Stiff competition among colleges and universities is one reason. Kenyon's rural location can also be an obstacle. "It's hard to feel at home in Knox County," says Marla Kohlman, associate professor of sociology, who came to the College from Washington, D.C., as one of the first dissertation fellows. Last year she became the first African-American woman to receive tenure.

Kenyon can seem very isolated, particularly to blacks coming from large universities or urban areas. "I've had the same conversation numerous times with black candidates," says Sheffield. "They come into my office, we close the door, and they ask me, 'What's it like living here?'"

It's sometimes difficult, in fact, partly because blacks feel that their conspicuousness can paradoxically render them invisible. With dismaying regularity over the years, Sheffield and Mason have found that people confuse one for the other, as if they were interchangeable. Other black professors have had the same experience.

Moreover, because they feel a special obligation to help black students, black faculty members take on a double burden of the personal attentiveness that Kenyon students expect. "I spend time mentoring black students," says Kohlman, "but I'm here for all students." She adds that, because women are seen as nurturers--and because she's one of just a few female black professors--she deals with more than her share of students' personal problems.

In the same way, African-American faculty bear a disproportionate burden of institutional obligations, from serving on search committees to meeting with prospective students. This is one reason that greater numbers are important, many contend.

"Once you get a critical mass," says Mason, "the responsibilities get spread out more widely. Also, students of all persuasions, as it were, see that there are a lot of different ways of being a black faculty member. There are different personal styles and teaching styles."

Despite their increasing numbers, Kenyon's black professors still feel self-conscious enough to need regular occasions to get together alone. The "black faculty lunch," which takes place roughly once a month, gives them a chance to talk about individual students and knotty teaching problems that may have racial overtones. The younger professors use the occasion to get advice from the more senior faculty members. Also, it's simply a time when the black professors can relax in a way that is difficult otherwise.

"Being black at Kenyon is like being on stage," says Sheffield. "Whether you're in the post office or the bookstore, you're always noticed." He and Mason both find themselves measuring their words in public, wondering whether certain opinions or styles of speech will attract unfair labels. But at the black faculty lunch, those concerns vanish.

For others at Kenyon, accustomed to seeing the campus community as an island of openness and warmth, it may be disconcerting to realize that blacks don't always feel entirely at ease. But, as the African-American professors point out, no place in American society is color-blind.

So Sheffield and Mason continue to push. And they rarely miss a black faculty lunch. They still need the respite themselves. They know, moreover, that the newer black professors are counting on the elder statesmen.­

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