Faculty Perspectives: Image: Ivory Towers and Idealism

As seen from
By Thomas D. Landefeld

I want to take this opportunity to share my perspective as a faculty member on an issue very important to our academic community and the future of higher education. This issue is about faculty making choices relative to our contributions to the “Academy” and the effects that these choices have on our careers. Very often this is about the “image” one obtains as a result of these decisions, and then how that “image” affects our abilities to function within the institution. I will present this in general terms, using some of my own experiences as examples. I hope to provide insights to others who will make similar choices. Certainly, one should know the rewards and consequences of such decisions on their professional careers before making them.

As a long-time faculty member here I could easily have stayed in the conventional pattern of many of my colleagues, particularly in the Medical School, i.e., do research and teaching and minimize administrative activities. In fact, I did proceed through that “conventional route” to tenured associate professor of pharmacology. However, in recent years I made decisions that not only changed my career path but, importantly, significantly changed my “image” at the University. For a number of reasons, primarily my personal and professional commitment to equal rights and opportunities for everyone, I chose to become more actively involved in administrative programs, particularly those dealing with minority students. I initially did this at a departmental level and then at the School and University level. I did so with a total commitment to making a difference in the area of underrepresentation of students of color in the sciences, since this is a problem of paramount importance today. Significantly also, I did this with official appointments, complete with titles and responsibilities, including assistant dean for research and graduate studies, interim assistant dean for student and minority affairs, and director of the Summer Biomedical Research Program (SBRP). In these positions I gained the respect and confidence of students of color across campus and became recognized nationally as a person who was genuinely committed to, and effective in, these efforts. However, on the home front, this “image” was not as positive.

Despite the message supposedly being sent by the Michigan Mandate, efforts at this University by individuals such as myself often result (for those individuals) in more problems than solutions, more punishment than rewards, and actually more contempt than respect. These obviously impact on one’s professional development, for example, the effect on one’s ability to be promoted. In my case, my department chose not to recommend me for promotion to full professor primarily because I was committing too much time to service (despite the fact that I had grant funding and was continuing to teach in the Medical and Graduate Schools), and despite the fact that 50 percent of my time was “officially” in an administrative capacity as assistant dean.

Although recommendations for promotion are departmental decisions, they can be influenced greatly by philosophies of central administration. In my case, I was actually advised by the provost to go back and do my research, get my promotion and then go back to doing my service-related activities!

Another example of how one’s “image” affects professional development relates to the tenuous, subjective nature of these appointments. In my case, after several years of very committed efforts and successes as assistant dean, I was reassigned from that position as well as all other administrative positions associated with student and minority affairs. The reassignment was handled in a most demeaning and disrespectful manner and came totally without warning. As with others in these types of positions, this reassignment was not based on job performance but rather what “image” was developed by advocating, speaking out and “not conforming.” The message seemed quite clear: Do not advocate for students, and particularly students of color. Conform. Nonconformity and its effect on one’s “image” is the basis for this article.

An example of how one’s “image” is an issue relates to an incident which involved me and was covered extensively in the press. Here I recount relevant aspects. Last year I indicated to my chair my concerns regarding the appointment of a colleague to a position dealing with students of color, based on my previous interactions with that individual. Early in this process, various individuals chose sides on this issue. Thus, here I was, a faculty member who had demonstrated tremendous commitment and effort in the area of improving racial relations at the University, only to have others not only question but reject my allegations in that area. What did this say about my “image” and acceptability of that “image?” Also, what did their actions say about their “image?” Was there a concern that substantiation would tarnish their “image?”

Another example of “image” relates specifically to activities in the Medical School, where racial problems have been identified (Michigan Daily; 6/15/94, 6/16/94). Individuals such as myself who could be most helpful in addressing such problems are not only marginalized but often entirely ostracized from the process. Moreover, lack of acknowledgment of the problem will most often minimize any efforts to address the concerns. For example, in the Daily article several individuals who are very much directly involved in these issues, substantiated the existence of this problem, while those in positions to address the problem gave different responses. The president stated that he was unaware of any instances of discrimination in the Medical School despite the fact that letters had been sent to him from concerned students of color organizations, a parent came from out of state to meet with Medical School officials, including someone from his office (1990), and he, along with Dr. Charles Moody, met with Medical School administration in 1990 to address the lack of minority faculty recruitment. The dean of the Medical School had no comment.

Meanwhile an associate dean attributed the problem of few faculty of color to a small pool of minority faculty candidates. How is this a legitimate reason for the problem when our Medical School classes are typically 15-20 percent students of color, a substantial pool for recruitment of faculty? What is true is that many of these students do not want to stay at Michigan for residencies or return as faculty very much due to the negative environment here. This problem is exacerbated by decisions made by faculty within departments where, based on the criteria set by the “Academy” (consisting primarily of white males), many persons of color are excluded from consideration as faculty, due not to lesser credentials but rather “nontraditional” credentials. This is referred to by Derrick Bell in Confronting Authority: Confessions of an Ardent Protester, and by President Duderstadt in an article in the Ann Arbor News (11/21/94).

Again what “image” do candidates of color portray versus the “image” that the committees (e.g. appointments, search, etc.) want? Within the Medical School, identified as one of the schools with major difficulties in this area, there have been cases where individuals have been part of the pool and the School has chosen not to “accept” them. Moreover, at least three faculty of color left the Medical School recently and, although two left for prestigious positions elsewhere, one would have to ask if sincere efforts were made to retain them. If so, were the efforts comparable to those made for researchers such as Drs. Collins and Wilson? Under the Mandate one would think that retaining outstanding faculty of color would be as important to the University as retaining those researchers. What was the “image” of those faculty of color, especially when compared to the “image” of Collins and Wilson?

Another example relates to the appointment of persons to positions of power who can and will advocate for students of color, not just a titular position but an empowered one. This is especially needed in units with difficulties in the area of diversity such as, again using President Duderstadt[‘s example, the Medical School. Four years ago such a position was established (associate dean for minority affairs) and several candidates were identified. The position remains vacant and lacks the necessary advertising even though it arose from concerns expressed to President Duderstadt in 1990 by Medical School minority student organizations.

Similarly, the position of assistant dean for student and minority affairs in the Medical School never has been given needed support or respect. Two of the “longer-term” assistant deans in that office were assistant professors throughout their appointment to that position. This is significant since in the academic community tenured positions garner respect.

When I held that position on an interim basis as an associate professor, I was marginalized, disempowered and never given the opportunity to continue in the position. As a very specific example, despite the fact that a major responsibility of the position was to act as advocate for students, I was told in preparation for a meeting called by a concerned parent and which included the dean, the associate dean, the vice provost for minority affairs and a representative from the president’s office that I could attend (only after insistence by the parent) but I could not speak! To have an assistant dean whose job was to advocate for students being told not to speak during a hearing relating to the retention of that student most definitely speaks to that “image.” I believe that these types of appointments and actions represent an effort by administration to potentiate the stigma (i.e., lots of show and rhetoric but little if any action) associated with minority affairs offices (image) resulting in programs and students being “short changed.”

In the end, within the University and specifically in the Medical School, individuals such as myself who have the experience, commitment, contacts and knowledge to address this very important problem have been marginalized, disenfranchised, disempowered and eventually ostracized in this area, due to their “image,” which was actually attained by “doing the right thing”! As a result, the potential damage to one’s career is significant.

In conclusion I want to say that we have to make a decision regarding how we best can contribute to the educational process. Certainly not everyone can or should contribute in the same manner. Along with faculty decisions to undertake those activities, come decisions on “fitting in,” “conforming,” “being part of the system,” and to what degree one conforms.

Our choices define our “image” within the system. For many, a decision for conformity is quite easy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.” This type of decision also is explained by the phenomenon of “white bonding” (i.e., be part of the dominant circle) described by Derrick Bell in Faces at the Bottom of the Well and which I used to refer to some of my colleagues” decisions here at the University (Record 9/19/94).

In other words, protect one’s self by whatever means necessary. (Ironically, almost the antithesis of what Malcolm X hoped to accomplish by his statement, “By any means necessary!”) However, for those of us who choose not to conform or not to take the easy route, another quote from Dr. King is most appropriate: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end.” My choices have placed me in the latter group. I have not compromised and will not conform. In doing this, one relates to the words of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want … rain without thunder and lightning,” followed appropriately by his famous advice: “Agitate, Agitate, Agitate.” This means that my future here at the University of Michigan is most limited, and certainly others who have similar commitments must consider these facts before they make decisions.

So, when asked or encouraged to participate in service-related activities, particularly those that are most relevant to the Michigan Mandate, your decision must be based on your convictions and the impact it may have on your professional development, not on anticipated rewards from the University for this service. Then, though you will most likely have become a victim, or perhaps more appropriately, a casualty of our Mandate, you will not have compromised what is really important, i.e., your values and the “image” that results from those values – the “IMAGE” that is truly important.


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