RaJade Berry-James, a public administration professor with a long list of credentials, left NC State University last month for a position at Virginia Commonwealth University. When asked what prompted her resignation, Berry-James said just two words: “fair pay.”
Berry-James was not looking for a new job. She had worked at NC State for 12 years both as a full professor and as the chair of the faculty. She’s a distinguished researcher with 35 years of experience in academia, plus a prestigious fellowship. But what happened last month was the last straw.
In mid-August, Berry-James’s request for an unpaid leave of absence was denied, in part because Berry-James would not disclose her “personal reasons” for the leave, she says. Berry-James resigned her position at NC State the next day.
The administration responded with a retention offer—typically an offer of a raise or other benefits in an effort to keep an employee—but Berry-James declined.
“While I had a short time to consider the retention offer, only fair pay would have kept me at NC State,” she says. “I left a small piece of my heart with the NC State Wolfpack. I loved the awesome students, engaged faculty, and brave campus leaders who shared my vision for fairness and justice. I hope to get back to the campus someday.”
Unfortunately, this is a familiar story. Since January, at least 10 Black professors have left NC State University for greener pastures. Their reasons for leaving weren’t all the same. Some mentioned pay equity. Some talked about the additional burden of work placed on Black faculty. Some said it was simply easier to seek a job somewhere else, where they could pursue their professional goals. But one sentiment came up again and again: faculty members say they felt undervalued.
Repeatedly, faculty members say the university did not seem to value their work and didn’t seem to care when they left. Efforts made to keep them were modest at best and proposals of significant pay raises were rejected.
Warwick Arden, the executive vice chancellor and provost for NC State, didn’t address allegations of pay inequality or additional burdens of work in his response to the INDY’s request for an interview last week.
Instead, he deflected blame, writing that “the reasons why individual faculty and staff members leave the university are varied and often include receiving significant promotion, career, and personal advancement opportunities at other institutions or in the private sector.”
That’s not untrue. Two professors who left NC State this year said they left in part to pursue other career opportunities. But they also talked about the barriers minority faculty members face. The inability to advance their careers at NC State. A quiet form of discrimination in which the university pays less attention to their work, cuts their funding first, and expects them to work harder for less pay than white coworkers.
“The lived experience for underrepresented minority faculty is different, and yet sometimes our experiences are the same,” Berry-James says. “My story may be familiar to many others.”
Louie Rivers III, a Black environmental justice scholar, left his job at NC State in January for a local research position with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This was two years after he received tenure, a status many academics work their whole careers to achieve.
“A lot of us feel like we’re just severely underpaid at NC State,” Rivers says, citing a $6 million grant he helped bring to the university last year.
It’s a decent chunk of change, and half of the grant goes directly to the university. The rest is doled out by administrators to pay graduate students, among other things. One of the final straws for Rivers was the university’s refusal to allocate $70,000 to hire a postdoctoral researcher, he says.
“This is a person with a PhD,” Rivers says. “I just got to this point where I brought in a fair amount of grant support for the university, but then I’m hustling to support my students. You kind of feel like you’re not getting paid the best, you’re not being treated the best, but it’s fine. But it became even more frustrating when I felt like they weren’t paying our graduate students right.”
Being a professor, especially one of color, isn’t an easy job, Rivers says.
“If you’re a Black professor, you end up being an informal mentor to pretty much every Black student on campus,” he says. “Which is fine, but it’s a lot of invisible labor.”
While professors who spoke to the INDY all say they enjoy supporting and mentoring students of color, they also agreed it was an extra burden of work not placed on white faculty members.
Ryan Emanuel, a Native American environmental science professor who left NC State for Duke earlier this year, says there was often a silent expectation he would reach out to Lumbee students.
Emanuel didn’t leave NC State because of issues of racism or discrimination—he was happy with his job there and left to pursue better professional opportunities, he says—but he noted some of the issues minority faculty members face.
Being one of the few Lumbee professors “causes excess burdens of service and advising,” he says.
“I don’t mean to say I don’t love interacting with students, because I do …. But at the same time, we want recognition that we have this extra burden of mentoring and role modeling for students who … want to interact with faculty who have similar life experiences to them.”
Rivers, who knew Emanuel and another minority professor who left the college in January—Jason Coupet, who taught public administration—says NC State’s administrators simply don’t realize how exceptional some of their faculty members are.
Coupet wasn’t available for comment for this story.
“I just don’t think the university realized how special these people were, and they just didn’t value them,” Rivers says. “NC State doesn’t value the work of women and minorities the same, so if you get an opportunity to go somewhere else, it’s easier.”
A Small Percentage
Joy Gaston Gayles, an education professor and advisor for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at NC State, is also troubled by the wave of minority faculty members who resigned this year. Last month, one of her colleagues (a tenured professor who was at NC State for almost 20 years) became the eighth Black woman to leave the university in 2022, she wrote in a recent op-ed for education magazine Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
“As I examined my list further, I realized that half of the Black women were full professors who have made extraordinary contributions to their respective fields,” Gayles wrote.
“I also know that many of them may have stayed if they were paid equitably, provided greater opportunities and pathways to advance their careers, and didn’t have to navigate racialized, gendered, and hostile work environments.”
At NC State, as at many other colleges and universities, Black faculty members make up only a small percentage of the overall academic staff. Black faculty are most present in the lowest levels of academia (about 1 percent of assistant professors at NC State are Black) and least present at the highest levels (only 0.4 percent are full professors).
“The academy remains white and steeped in whiteness because efforts to diversify the academy are performative rather than transformational,” Gayles writes.
In other words, colleges are talking the talk but not walking the walk. They’re posting DEI statements on their websites but not working to change the culture of the university, Gayles writes. They’re not fighting to keep Black women the same way they are fighting to keep white men, she argues.
“The fact that so many Black women can leave an institution in such a short time period and no one notices or says anything, and no visible changes are made to prevent this from happening is a clear example of misogynoir [anti-Black racist misogyny],” Gayles writes.
“It isn’t easy for Black women in the academy to love institutions that do not love us back …. Writing this editorial was not easy for me but necessary …. Institutions must do better to care for the humanity of Black women on college campuses.”
According to Walter Robinson, a climate science professor who has worked at the university for over a decade, NC State has made an effort to recruit Black and minority faculty members. Their efforts to retain these faculty members are another matter.
“The search committees who are hiring new people are making an effort [to diversify], but if we’re not keeping [minority faculty] here, then we just don’t see the progress,” Robinson says. “I don’t sense urgency from the chancellor and the provost to say, ‘We really have to diversify our faculty.’”
Robinson says he and many faculty thought the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 would be a “wake-up call” to the university. But since then, he hasn’t seen a genuine, intentional effort from administrators to recruit and keep Black faculty, he says.
“Given the small number of faculty of color, especially those on the tenure track, each such loss hurts,” he says.
The college made “diversity and inclusion” a key goal in its 10-year strategic plan—a fact highlighted by Provost Arden in his email to the INDY—but Robinson thinks university leaders could be doing more.
The departure of minority faculty not only discourages students of color from becoming professors but also discourages other minority faculty from applying to work at NC State, which ultimately hurts the community and its research, according to Robinson and others.
It’s similar to the debacle with the acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was initially offered an untenured position, then offered the tenure for which she was more than qualified following an outcry at UNC-Chapel Hill. Several faculty members left UNC after that news spread nationwide, and the university gained a reputation for being hostile to faculty members of color.
Arden says NC State is “dedicated to advancing a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. This includes a strong commitment to recruiting and retaining underrepresented faculty members.”
“While we have continued to make progress over the last several years, there’s still much that can be done to improve equity in higher education, including at NC State,” he says.
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