A Morale Dilemma

By Fields, Cheryl D. | Black Issues in Higher Education, October 17, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Morale Dilemma


Fields, Cheryl D., Black Issues in Higher Education


Strained relations with white colleagues. Constantly having one's credentials questioned. An unwieldy workload. Job insecurity. Lack of respect from white students. Cultural, social and professional alienation.

Many Black professors who teach on predominantly white campuses face these problems and more. Too often, the result is low morale, occasionally resulting in poor performance and, in some cases, the abandonment of the profession altogether.

Efforts to understand faculty morale are relatively new to higher education. This is because, to a partial degree, the problem of widespread low morale at colleges and universities is a recent phenomenon. In the past, although scholars never enjoyed the financial rewards of their corporate counterparts, they were at least accorded a high degree of public esteem and enjoyed the benefits of job security, autonomy, sabbatical, and summers off. Small numbers of disgruntled faculty could be found on any campus, but these malcontents usually left for other institutions. And, since most professors, administrators and students on most of the campuses in the country were white and male, homogeneity was the norm. But times have changed.

Shrinking financial resources for higher education, the public's critical attitude toward scholarly pursuits, tension over affirmative action, and the escalating movement to eliminate tenure are eroding faculty morale. The morale of Black faculty, however, is being undermined in ways not experienced, and seldom understood, by their white male colleagues.

The Black Scholar's Burden

According to Dr. Linda K. Johnsrud, author of "Maintaining Morale: A guide to assessing the morale of mid-level administrators and faculty," morale is a multi-dimensional construct -- "A level of well being that individuals or groups experience in reference to their work." Morale is built with job satisfaction, commitment, enthusiasm, and a sense of common purpose, she said. The sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness, and social isolation, can erode it.

"African-American faculty often carry the burden of being viewed as affirmative action hires," Johnsrud said. "You have to prove yourself in ways your white colleagues don't." Scholars in the field of Black studies have an added challenge, she said. "If you work in that area, not only do you have to do the scholarship, but then you have to justify its worth."

Black scholars comprise almost 5 percent of the nation's higher education faculty. Of these, roughly half teach at historically Black institutions. Although it is becoming easier to find traditionally white campuses with clusters of African-American faculty, Black scholars often find themselves the only -- or one of very few -- Black faculty on campus. This isolation can lead to situations that are destructive to morale.

Dr. C. Aisha Blackshire-Belay came to Ohio State University in 1989, after having lived and worked in Germany and other parts of Europe for thirteen years. She was the first and only African American in the university's German department. Her prestigious credentials include a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan, a graduate degree in Germanic linguistics and literature from the University of Munich, and master's and doctoral degrees from Princeton University. Blackshire-Belay also had been a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

"German departments in this country are truly the most traditional and conservative. So when you go the route of tenure, it is a question of whether you fit in with their vision of the department," Blackshire-Belay said.

The German linguist's efforts to expand the vision of her department to reflect the multi-cultural Germany she had experienced were met with hostility by her colleagues. Although the university didn't hesitate to feature her in promotional literature demonstrating its commitment to affirmative action, her attempts to pursue tenure on an accelerated schedule were discouraged. …

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