Wharton professor Wendy De La Rosa and Foster School of Business professor Esther Uduehi first met while pursuing their PhDs. Both took part in The PhD Project, a non-profit organization that aims to diversify the business faculty pipeline. Inspired by this approach, they’ve now created The Tenure Project to support underrepresented scholars (e.g., Black, Indigenous, and Latinx scholars) through the next big obstacle: obtaining tenure in a historically inequitable system.
In this interview, De La Rosa and Uduehi touch on the far-reaching issues behind the tenure gap, how they started The Tenure Project, and the success of their first conference. Watch a video of the conversation above, or read the highlights below.
What are some of the structural barriers that underrepresented faculty face, especially in junior positions?
Wendy De La Rosa: We have to be really frank about the fact that many educational institutions were built by people of color, [yet] with the explicit purpose to exclude people of color. And so you’re asking people to navigate a system that, by its very foundation and creation, was set up to be exclusionary. The data reflects this. Even though underrepresented minorities (URMs) represent over 36% of the U.S. population, they represent just 7% of the faculty of business schools, according to the AACSB.
For example, oftentimes, if you are a URM and you’re in academia, you may focus on DEI issues or may go against racist ideology. But we know that research on DEI and related topics is less likely to be published and is often viewed as less rigorous by the field. And even if you do get published, articles written by URMs or women, in general, are less likely to be cited. URMs are also less likely to be mentored and/or sponsored, which is a big deal when you’re trying to get tenure and get letter writers. But that’s just research, right?
In terms of teaching, we also know that URMs and women are systematically evaluated differently and often earn lower teaching evaluations in the classroom, holding everything else constant. And then on the service side, URMs are often overburdened with service requests.
Those are just a few examples across the three pillars of our field — research, teaching, and service — where we aren’t creating an equitable system.
“It’s all about, ‘How do we create an equitable system where everybody has an equal seat at the table?’ And without tenure, you may not even be at the table.”— Wendy De La Rosa
How does lack of tenure harm a professor’s career and the students that they teach?
Esther Uduehi: Not having diversity is a major loss for both students and the university. Tenure is the first step in being able to be a part of the senior leadership within a school. They are able to come to the table with a certain level of power and stature. They get to sit on different types of committees that direct the school. Maybe it’s the promotion and tenure committee, for example, and even diversity committees. They get to shape the school and its direction long-term in ways that maybe other faculty don’t get to. Schools need to invest in their junior faculty of color, because it’s not just an investment for 5–7 years or 5–10 years. It’s really an investment within the institutional structure long-term.
De La Rosa: You don’t have job security if you don’t have tenure. The default is that if you don’t get tenure, you are forced to uproot your entire family and move to a different part of the country. The whole process — understanding why you didn’t get tenure or what was the reason for that — can often be a black box, especially for students that have built a rapport or a relationship with a specific faculty member. If a faculty is untenured, there’s always a chance that they may not be back at the institution. It’s all about, “How do we create an equitable system where everybody has an equal seat at the table?” And without tenure, you may not even be at the table.
Before The Tenure Project, what kinds of resources (or lack thereof) did URM faculty rely on?
Uduehi: I think people try to find communities formally and informally; people are going to seek others to support them. But when you’re not able to create formal communities, it can lead to a very disjointed system, especially when the system is not based on supporting minorities in many ways. Being able to formalize communities like WSAWBA (The Wharton Society for the Advancement of Women in Business Academia, which I was president of), like The Tenure Project, allows for people to feel maybe just a little more comfortable being themselves in spaces that they wouldn’t have otherwise — which, long-term, allows for the greater business community to see the value and importance of many people who continue to be on the margins.
Who can change the system, and how?
Uduehi: The lack of racial minorities as tenured faculty is not a problem to be placed on faculty of color. This is an institutional problem, and it requires institutional change to solve. In The Tenure Project, we want to face this issue head-on and encourage all schools to not ask, “Why don’t minorities get tenure?” but rather, “What have institutions done to create a system where minorities don’t get tenure?”
De La Rosa: Oftentimes, I think I hear: “If we run more webinars and do more DEI training, it will fix this system.” Well, we know from behavioral scientists and marketers that increasing information often doesn’t change behavior. It’s the environment that changes behavior. We can train people up and down, but if we really want to see change, we need to change the environment. We need to change the incentives. And our colleagues in Econ understand that really well, but for whatever reason, we haven’t necessarily pulled that into our own institutions.
“This is an institutional problem, and it requires institutional change to solve.”— Esther Uduehi
How did The Tenure Project start?
De La Rosa: Esther and I knew each other from The PhD Project, but the idea and the kernel of what The Tenure Project is really started in the summer of 2020. Like many people, the summer of 2020 was extremely difficult for me. I lost loved ones to COVID. I was dealing with the racial awakening that was happening in our country. And I was also going into a market where very few institutions were hiring, and I was really struggling. But thankfully in that struggle, I had this amazing community; a group of PhD students and very junior faculty who have no power got together, just doing weekly check-ins to heal, to help each other, and to strategize. We really wanted to create an action plan for what we thought needed to change in academia to create a more equitable workplace.
As part of that plan, we created a list of academics in Marketing that deans, journal editors, department chairs, and colloquial organizers could easily access. We wanted to stop this narrative that there are no URM faculty out there for us to invite. (That list is now published here.)
But in the creation of that list, we noticed that there were so many amazing researchers and educators who had been out in the field for decades and were still untenured. That started the idea of The Tenure Project. We created The Tenure Project with one singular focus, which is to increase the number of URM faculty that get tenure, because tenure can be a lonely, confusing, and often, quite frankly, racist process. We wanted The Tenure Project to be that one-stop shop for junior faculty across business disciplines to at least arm themselves with the tools to navigate this uncertain process.
Uduehi: I think for many years, there has been this discussion around what structures can help build community for junior faculty as they are going through the tenure process. And the opportunity, really, was presented to me and Wendy. When I reached out to UW Foster, my institution, to see whether or not they’d be interested in sponsoring and championing this, and they said yes, it really spearheaded the formal Tenure Project.
“How are we really training the business leaders of tomorrow, if they’ve never had a senior faculty member in the classroom who is Black, Latinx, or Native?”— Wendy De La Rosa
How have you collaborated with Wharton faculty to get this off the ground?
De La Rosa: When Esther and I were thinking about this idea, we were shopping it around to a couple of senior faculty members, saying, “What would be the best way to do this?” And I’ve been very blessed to have a colleague, Dr. Barbara Kahn, who said, “You know what? This is a great idea, and we should meet with our deputy dean, Nancy Rothbard, and put real dollars behind this. Let’s institutionalize this effort.” Nancy then got the support and backing of our dean, Erika James, and it started to take shape. Once the Foster School of Business and Wharton were on board, we got the backing of The PhD Project, and we now have over 14 institutional sponsors for The Tenure Project and a roadmap to host a conference for at least the next seven years.
I would be remiss, also, if I didn’t call out Dr. Noah Gans and Dr. Itay Goldstein, who so selflessly gave up their time to serve on the Senior Planning Committee, and Dr. Americus Reed who served as mentor for some of our Tenure Project members. I think as a whole, Wharton faculty have been really supportive of this initiative, and I’m excited for us to continue on that trend as we host The Tenure Project Conference in 2023.
Uduehi: To still have a connection and the opportunity to have a connection with Wharton long-term is a treat, and I look forward to this next year of planning the conference in Philadelphia. Also, just being able to continue to be connected with Wharton faculty is invaluable, because I really enjoyed my time and my discussions throughout my PhD. The Tenure Project, to me, is a natural extension of that. It allows me to still be in ways a part of the Wharton community, so I’m excited.
The Tenure Project had its first conference in August, hosted by Foster. How was the experience?
De La Rosa: We really had no idea what to expect. We were inviting junior faculty across all disciplines to say, “Hey, come and spend three to four days with us in Seattle, doing this thing that has been untested with this organization that you’ve never heard of before.” We were so surprised at the positive feedback. The need is just so clearly there. We had over a hundred junior URM faculty attend. To put that number into context, based on data that we have from The PhD Project, I think that there are less than 150 untenured junior URM faculty across the United States at business schools. It’s sort of sad when you think about that, but the penetration rate among our community was just so strong. And I think one other thing that really came out of that conference was, one, we sort of started to lift the lid on this black box. What does a tenure packet look like? How do I ask for letters? Who should my letter writers be? How do I think about the world pre-appointment and post-reappointment?
So much of The Tenure Project conference is about giving people practical tools to help get tenure, but it’s also about recognizing that this is a very lonely process, and everybody needs an academic home. Everybody needs to feel like they’re valued and treasured. So if you’re the only URM in your business school, that’s a really lonely experience, and sadly, that’s the modal experience for most junior URM faculty.
“We’re not just creating a vision that works for one or two people — we’re wanting to create a vision that is going to work for the entire community.”— Esther Uduehi
Uduehi: Being able to be around over a hundred junior faculty for several days was something I actually have never experienced. For many of my colleagues, they said the same. We look forward to creating this space every year for us to feel like this, and that it can hopefully carry us on as we start the academic year every year. That’s what excites me moving forward, that we’re not just creating a vision that works for one or two people — we’re wanting to create a vision that is going to work for the entire community.
De La Rosa: Esther and I created The Tenure Project with a singular goal of helping underrepresented junior faculty in business schools get tenure. And that is our golden post. The more that we can help move that metric forward, I think the better institutions will be. I don’t want people to think about The Tenure Project as a charity organization. It’s not. There’s a real business case. And we know that when we survey our MBA students, they care about social issues and social equity, and climate change. And we also need to prepare them for today’s world. How are we really training the business leaders of tomorrow, if they’ve never had a senior faculty member in the classroom who is Black, Latinx, or Native?
We’ve gotten so many emails from institutions that are ready to support and sponsor The Tenure Project, to host future Tenure Project conferences. We are also hearing from faculty members who couldn’t attend the first conference, how much they’re looking forward to joining our community in the future. But the most important thing is that I am excited that our amazing institution here at Wharton is picking up the helm, because Foster set a really high bar for our first conference, but I know that we are more than ready to exceed that bar for the 2023 conference.
Uduehi: There are several ways that institutions can be involved. That’s through financial support. That’s through supporting their faculty to attend The Tenure Project. That’s through supporting their senior faculty in being faculty mentors for The Tenure Project and being a part of the Senior Planning Committee. And it’s also through programming that we are hoping to start having throughout the year, that goes beyond the conference. I think the goal is for us to really understand the needs of junior faculty and help improve upon what was already a really great conference into something even more faculty can feel like they’re included in.