How universities can support mid-career faculty of color

Faculty leaders at Penn and other Ivy Plus institutions attended an online symposium on April 14 to discuss what universities can do to enable mid-career faculty of color to thrive.

People sitting under trees in the middle of Penn campus.

The “Mid-career Faculty of Color Virtual Symposium,” held online on April 14 and hosted by Vice Provost for Faculty Laura Perna, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, and Interim President Wendell Pritchett, discussed the challenges that mid-career faculty of color experience on the path to promotion to full professor, and the actions universities can take to enable mid-career faculty of color to thrive.  

“The journey is often a struggle for faculty of color,” said Pritchett during the opening remarks of the symposium. “One of the critical phases of any faculty member’s career, especially for faculty of color, is the career transition. Having a strong peer network at that stage is important—having people who know you, who understand you, and can give you both the support and the pats on the back that are necessary—but also the questions, the honest conversation, is really important.”

The symposium provided an opportunity for attendees to connect with colleagues at Penn and other Ivy Plus universities that are part of the Faculty Advancement Network (FAN) and are committed to recruiting, retaining, and supporting diverse faculty.

Perna said one of the areas of faculty life that they have been trying to devote more attention to is understanding how the University can make sure faculty of color have the support they need after they are recruited to Penn and welcomed into the campus community.

“We know from the research the challenges that mid-career faculty face,” she said. “With promotion often comes new types of service and administrative responsibilities. Those increased responsibilities and demands are even greater for faculty of color. This symposium was designed to make visible the experiences of mid-career faculty of color, and to help us think, from an institutional perspective, what are the things we can do to help ensure that mid-career faculty of color have the supports they need to do their excellent work and achieve their professional goals.”

Sydney Freeman Jr., a visiting scholar in the Provost’s Office and a professor at the University of Idaho, helped to conceptualize the symposium.

The event was both timely and long overdue, according to Winkelstein.
“It’s timely because it’s a great opportunity to share the progress our institutions have made in supporting our faculty of color and our inclusion efforts,” she said during the opening remarks. “But it’s also overdue because the challenges we face are longstanding and, in some cases, structural and resistant to easy fixes.”

During the symposium, attendees received insights from surveys of faculty conducted by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, learned about the challenges mid-career faculty of color experience and the systemic racism and other broader contextual forces that influence those experiences, and considered actions institutional leaders can take to enable mid-career faculty of color to create a healthy life and achieve their professional goals.

While this symposium generated a number of useful insights, Perna stressed, “There is so much more work to be done to create the environments in which all of our excellent diverse mid-career faculty can thrive. Please know that we will be building on these and other takeaways to further advance our efforts.”

Perna and Freeman identified five takeaways from the symposium.


First, it’s important to understand the goals of individual mid-career faculty of color and to regularly check-in about their progress in achieving their goals. Mid-career faculty of color may aspire to work-life balance, higher professional and administrative ranks, new types of scholarship and collaborations. Department chairs and other leaders should tailor institutional supports to recognize individual goals.  


Second, recognize the many demands on the time of mid-career faculty of color. Women and faculty of color spend more time on service, teaching, and advising than white men. Simply telling faculty of color to spend less on these activities is not realistic, as Professor Modupe Akinola of Columbia University discussed in another recent FAN session. We need to monitor differences in workload and ask: How can we address inequities in workload? And how might our reward systems better recognize the activities in which different faculty are engaging?  


Third, formal and informal mentoring can provide mid-career faculty of color with a range of supports, from substantive feedback and accountability, to role models and emotional support, to access to new opportunities. Having multiple mentors—including peers and colleagues at the home institution and other institutions—may be especially beneficial.


Fourth, senior colleagues, department chairs, and other institutional leaders can support mid-career faculty of color by elevating and amplifying their contributions. We can support our mid-career faculty of color by nominating them for awards and prestigious professional opportunities. Institutional leaders can sponsor lectures (like the Provost’s Lecture on Diversity) that showcase diversity-related scholarship.


Fifth, the climate and culture of a department is critical to the satisfaction and retention of mid-career faculty of color. Particularly important is the belief that the department is committed to diversity and inclusion, recognizes and addresses microaggressions and implicit bias, appreciates multiple perspectives, and values the scholarship of diverse scholars. The department chair and other senior colleagues can provide essential leadership on these issues.