Privilege and Saying No

I want to continue my series on saying no in academia by addressing the role that privilege plays in saying no and supporting others who say no.

I have a ton of privilege in academia:

  • I’m white, which means I am never asked, by virtue of my skin color, to represent an entire race of people. I look like the prototypical female academic.
  • I’m a native White English speaker, which means the English I grew up speaking and writing is the English of academia. How lucky for me!
  • I’m tenured, which means my job is safe even if I am perceived as difficult or not a team player.
  • I’m a Full Professor, which means I never have to go through the promotion process again at my institution, so as with being tenured, there are very few material consequences for me if I am perceived as difficult.

All of this means that I don’t have much to lose when I say no to a service request. The decisions I make about how much time and energy to put toward service requests are relatively low stakes for me, and I can make those decisions largely without worrying about how senior colleagues, the chair, the dean, and the provost will judge me. If they judge me negatively because of the decisions I make, I may have to deal with the emotional labor of navigating workplace conflict, and I don’t want to minimize that because it is exhausting, but there is very unlikely to be any significant material impact on my career.

Before I had tenure, I felt pressured to take on every service “opportunity” that was offered to me. A number of factors contributed to that pressure:

  • I was typically invited to participate in service by someone who would ultimately have a say in my tenure bid: a senior colleague, the chair, the dean, or the provost. I was afraid that if I said no, they would vote against me when I went up for tenure.
  • Service was generally presented by these people as a “great opportunity” for me, and I had yet to understand what a load of bullshit that usually is. I trusted that these people had my best career interests in mind. Yes, I was naïve enough to believe that others genuinely wanted me to succeed and would only bring me opportunities they truly thought would help my tenure bid. Just writing that sentence feels absurd, but it is what I thought was true.
  • Because the standard for service work in place when I went up for tenure was very vague, I always felt it was possible for someone to look at my service record and find it lacking. What exactly is “significant service” or “leadership”? If what counts as enough isn’t defined clearly, someone who doesn’t like you can always interpret your record as lacking.

Once I had tenure, I immediately felt the weight of these factors lift. I knew I would still have to go up for promotion and be judged, but I figured that if the service I had done pre-tenure was deemed “enough,” then I could just maintain my current service load and not go beyond it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, and I see regularly that once faculty get tenure, their service work becomes much more focused on what they are actually invested in.

That lifting of pressure to say yes that I felt when I got tenure will NEVER be felt by faculty who aren’t in tenure lines. This means adjunct faculty and folks in non-tenure lines will ALWAYS feel those very real pressures to say yes. For folks whose jobs are up for renewal every semester or every year or every few years, the worry that being perceived as uncooperative or not a team-player could cost them their livelihood NEVER goes away.

I am still asked to do more service than I suspect my male colleagues are—for more on this, see my post, “On Having to Say No Over and Over”—but because of my privilege, I am able to say no without ever worrying that my job is in jeopardy. This is why I feel strongly that those of us with privilege must actively create conditions that protect our colleagues with less privilege from being exploited through service requests.

Unfortunately, I witness many senior faculty taking the attitude that because they were terribly exploited as junior faculty or adjuncts, everyone should have to go through that. I actually was in a meeting one time, before I had tenure, in which a senior colleague said, “Adjunct faculty are used to getting the shaft. Why should we change that?,” as if “giving a colleague the shaft” is a normal, reasonable thing to do in a professional setting. Others in the room laughed at the comment, and when I told the chair about it, they, too, laughed.

I have another colleague who calls this attitude part of the “academic cycle of abuse.” We replicate for others below us the conditions we experienced ourselves. If we had to do ridiculous amounts of service with little or no reward, then damn it, others should, too. It becomes normalized.

I believe those of us with privilege must break this cycle of abuse. I talked in my last post about supporting folks when they say no, but to really break the cycle of abuse, we need to understand that faculty in precarious positions may not ever say no because of the pressures I mentioned above. To break the cycle of abuse then we need to go beyond supporting folks who say no by actually creating fewer “opportunities” for service. There is so much busy work in academia—it doesn’t really all need to get done, and of the work that does need to get done, it doesn’t all need to get done now. With the U.S. facing both a pandemic and a rebellion, perhaps Fall 2020 is the perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and suspend all service that doesn’t actually have to be done during the fall. At my institution, tenure clocks are being paused and sabbaticals are being delayed—it seems perfectly reasonable to me that non-essential service could also be suspended. That would give us an opportunity to think more deliberately about what actually needs to be done and by whom.

We need to think carefully about how our actions shape academic workplaces for others. Exploiting junior faculty will not lessen any exploitation we experienced. Do we want to work in an abusive environment? If not, then if our privilege allows it, we must not engage in abusive practices, be accountable when we do engage in abusive practices, and actively work to end abusive practices for all of our colleagues.

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