Even before assistant professor Julissa Muñiz stepped into a classroom at UC Santa Cruz, the messages were starting to pile up.

“I don’t teach until the winter,” Muñiz said. “But I was receiving emails from students of color here, both graduate and undergraduate, expressing how excited they were that I was coming. People were reaching out to me for research opportunities, and I had to be like, ‘I haven’t even moved yet.’”

Muñiz, who is Black and Latina, felt honored that so many students were eager to connect with her. But as an early-career faculty member in the psychology department, her schedule was already packed with obligations: everything from research and course planning to connecting with mentors of her own.

“I don’t want to say yes to too many things,” Muñiz said. “But I feel guilty saying no.”

As of April 2023, 68 percent of UCSC students were nonwhite compared to 42 percent of faculty. That imbalance means that faculty of color (FOC) like Muñiz receive more requests for service than they can handle. While those requests often come from a good place, they can enact a serious toll on instructors.

The challenges don’t stop there. On Aug. 30, a task force from the American Psychological Association (APA) co-chaired by UCSC psychology professor Margarita Azmitia released a report that detailed how FOC can face “extreme cultural and social isolation,” as well as “overt racial discrimination from students and colleagues.” Likewise, it observed that FOC, especially women, “carry a heavier burden of visible and invisible labor” and are expected to make “significant investments of time and emotional energy that are not required of other faculty.” 

According to the report, these stressors can lead to burnout, career stagnation, or even departure from academia entirely.

In recent years, UCSC faculty and administration have implemented a wide range of potential solutions. But at UCSC and beyond, FOC continue to face challenges resulting from low representation in higher education — all while striving to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

Challenges

On average, FOC are less likely than white faculty to have higher-ranking faculty positions. According to the APA report, less than 40 percent of assistant professors — the lowest-ranked tenure-track faculty position — in the U.S. were nonwhite as of fall 2021. At the associate professor level, just over 29 percent were nonwhite. For full professors, that number dwindled to 24 percent.

On one hand, UCSC’s faculty is more diverse than many universities in the U.S. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2021 that 27 percent of all higher education faculty in the U.S. were nonwhite, compared to 42 percent at UCSC. And that’s over 10 percent higher than it was in 2013.

But when it comes to professor rankings, professor Margarita Azmitia is seeing the same trends play out here at UCSC.

“[UCSC] might have diversity at the assistant professor level,” Azmitia said. “But if you look at associate professors and full professors of color, those numbers get really, really small.” 

According to Azmitia, part of it has to do with the personnel review process, which is how universities assess promotion and tenure eligibility. At UCSC, faculty are evaluated on three main categories: teaching, research, and service.

Over the years, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs and statistics professor Herbie Lee has witnessed FOC spend less time on research and more time on service, which might include mentoring students of color, engaging in activism, or being a part of campus committees. This kind of work is demanded of FOC more often than of non-FOC; often, many FOC view it as their most important duty.

Research done by FOCs sometimes takes the form of “community-engaged scholarship”: advocating for policy changes in local government, for instance, or working with local nonprofits. Historically, community-engaged scholarship hasn’t qualified as research, meaning that faculty who conduct it — who, according to Lee, are more likely to be FOC — don’t receive adequate recognition. This can make-or-break a personnel review.

“We’re trying to have a more expansive view on what research is and how it may be visible,” Lee said.

Tools

Despite UCSC’s flaws, professor Margarita Azmitia made one thing clear.

“UCSC is a leader in addressing these problems,” Azmitia said. “They’re walking the walk.”

One key initiative that Azmitia highlighted is the Faculty Community Network Program, an assortment of faculty groups that meet monthly to discuss difficulties they’re facing and strategies for improving their experience.

As Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, Herbie Lee helps organize the groups and voices their ideas to the rest of the administration.

“They come to me with issues, with proposals, with requests,” Lee said. “It’s not a required part of what these groups do; a lot of it, really, is the support network.”

Both the Center for Reimagining Leadership and the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) are instrumental in creating a strong network for FOC on campus. Much of their programming is devoted to teaching early-career faculty the hidden curriculum of professorship: things like grant-writing, criteria for promotion, and the subtle art of making course content accessible to a wide variety of students.

According to Lee, FOC can have a harder time finding mentors with whom they share life experience. Both centers focus on closing that gap.

“A lot of what the Center does is ask, ‘how do we navigate the barriers we see everyday?’” said Associate Director of the Center for Reimagining Leadership and environmental studies professor Sikina Jinnah.

UCSC’s other initiatives include having equity advocates in each department, increasing recognition for community-engaged scholarship, and allowing early-career faculty to sit in on tenure reviews. Lee described this last initiative as critical for demystifying the process of entering leadership positions at UCSC.

“Our goal is to support our faculty to tenure,” Lee said. “We hired them because we thought they’d succeed.”

The Road Ahead

When it comes to faculty diversity, Lee knows UCSC still has a long way to go.

“We’re doing relatively well,” Lee said. “We’re pushing the envelope. But we can do better.”

Others, however, see paths outside of administrative policy.

Professor Rebecca Covarrubias has been assistant professor Julissa Muñiz’s mentor ever since she arrived in the fall. Over her nine years in UCSC’s psychology department, she’s experienced the kind of burnout Muñiz is trying to avoid.

“When I got here, I was one of the few Latina faculty who was also first-gen and from a low-income background,” Covarrubias said. “Students gravitated [towards me] in a really awesome way, but at the same time, it requires more work to offer meaningful support and connection.”

In early 2023, Covarrubias co-wrote an article entitled “Reimagining Leadership Through the Everyday Resistance of Faculty of Color.” It documented the ways that FOC at UCSC push back against the systems that threaten their work and well-being — both with and without the university’s help.

To Covarrubias, UCSC’s progress on supporting FOC has always started and ended with the efforts of faculty themselves.

“We’re moving the needle,” Covarrubias said. “But I want to attribute a lot of that to the people on the ground doing that work: faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, and staff who are like, ‘we’re in this.’”

Above all else, Covarrubias insists that UCSC can’t rest on its laurels.

“There is more work to be done,” Covarrubias said. “Always.”