URM Faculty in Research Institutions: Exploring the Link between Environment and Wellness

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URM Faculty in Research Institutions: Exploring the Link between Environment and Wellness

Zambrana's book, Toxic Ivory Towers, documents the professional work experiences of underrepresented minority faculty members at U.S. universities, addressing the social and economic inequalities that inform their lives.
Zambrana’s book, Toxic Ivory Towers, documents the professional work experiences of underrepresented minority faculty members at U.S. universities, addressing the social and economic inequalities that inform their lives.

My work focuses on the institutional experiences of highly educated, historically underrepresented minority groups (URMs)—primarily African Americans, Native Americans, Alaska Natives[1], Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans —in predominantly White research universities (PWIs). URMs disproportionately experience persistent unequal treatment, racism, microaggressions, and excessive demands for diversity representation and institutional service. Injurious professional experiences in academic environments take a physical and mental health toll on URM faculty, and result in self-policing and (identity) accommodation of behaviors in dress, speech, and management of emotions such as anger and disappointment. These experiences are defined as chronic workplace stressors that contribute to adverse health and mental health conditions, and often to less successful career paths. My research demonstrates that academic institutions perpetuate cultures of (un)health/mental distress.

In my study, I examine the higher education experiences of four URM groups[2] who share involuntary historical incorporation into the U.S. (via slavery, colonization, or land acquisition). Their intersectional identities of race, ethnicity, class, and gender are structurally embedded in unequal laws, policies and practices, and stereotypes (marked identity perceptions) in PWIs. Their social status historically has impeded access to the American economic and social opportunity structure.   

My central question is: what are the relationships among workplace stress (role overload and vocational strain), academic organizational climate, mentoring practices, perceived discrimination, coping strategies, and physical and mental health among URM faculty? This research emerged from listening to narratives about mortality and morbidity among early career tenure-track URM faculty over a 20-year period. These questions reflect two national discourses: understanding why low rates of URM representation, low retention rates, and relatively stagnant tenure and promotion rates have persisted over several decades; and examining how the rhetoric of diversity contributes to making PWIs more inequitable and unhealthy places for URM faculty.

In this mixed-methods study of 628 early career URM faculty (with an average age of 42), I explored questions about the participants’ perception of institutional diversity climate, supports within these academic organizations, their sense of belonging, and the impact of their chosen profession on their health and mental well-being. Through the data, I aimed to understand why and how participants selected the professoriate; their perceptions of the diversity climate in their academic institutions; availability of institutional supports, including collegial relationships and mentoring; perceived discrimination; service obligations and commitments; family – work-life balance; reasons to stay or leave academia; and the impact of work stress on their health and mental well-being. The data documented for the first time, in the largest study to date, the lived experiences of URM faculty in PWIs, and confirmed a significant body of narrative scholarship published mainly in the gray literature produced by URM faculty since the 1970s. These data yielded six major themes:

  • Perceived hostile work environments;
  • Inadequate mentoring;
  • Excessive work demands;
  • Sacrifice of family for work;
  • Discriminatory experiences; and
  • High racial/ethnic and cultural diversity tax.

These experiences constitute excessive workplace stress—including experiences of isolation and tokenism—and take a significant toll on physical conditions (e.g., hypertension, asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases) and mental well-being (e.g., depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulty). URM faculty are often asked to represent the “diversity” of the institution to external organizations, as well as within the department, school, or college or university at large. Such tokenism leads to excessive service demands. In addition, faculty often feel vulnerable in the classrooms, as students may interrogate their credentials and legitimacy as scholars—due to their race/ethnicity—which can lead to racial assaults in the form of unwarranted negative student evaluations. This dynamic is not acknowledged in tenure and promotion processes.

Furthermore, for those URM faculty whose research agenda addresses social concerns, emphasizes voices of the disadvantaged, and/or includes intervention studies to resolve community challenges, their research is often devalued and considered subjective, non-rigorous science. Another source of reported stress is interpersonal difficulty with colleagues. This was ranked as one of the top three adverse life events, along with limited access to quality mentoring, and the persistent experiencing and witnessing of discriminatory incidents. These data confirm prior studies that report higher education institutions as sites that tolerate policies and practices that perpetuate microaggressions, marginalization, and inadequate mentoring. These practices send negative messages to URM faculty that they do not belong and are not wanted.

Yet, the respondents reported a strong calling to the professoriate that was driven by positive experiences with former teachers and professors who supported them throughout their educational trajectory, and a burning desire to “pay it forward” and help the next generation succeed. The vocational calling of many URM faculty significantly contributes to student development and to institutional missions. I argue, along with many other scholars, that the call for inclusion and equity in higher education, especially PWIs, is not an argument for special treatment, but for equitable treatment and for recognition that URM inclusion represents an asset to higher education institutions.

URM faculty bring important assets and experiences to higher education, such as strong interdisciplinary perspectives that inform their teaching, their institutional and community work, and their scholarly production. According to an American Council on Education and American Association of University Professors (2000) study, white students also benefit from diverse students in classrooms and discussions of race/ethnicity in the classroom. Further, URM faculty often engage in a public mission of serving disadvantaged communities in towns or cities where the campus is located, as well as disadvantaged and URM student communities within the school. For example, Latino faculty may serve as interpreters and bridges with non-English speaking families in local schools, or help a community-based agency write program grants. They serve as mentors and role models to inspire the next generation of students and URM scholars. In addition, URM faculty may work with sororities and fraternities to engage with Black and Latino male motivational programs. They also produce scholarly articles and books that often reveal the invisible forces of power and racism in the lives of disadvantaged population groups and their own lives. These publications include Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia and Addressing disparities in academic medicine: what of the minority tax? Despite their contributions, the accomplishments of these faculty often go unrewarded and unrecognized by institutional leaders (e.g., deans, departmental chairs) in the career reward system.

So how can we translate these findings into more effective and responsive practices to increase the representation, retention, and promotion of URM faculty, and create healthier environments to assure high productivity and equitable treatment for these groups? I would like to suggest several practices that can forge improved connections between chairs, colleagues, and early career URM faculty:

  • Exhibit deep respect for the mentee’s scholarly ideas and intellect, even if totally divergent from one’s particular area of interest/expertise.
  • Showcase the scholarship of URM faculty similar to the work showcased by non-URM faculty.
  • Identify mentors who are committed to the advancement of URM early career faculty, are knowledgeable about the political processes in academic life, and are willing to learn as they work together on academic goals.
  • Provide direct and fair guidance on how to navigate the normative expectations and politics of the academy.
  • Provide opportunities for URM faculty to serve in non-diversity committees and task forces.
  • Open doors to increase access to collegial opportunity structures for engaging in leading roles in grants and co-authoring publications.

Senior academic leaders share in the responsibility to understand the unique challenges of URM faculty and assure that deans and chairs implement effective and responsive practices. Suggested areas of oversight include: a mentoring plan that meets the needs of early career faculty, offering information on family leave policies if needed, and providing clear guidance on departmental expectations for tenure and promotion.

A significant barrier to effective change remains in what seems to be a push for individual tailoring based on the “diversity” needs and priorities of an institution, rather than on the defined experiences and needs of historically underrepresented minority faculty. What we know for sure is that policies and practices must be informed by, and be responsive to, the well-documented academic and social challenges of URM faculty, and the known workplace stressors, to halt the derailing of early career pathways and promote the creation of welcoming and healthy work spaces.


[1]Although AIAN faculty share many of the same barriers to success as URM colleagues, their unique status as Tribal peoples and their relationship to settler colonialism pose particular challenges and resistance strategies.

[2] This study, Understanding the Relationship between Work Stress and U.S. Research Institutions’ Failure to Retain Underrepresented Minority (URM) Faculty, was funded by a University of Maryland Faculty Tier 1 grant (2009), The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2010-2015), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2016-2018). The findings are presented in a book entitled: Toxic Ivory Towers: The Consequences of Work Stress on Underrepresented Minority Faculty, Rutgers University Press, August 2018.


Special Thanks: I am especially grateful to the University of Maryland Faculty Tier 1 research grants and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for funding support for data collection, and to our former RWJF program officers, Drs. Debra Joy Pérez and Catherine Malone. A special debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Kantahyanee Murray at the Annie E. Casey Foundation for her funding support for the dissemination of the study results in multiple venues and her guidance and enthusiasm for this study. Finally, I wish to thank all the URM faculty across the U.S. who participated in this study.


Ruth Enid Zambrana, PhD, is a professor in and interim chair of the Department of Women’s Studies and the director of the Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, College Park. Zambrana is also an ADVANCE Fellow, a National Science Foundation program that supports women in STEM fields. She is the author, editor, or coeditor of several books, including Emerging Intersections: Race, Class, and Gender in Theory, Policy, and Practice and Toxic Ivory Towers: The Consequences of Work Stress on Underrepresented Minority Faculty.

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