Why faculty of color leave: A summary of research

Disciplines across higher education struggle to retain faculty of color, and this is particularly true in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) disciplines (McGee, 2020). Yet, substantive research has illuminated the experiences of faculty of color that may contribute to their leaving predominantly white institutions and sometimes the academy altogether. Below is a summary of some of this research.

Lack of Recognition

Faculty of color are often placed in a precarious position of hypervisibility/invisibility (Settles, et al., 2018). These faculty report experiencing being hypervisible when it comes to diversity-related work, including being tokenized in marketing campaigns, on diversity committees, and/or when the university/college is trying to look diverse. Yet, these same faculty experience feeling invisible in core faculty work, and particularly in research. Steele (2018) refers to this phenomenon as “the invisible employee.” This dichotomy shows up when faculty of color are recognized for their “diversity,” but not recognized for their work in research and teaching. (Settles, et al., 2018). Conversely, faculty of color also report shouldering a greater level of service than their white colleagues, particularly when it comes to mentoring students of color and diversity-related committee work (Johnson, et al., 2018).

Hostile Climate

Faculty of color often report experiencing a hostile climate in their departments, colleges, and institutions more broadly. Johnson, et al. (2018) describe these environments as “‘chilly’ campus climates, social isolation, research censorship, ineffective mentoring, and high service expectations.” Other research demonstrates that faculty of color experience racially-charged climates and racism in their workplace (Alire 2001; Jayakumar et al., 2009; Johnson et al., 2018; Turner et al., 1999). Faculty of color also frequently experience racial microaggressions and racial stereotyping within the academy (Alexander & Hermann, 2016; Brown et al., 2016; Mutegi, 2013).

Lack of a Network

Tokenizing faculty of color is exacerbated when there is a dearth of faculty of color. This dearth also leads faculty of color to experience a lack of support and/or feeling isolated. Faculty of color also cite lacking a space or even the possibility to connect with other faculty of color as a reason for leaving their institutions. (Alire 2001; Montgomery et al. 2014)

Racialized Tenure and Promotion Processes

Research has shown that faculty of color experience a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety related to tenure and promotion processes at predominantly white institutions (Jayakumar et al., 2009; Johnson et al., 2018). Faculty of color also describe their tenure and promotion processes to be racialized, particularly related to myths of meritocracy and race evasiveness (McGee, 2020).


Alexander, Q. R., Hermann, M. A. (2016). African-American women’s experiences in graduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at a predominantly white university: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(4), 307–322. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039705

Alire, C. A. (2001). The new beginnings program. Journal of Library Administration, 33(1–2), 21–30. https://doi.org/10.1300/J111v33n01_03

Brown, B. A., Henderson, J. B., Gray, S., Donovan, B., Sullivan, S., Patterson, A., Waggstaff, W. (2016). From description to explanation: An empirical exploration of the African-American pipeline problem in STEM. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(1), 146–177. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21249

Jayakumar, U. M., Howard, T. C., Allen, W. R., & Han, J. C. (2009). Racial privilege in the professoriate: An exploration of campus climate, retention, and satisfaction. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(5), 538–563. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2009.11779031

Johnson, J.M., Boss, G., Mwangi, C.G. (2018). Resisting, rejecting, and redefining normative pathways to the professoriate: Faculty of color in higher education. The Urban Review, 50, 630–647. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-018-0459-8

McGee, E.O. (2020). Interrogating structural racism in STEM higher education. Educational Researcher, 49(9):633-644. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X20972718

Montgomery, B.L., Dodson, J.E., & Johnson, S.M. (2014). Guiding the way: Mentoring graduate students and junior faculty for sustainable academic careers. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014558043

Mutegi, J. W. (2013). “Life’s first need is for us to be realistic” and other reasons for examining the sociocultural construction of race in the science performance of African American students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 50(1), 82–103. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.21065

Settles, I.H., Buchanan, N.T., & Dotson, K. (2019). Scrutinized but not recognized: (In)visibility and hypervisibility experiences of faculty of color. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 113(2019), 62-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2018.06.003

Steele, T. (2018). Toxicity in the Work Environment: Retaining Staff Members of Color at a Predominantly White Institution. College Student Affairs Journal 36(1), 109-123.  https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0007.

Turner, C., Myers, S., & Creswell, J. (1999). Exploring underrepresentation: The case of faculty of color in the Midwest. The Journal of Higher Education, 70, 27–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.1999.11780753