Harvey “Skip” Davis, RN, PhD, switched from full-time student to full-time nursing educator this year after completing his doctorate last summer. Then, he says, his education began in earnest.
“The transition has been daunting at times,” the San Francisco State University assistant professor admits. “The amount of actual work required between teaching, serving on committees and my research has been the biggest surprise. Teaching a class is actually the easiest thing I do.”
In addition, Davis is the only person of color on the nursing faculty and one of only two men.
That situation is all too common at many of the nation’s nursing schools, but it’s slowly beginning to change. Today, more and more academic institutions are aggressively seeking out racial, ethnic and gender minority nursing faculty, just as they’re trying equally hard to diversify their student populations.
For minority nurses who are just starting out as faculty members, getting on the right career path in academia requires navigational skills that Magellan would have envied. Should you choose a tenure- or non-tenure-track position? Would you be happier at a historically minority-serving institution? Will your college support your research efforts?
Completing a graduate degree is, of course, the first step toward getting on the faculty career track. After that, many different doors are open to you. Entering the right one is critical, not only for your professional advancement but also for your personal fulfillment. Just be sure to keep your expectations realistic.
Alone in a Crowd
Because nurses of color and male nurses are still extremely underrepresented in the ranks of nursing school faculty, many minority junior faculty starting out their careers at majority schools are likely to find themselves in a position similar to Davis’. While you would think that the enlightened, intellectual halls of academe would be free from prejudice and discrimination, the unfortunate reality is that this isn’t always the case. Davis knew this and he set out to find a university that would welcome him not only as a nurse educator but also as an African-American man. His first priority, however, was to become part of a high-quality educational institution, and SFSU’s reputation among area health care providers for graduating well-prepared nurses was the initial attraction. He looked at several schools, though, to make sure his gender wouldn’t hamper his career progress.
“Male faculty members need to ask questions to make sure you avoid [schools that aren’t welcoming to men],” he explains. “I’m pretty straight to the point. I ask if there’s a feminist philosophy. Do that and listen to the various responses you receive from members of a search committee. You’ll be able to figure out quickly if men are welcome.”
While it’s advice heard often, nursing education leaders recommend that minority faculty members who are victims of bias speak up and work within the institutional framework to address the issue. Begin with your supervisor or, if that’s not feasible, with the equal opportunity officer of the division or the college.
Minority professors looking for a completely prejudice-free campus, though, are unlikely to find it. “Sometimes you may feel that no matter how much you do, it’s never going to be enough to achieve the status of your non-minority colleagues. Just do the best you can do, give it 100% and then let it go,” advises Barbara Broome, RN, PhD, CNS, assistant dean and chair of community/mental health nursing at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing in Mobile. She is also president of the Association of Black Nursing Faculty.
The faculty lounge is not the only place on campus where minority professors may encounter insensitivity based on race or gender. Roxanne Struthers, RN, PhD, has the luxury of being one of three American Indian nursing faculty members at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. Still, she often faces an entirely Caucasian classroom.
“The student body is often very monocultural and that’s hard sometimes for faculty,” she says. “It’s important to know how to teach about [other cultures] and how to be proactive to help students understand. They’re not going to get it from their classmates.”
Struthers, an assistant professor in nursing and an adjunct professor in the university’s American Indian Studies department, encourages other minority faculty to take advantage of their captive audience and view it as an opportunity to educate majority students about minority cultures. One way to do that, she adds, is simply by making yourself available and listening to questions with a nonjudgmental attitude. “Encourage questions even though they may not be politically correct or may even seem uncomfortable or out of the ordinary.”
Struthers also refuses to let student attitudes influence her own. “One of the things I notice about students,” she says, “is that because I am a member of a minority group and they are not, they have a tendency to act as if I’m invisible. They go on and on talking about everything under the sun as though I’m not even there. It’s as though they think I’m not on their level. I just delve into class when that happens. I don’t say anything and I don’t let myself get frustrated.”
Historically Minority Schools: A Haven for Minority Faculty?
Teaching in a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) or a Tribal College or University (TCU) may seem like the perfect alternative for professors of color who want to avoid the potential for prejudice they might find at a majority school. But while choosing this option may increase your comfort level on campus, it doesn’t completely banish the specter of discrimination. Majority nurses are often unaware of the rich academic and social traditions of historically minority institutions and may incorrectly perceive those schools–and their faculty–as second-rate.
“There’s a misconception that because a school is historically black, there’s always an open admission policy or that students come here because they can’t make it in a majority institution,” says Alma Dixon, RN, EdD, MPH, dean of nursing at Bethune-Cookman College, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida. “That’s simply not true.”
Most students, she argues, are drawn to HBCUs because of their academic excellence, the nurturing environment and the strong traditions. In fact, many students choose to attend them because of the positive experiences their parents had as students at historically black colleges.
“Certain sororities and fraternities are well-recognized within the black community and are only present on black campuses,” Dixon emphasizes. “People come here to share in that experience and tradition. That’s why I want my son to go to a historically black college.”
Teaching at a traditionally minority nursing school offers many rewards, but also presents its own unique challenges. Because these institutions are typically smaller schools, one of the biggest challenges, says Dixon, is staying financially sound. While no one becomes a nursing professor to get rich, faculty members and administrators at financially strapped universities often must stretch to make sure the budget can cover the entire semester.
“At a historically black college, you’re always mindful of money, “ Dixon explains. “You are always aware of what things cost. My colleagues at several state institutions are facing this now for the first time. You have to carefully weigh which conferences you’re going to attend. Traveling needs to be very cost effective, so that may mean two faculty members sharing a room or driving instead of flying.”
An indirect benefit of tight budget constraints is a constant focus on student retention. Dixon says that’s common to all private institutions, not just historically minority schools.
“In private institutions, you are always aware of how tuition translates into revenue,” she adds. “There’s a greater focus on retaining students and that creates a challenge in and of itself: keeping students while still maintaining your commitment to academic excellence.”
Getting the Right Fit
Teaching at a university that’s not a good fit for your interests and your style can be far more uncomfortable than wearing shoes that are a size too small. Dixon believes the most important thing to do when shopping around for a teaching position is to first do a thorough self-analysis.
“You have to know what you’re looking for and what your interests are,” she says. “Then, if you’re comparing different faculty positions, you need to know what the mission of the school is and how that plays out. Research may be stressed at one college, service at another.”
Most schools value a combination of teaching, research and service, but not necessarily in that order. You need to look at how your working hours will be allotted to determine which of those three will be most important.
“At our school, teaching is more important than service and research,” Dixon continues. “Here, you’re expected to have so many teaching hours and so many office hours. If you have a research project that’s going to take up three days every week, it would never work at this school because of the teaching and nurturing demands.”
Antonia Villarruel, RN, PhD, FAAN, associate professor and director of the Center for Health Promotion at the University of Michigan School of Nursing in Ann Arbor, says it’s important to make sure you know all the details about the school’s faculty evaluation system before walking into the classroom.
“I am fortunate to be at a place where being a director is not just an added responsibility. It’s considered part of my workload,” she comments. “That’s an indication of the school’s commitment to my research.”
Indeed, one of the reasons why Villarruel, a past president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses, accepted the position at the University of Michigan is because the school allows her to grow in her specialty areas, which are preventing HIV infection in Latino youth and health promotion. “If a university tells you they value research and then gives you a very heavy teaching load, it’s going to be tough for you if you want to do research,” she says.
Dixon also advises beginning faculty to watch out for red flags that may signal hidden problems at the school. One example would be a low passing rate on the NCLEX-RNâ exam.
“This is a hard thing for us to talk about,” she says, “but you need to find out what the student success rate is. If the school is struggling with constant program reports to the board of nursing, that’s going to be an intense cloud hanging over the institution. I would want to know about problems like that before I signed on. At least going in I would know where the focus is. I would expect a lot of my energy to be consumed in making sure students pass that exam.”
Tenure: The Brass Ring?
Davis has just completed his first year in a track that will eventually lead him to tenure, that magical milestone sought and treasured by most faculty members.
“It’s a big rite of passage,” says Villarruel. “Every faculty member has a ‘tenure story’ to tell. The destination is the same but the journey is different. Everyone has encountered different roadblocks and figured out different paths.” She encourages minority faculty to share their stories as a way of learning from each other.
Most tenure tracks are seven years long. To reach tenure, professors are usually required to show excellence in the areas of teaching, scholarship and service to the university.
Teaching excellence can be measured in several different ways, the most common being the dreaded student evaluations. Some schools also evaluate faculty on the basis of student performance on standardized tests and use peer evaluations.
Scholarship means a track record in research and it is usually measured in two ways. First, faculty members are encouraged to bring grant money for research projects into the university. Second, they’re expected to publish their research results.
“Some people say that the research project isn’t finished until the articles are published,” says Villarruel. “You can have a wonderful project but if the world doesn’t know about it, it’s a moot exercise.”
Service can be measured in many ways and can mean different things at different institutions. “At some schools, it can be service to a professional organization,” Villarruel explains. “At others, it has to be service at the university. So it’s very important to know how you will be evaluated.”
While tenure is still highly valued, it has lost some of its glitter in recent years. Today, tenured professors no longer have reason to relax and stop worrying about having to prove themselves.
“In the past, tenure did bring a certain sense of job security and a certain amount of prestige,” says Villarruel. “Now, universities do post-tenure reviews and evaluations. You still have to do research and publish and continuing performing at the expected level.”
If the pressures associated with becoming tenured seem too stressful for you, or if you’d rather skip the research and service aspects of faculty positions, Broome suggests you consider a non-tenure track.
“Be aware of all the different roles and options that are available to you in academia,” she counsels. “Going into a non-tenured track allows you to focus only on teaching and clinicals.”
Broome does, however, caution new instructors to realize what they are giving up by not pursuing a tenure track. Non-tenure teaching tracks offer very limited, if any, research or publishing opportunities. Teaching loads will be very heavy, reducing time available to participate in other aspects of university life. Non-tenured faculty may also be paid less and be the last to be considered for professional development opportunities.
While many nurse educators thrive on daily classroom interaction with students, for others the classroom is just the beginning. A career in academia can offer minority nursing faculty many opportunities to advance into administrative and leadership roles, including department chair, dean, curriculum developer and education policy-maker.
“I love teaching, but I wanted to do more,” says Broome. While she has only been an assistant dean for a little over a year, she’s very pleased to have moved up to a position that allows her to have some influence on the future of nursing education.
“It’s good to be involved in helping to make changes that will benefit students,” she continues. “I also have the opportunity to be supportive of faculty and I am in a position to be an advocate for them.”
Broome advises junior faculty hoping to climb the academic career ladder to do so in small steps. One the most important breaks in her career came when she relocated to the University of South Alabama to assume a chair position.
Both Broome and Dixon credit previous clinical managerial positions with helping them develop the leadership skills needed to succeed in academia’s higher levels.
“Having a leadership position in a hospital gave me a clear view of the practicing environment of nursing, and I’ve never lost sight of it,” Dixon explains. “You do need a strong clinical experience [even in an academic setting].”
She also advises nursing faculty members to leave the security of the nursing department and venture out into other areas of the campus. For example, she says, get involved with university-wide faculty senates, seek out committee assignments that match your interests, and network with non-nursing faculty.
However, just as administrative experience and leadership skills can help you rise to a new role, making a few critical mistakes will block your path. One of the biggest “don’ts,” says Broome, is burning your bridges behind you.
“Nursing is a very small world,” she cautions, “especially when that world is narrowed down to minority faculty members. There are still so few of us that you will practically get to meet most of them during your career. Never forget where you came from. It’s been said that you meet the same people on the way down that you passed on the way up, and I think that’s true.”
In the business world, the process of fitting in with your employer’s company philosophy, goals and style is known as “navigating the corporate culture.” Similarly, every academic institution has its own personality and it’s the wise faculty member that learns its rules early. Perhaps even more important is learning how you function inside those rules, which are often unwritten.
Playing politics, though, can derail your career and your enjoyment of training future nurses.
“Don’t get caught up in things that may not pertain to you or in things you cannot control,” says Villarruel. “As a faculty member, you have enough on your mind.”
Broome advises junior faculty members to find other instructors with whom they can build networks of support. Alliances, after all, aren’t just limited to reality TV shows.
“Faculty circles do have cliques,” she says. “There are certain people you will be able to work well with regardless of color and you should seek those people out and form alliances to further your work.”
Still, if you are a racial or gender minority faculty member teaching at a majority school, it’s empowering to be able to network with colleagues who look like you. But since this is not always possible, all of the educators interviewed for this article stress the importance of becoming involved in minority nursing associations.
Davis encourages young faculty members not to overlook the opportunity to learn from nurses who are different from you. He says he’s grown and benefited from the support of many female nurses. “The reality is that this is a woman-dominated field,” he adds. “You will find many willing mentors who are women and have different things to offer. Just listen and take what you think will work for you.”
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