The Survival of American Indian Faculty

Wayne J. Stein
Native American Studies

[Reprinted with permission from Thought and Action Vol. X, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 101-113.]

More American Indian faculty teach in four-year institutions in the United States today than at any time in the past Yet a recent survey of these faculty indicates that many are so frustrated by their experiences in higher education that they intend to move on to other careers.

This recent survey--the unpublished "American Indian Faculty Survey"--was sent to 30 Indian faculty members at four-year institutions during the spring of 1992. Twenty-two of those faculty responded. The survey was aimed at extracting information relative to how--and whether--American Indian academics survive in four-year institutions. Specifically, the survey asked:

This paper discusses some answers to these questions and offers recommendations designed to help colleges and universities ensure the survival of American Indian faculty. That survival is at risk. It is certainly true that the percentages of Indian candidates in doctoral programs have increased, as have the percentages of all minorities in doctoral programs: American Indians and Alaska Natives from .2 percent to .4 percent; Asian Americans from 3.8 percent to 4.4 percent; African Americans from 3.8 percent to 4.3 percent; and Hispanics from 1.2 percent to 2.6 percent./1/

The problem is that fewer non-white candidates indicate they will pursue a faculty position once they graduate with their doctorate. The higher education pipeline is drying up./2/ Institutions of higher education usually give five reasons to explain why they are not hiring more faculty:

Part Myth, Part Luck

Professor Janet Thomas/4/ is one American Indian who was hired for a faculty position. A member of a Southwest tribe and a junior faculty at a large Midwestern research university, she was queried by the "American Indian Faculty Survey" about why and how she entered academe.

Thomas came to higher education after a successful career in the federal government. She made the choice to change careers based on personal considerations upon completing her terminal degree.

Professor Thomas is that rare individual known in affirmative action circles as a "two for one." She is a woman and a member of a minority group. Such individuals are counted twice by institutions when reporting their affIrmative action programs for the year.

Thomas has heard all the conventional wisdom about higher education and minority faculty. She considers the widespread idea that a non-white and especially a non-white female can pick and choose her desired position in higher education to be a myth. She feels that she her self gained some advantage in securing her position because she was female--not necessarily because she was Indian--because the institution only interviewed women for the position.

Other American Indian faculty who answered the survey described their search for faculty positions as both intensely frustrating and a learning experience. Institutional affirmative action offices often require that departments interview any qualified minority candidate, a mandate that places Indian candidates repeatedly into interview pools where they have little chance of being hired.

Prospective Indian faculty have learned that the most crucial ingredient for a successful search is who they knew or how well do they could cultivate important members of the search committees./5/

Jason Red Wing, a member of an East Coast tribe and a junior faculty member of a large research university in the Southwest, is currently not tenured. He expects to gain tenure after undergoing the promotion and tenure process at his university.

Professor Red Wing is somewhat representative of the most recent generation of American Indian scholars. He chose higher education as a medium for his scholarly work while in his 30s. He came to that decision after a career that took him through a host of positions in tribal and community service and eventually to a community college. Why did Red Wing chose higher education as a career?

"I needed a job and a friend worked in a community college and invited me to apply," he explained. "From there, my interest grew."

Like many of today's American Indian faculty, Red Wing took a circuitous route to higher education. He didn't see collegiate teaching as a career choice early on, but, instead, serendipitously began his career due to circumstances rather than plan./6/

The "American Indian Faculty Survey" found that this may be the case for many American Indian faculty. Not many American Indians in higher education actually envisioned a higher education career. They arrived in academe after first beginning careers in another phase of education, tribal government, federal government, or, rarely, business.

Mentoring Works

Red Wing was fortunate to find a caring and interested mentor in the higher education system who just happened to be American Indian. His mentor guided his graduate work and helped him secure his present position.

American Indian faculty generally find mentors while pursuing their advanced degrees, but rarely are these persons of American Indian descent. But once the Indian person has secured a position with a four-year institution, gaining the friendship and guidance of a mentor has proven much more difficult.

Only 50 percent of today's American Indian faculty, the "American Indian Faculty Survey" finds, have found mentors in their departments or universities. Those faculty who have are quick to share stories about mentor guidance that helped them overcome obstacles that could have proven career-ending.

Those American Indian faculty without mentors express frustration and worry that they may not be making the right career choices.

Today, in most four-year institutions, mentors--minority and nonminority--are self-identifying. Most of the time, the mentor is a senior faculty member in a department who makes a personal commitment to mentor a junior faculty member. Sometimes the junior faculty member is American Indian. Senior faculty and department heads are the true gatekeepers of their particular disciplines and of higher education in general. Without their support and approval, most junior faculty, minority or nonminority, will not succeed./7/

Perceptions and Misperceptions

American Indian faculty fulfill the expected faculty roles of researcher, teacher, and servant to the community in four-year institutions. But a number of other factor--real or perceived--do come into playas American Indian faculty members work their way through the tenure and promotion maze.

One of the most damaging perceptions that must be overcome by American Indian and other minority faculty is that they were hired only because they were a member of a minority group and, therefore, possess inferior qualifications or credentials. Non-white women have a double problem because women often face this same perception regardless of color. Many American Indian faculty who responded to the survey often feel that they must work twice as hard as their non-Indian counterparts to prove themselves.

What is interesting about this attitude is that American Indian faculty, who recall past discriminatory treatment, often give it more credence than their non-Indian colleagues, unfortunately, misperceptions can be as powerful as facts to those who hold them.

It is true that nonminority faculty see being a minority as a benefit in the promotion and tenure hunt and 67 percent see minorities as facing no barriers to promotion and tenure. This finding, a sharp contrast to the 78 percent of minority faculty who feel they face widespread barriers, illustrates the tremendous gap between the two groups and the perceptions of reality they hold./8/

Most universities and four-year colleges publicly state that research, teaching, and service are valued equally on their campuses. Faculties of most universities and four-year colleges answer the question about equality among research, teaching, and service by stating that research is number one, teaching number two, and that service to university and community is a distant third.

Minority faculty, including American Indians, agree with their nonminority colleagues when asked the same question. There is no doubt in their minds that research is king on their campuses. Teaching is rewarded but not nearly as well as research and publication. Community service, again, is a distant third./9/

Quality Journals

Professor Allen T. Whitt, a member of a south central tribe and a faculty member of a large four-year institution in the Southwest, has tenure in his department. He tells a story of vacillating departmental pressure and benign neglect at his university.

Whitt's department demands research of high quality and publication in journals it deems worthy. Whitt has problems with both requirements and has fought a running battle for years over these two standards held by his department. His quarrel isn't with requiring quality research or publishing that research, but with what non-Indian faculty view as worthy of research and where it should be published.

Whitt understands that his personal area of research is not highly valued by his colleagues because it is outside the mainstream and is on American Indian issues. Further, many journals in his field suspect his work because it is about Indians and he is an American Indian. Dr. Whitt has been told that it would be impossible for him to do objective scientific research on his own people.

Non-Indian authors publishing on American Indians are routinely published ahead of Whitt, who must seek out lesser-known journals to publish his work. Often, these are journals published by Indian academic departments for the express purpose of publishing research about American Indian issues. It seems ironic that nonminority academicians or publishers would hold such rigid beliefs when one notes that most research and published articles about the nonminority population of this country are done by those very same nonminorities.

Dr. Whitt's experience is not an isolated incident. A number of other American Indian scholars reported the same problems in a recent survey. A report done by Stanford University in 1989 on building diversity on their campus found that their minority faculty also had problems with their research being undervalued by their departmental colleagues./10/

The problem of undervaluing research done by American Indian and other minority faculty is of real concern. Research and publication have become the key criteria considered when a junior faculty member is up for tenure and when tenured faculty are up for promotion. American Indian faculty must have the support of their departmental colleagues if they are to gain tenure or promotion. If their research and the journals in which it is published are not valued, their chances for tenure or promotion are greatly reduced.

American Indian faculty generally find teaching to be the area where they receive the most reward, personal and professional, and receive the best professional criticism. With the call to diversify the curriculum for all disciplines on university campuses through the use of core requirements for graduation, Indian studies has become an attractive source of core courses.

Indian faculty in departments other than Indian studies, minority studies, or ethnic studies also have much to offer when teaching course work with an American Indian perspective. Often, they are able to greatly assist their departments to meet core course requirements by such offerings.

This fairly recent phenomenon in higher education does have a down side for American Indian faculty. They are often asked to carry heavier than normal teaching loads, to take larger than normal student enrollment in their classes, and are asked to develop new courses on a frequent basis. Couple this with the mistaken belief of nonminorities that American Indian faculty members must be experts on all things Indian regardless of their field of study or tribal affiliation, and stress can quickly build for these American Indian academics./11/

Community Service

Service is an area that has long plagued the American Indian higher education faculty community. It is the multifaceted nature of university service that gives most American Indian faculty their greatest joy and greatest headaches. Though service other than through teaching and research is the least rewarded activity in the tenure and promotion hierarchy of departments, colleges, and universities, it puts the most demand on the American Indian faculty member.

Minority faculty are such a rarity on most campuses that university committees compete vigorously for their time and services. American Indian faculty can find themselves serving on numerous committees if they or their departmental chairs don't put limits on such service. Most American Indian faculty feel compelled to serve when asked, and junior faculty members can soon find themselves with little time to do research or class preparation./12/

Universities also often expect American Indian faculty to participate in fund-raising efforts through grantwriting. These efforts, most often directed at the federal government, seek to raise the income and prestige of the university and assist American Indian people.

After helping to secure the funds, whether public or private, the American Indian faculty member is often asked to administer the resulting program. These additional responsibilities can be devastating to the tenure efforts of an American Indian junior faculty member. Neither grantsmanship nor administration of resulting programs are given much weight in the tenure process for neither is a true scholarly activity.

American Indian faculty members can gain real importance on campus through such activities, but it is a reality that if they are junior and haven't kept up with their research and publications, they are in serious trouble. On the majority of four-year institution campuses, it is still "publish or perish."

Neighboring or in-state tribal and urban Indian groups also often expect American Indian faculty to serve in nonuniversity organizations cations or to write grants. American Indian faculty often see themselves as part of the much larger extended American Indian community. They gain much satisfaction from service to that larger community, but get little or no reward from their university or four-year college for having performed it./13/

American Indian faculty, junior or senior, find they are expected by students, colleagues, and administrators to serve as mentors, advisers, and role models to all American Indian students, and even all other minority students on campus. This can be a truly heavy burden not often shared by their non-Indian colleagues. At the very least it isn't expected of their non-Indian colleagues as it is of them, by others and themselves.

American Indian faculty find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time and effort in mentoring and advising Indian students who mayor may not be in any of the classes they teach or on their student advising rolls. American Indian faculty see this as an important role and most often do it willingly and joyfully./14/ They know the importance of being there for American Indian students seeking help, advice, or just assurance that everything will work out with hard work and perseverance.

The dangers for American Indian faculty assuming these roles, as they most often do, are threefold:

American Indian faculty must weigh carefully the joy they get from working with all Indian students on campus against the real problems that overcommitment can cause. If they are junior faculty, they must take even greater care than their senior colleagues.

The Survival of American Indian Faculty

Given that retention of American Indian faculty has been fair to poor on many American campuses, universities and colleges must try harder to find American Indian faculty and must be more creative in keeping them on campus and away from burnout./16/

Universities and four-year colleges can take a series of steps to enhance the chances that American Indian faculty members will be successful members of their campus communities.

Institutional Commitment

Institutions can begin by making a serious and creative effort to hire more American Indian faculty. This commitment should start at the top of the institution and be accompanied by workshops, seminars, and other communication programs sponsored by the university.

These efforts should be directed toward changing how faculty, administrators, and students view American Indian faculty.

Affirmative action needs to be presented as an opportunity to add new and enriching elements to the environment of the university, not as a system of enforced equality imposed on everyone. These communication efforts must be well-planned and ongoing, if the cultural environment is truly going to change on any campus./17/

Such a commitment also means not accepting the many excuses used to avoid the effort to seek qualified American Indian candidates, or used not to hire American Indians who might apply for faculty positions.

By increasing the number of American Indian faculty, several good things happen for an institution and for other Indian faculty. The institution has met its responsibility to diversify, and there are more American Indian faculty members to share the many expectations placed on minority faculty.

Universities and four-year colleges can also create career paths for promising American Indian students that lead to faculty positions. This can be done by searching out talented and intelligent American Indian students and encouraging them to consider a life in higher education.

Once identified, institutions need to support such students in graduate school with teaching and research assistantships. This philosophy of "growing your own" or joining a consortium of institutions "growing their own" has great merit. Institutions can truly select the best and the brightest to enter the disciplines of higher education.

Mentoring and American Indian Faculty

Once an American Indian faculty member is hired, appropriate administrators need to take time to ensure that this person becomes acclimatized to the institution. It is here that the chairperson of a department can make a major difference. By ensuring that the new faculty member is comfortable in the institutional environment, the chances are greatly enhanced that the faculty member will stay with the university.

The best way to accomplish this acclimatization is through a mentoring relationship./18/ The department chair can seek out senior faculty members within the department who would be willing to take on this important duty and assign such faculty as mentors to incoming American Indian faculty. This simple courtesy would help the new faculty member learn the departmental ropes and expectations quickly and accurately and help the new person understand what is needed for tenure. A mentor could also guide the new American Indian faculty member through the wide range of roles expected of faculty and warn against overcommitment.

Equality in Research

Institutions, departments, and senior faculty must rethink how they view research done by American Indian faculty. For too long, they have undervalued such research for what may be ethno-centric and possibly racist reasons. A fundamental change here would greatly help American Indian faculty gain recognition for the research they do that pertains to American Indians.

Rethinking the value of American Indian faculty research would have a positive ripple effect and change how journals view such work, for it is the senior faculty in any discipline who referee the articles that go into the most important journals in a given discipline.

This rethinking would also change for the better--how smaller, more specialized journals dealing mainly with American Indian issues are viewed. This may be the toughest change and improvement recommended because it asks for a change in old, oftentimes strongly-held, beliefs and values of the majority faculty members.

Departments need to take care when assisting courses to junior American Indian faculty to develop and teach. They must give junior American Indian faculty the appropriate support when course assignments are made. This can be done by being realistic when evaluating the time commitments each course will take./19/

The Reality: There Are Few Indian Faculty

Department chairs and non-Indian--nonminority--faculty need a better understanding of what service expectations they and others have of American Indian faculty. If American Indian faculty are expected to serve on numerous committees, participate in grant-writing, serve the extended non-institutional Indian community, and be role models for Indian and minority students, they must be rewarded for these services when it comes time for tenure or promotion.

If an institution or department don't see these as important to the tenure or promotion process, then the dean of the college and the department chair must make this crystal clear to the American Indian faculty. By doing so at each stage of the relationship between institutions and American Indian faculty, from the interview for a position to promotion to a higher rank, much confusion and heartache could be avoided.

Yes, there are more American Indian faculty than ever serving in institutions of higher education in the United States. Yes, conditions are better than ever for American Indian students and faculty in higher education. Nevertheless, many of the conditions that make it hard for American Indian faculty to survive as professionals in the institutions of higher education continue to exist.

Higher education must continue to evolve in such away as to encourage more American Indians and other minorities to become active and successful faculty in the institutions of higher education of the United States. The country is changing in many ways at a rapid pace, none more rapidly than the roles and numbers of its many minority citizens.


  1. Stanford University, 21.[Back]

  2. Pepion, 5.[Back]

  3. Spann, 5-8.[Back]

  4. The names used in this paper are fictitious, but their responses are accurate and based on the 1992 "American Indian Faculty Survey."[Back][Back]

  5. Pepion.[Back]

  6. Stein.[Back]

  7. Pepion, 3.[Back]

  8. Pepion, 100.[Back]

  9. Pepion, 92-93; Stanford University, 22-23.[Back]

  10. Stanford University, 23.[Back]

  11. "American Indian Faculty Survey, 1992; Kidwell.[Back]

  12. "American Indian Faculty Survey," 1992; Pepion; Stanford University.[Back]

  13. Kidwell.[Back]

  14. "American Indian Faculty Survey," 1992.[Back]

  15. Kidwell.[Back]

  16. Kidwell; Stanford University.[Back]

  17. Sanchez.[Back]

  18. The National Education Association's Office of Higher Education recently published Mentoring Minorities: Passing the Torch, which offers a thorough look at how the mentoring relationship among faculty can evolve into a workable--and successful--experience for all concerned.[Back]

  19. Kidwell.[Back]


Kidwell, C.S. "Indian Professionals in Academe: Demands and Burn-out." Opening the Montana Pipeline. Sacramento: Tribal College Press, 1990.

LaCounte, D., W.J. Stein, and P. Weasel Head. Opening the Montana Pipeline. Sacramento: Tribal College Press, 1990.

Pepion, K. "American Indian and Other Minority Faculty." Ph.D. diss. research. University of Arizona, 1992.

Sanchez, A.A. "Diversity in Leadership, Diversity in the Classroom." Community College Journal 63.3 (December/January 1992-93).

Spann, J. Achieving Faculty Diversity. Madison: The University of Wisconsin System, 1988.

Stanford University. Building a Multi-Racial, Multi-Cultural University Community. Palo Alto: Author, 1989.

Stein, W.J. "American Indian Faculty Survey." Unpublished survey, 1992.

Contents | Home