Wharton professor Wendy De La Rosa W11 and Foster School of Business professor Esther Uduehi GRW21 first met while pursuing their PhDs. Both took part in The PhD Project, an independent nonprofit organization that aims to diversify the business faculty pipeline. Inspired by this approach, they’ve now created The Tenure Project to support junior scholars through the next big obstacle: obtaining tenure in a historically inequitable system. De La Rosa and Uduehi spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about the far-reaching issues behind the tenure gap.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the structural barriers that under-represented faculty face, especially in junior positions?
Wendy De La Rosa: We have to be really frank about the fact that many educational institutions were built by people of color, yet with the explicit purpose to exclude people of color. You’re asking people to navigate a system that by its very foundation and creation was set up to be exclusionary. The data reflect this. Even though under-represented minorities — URMs — represent over 36 percent of the U.S. population, they represent just seven percent of the faculty of business schools, according to the AACSB. Articles written by URMs or women, in general, are less likely to be cited. URMs are also less likely to be mentored and/or sponsored, which is a big deal when you’re trying to get tenure and get letter writers. Those are just a few examples across the three pillars of our field — research, teaching, and service — where we aren’t creating an equitable system.
K at W: How does lack of tenure harm professors’ careers and the students they teach?
Esther Uduehi: Not having diversity is a major loss for both students and the university. Tenure is the first step in being part of the senior leadership within a school. They are able to come to the table with a certain level of power and stature. They get to sit on different types of committees that direct the school. They get to shape the school and its direction long-term in ways that maybe other faculty don’t get to. Schools need to invest in their junior faculty of color, because it’s not just an investment for five to seven years or five to 10 years. It’s really an investment within the institutional structure long-term.
De La Rosa: It’s all about, “How do we create an equitable system where everybody has an equal seat at the table?” And without tenure, you may not even be at the table.
K at W: Before The Tenure Project, what kinds of resources, or lack thereof, did URM faculty rely on?
Uduehi: I think people try to find communities formally and informally; people are going to seek others to support them. But when you’re not able to create formal communities, it can lead to a very disjointed system. Being able to formalize communities like The Tenure Project allows for people to feel maybe just a little more comfortable being themselves in spaces that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
KatW: Who can change the system, and how?
Uduehi: The lack of racial minorities as tenured faculty is not a problem to be placed on faculty of color. This is an institutional problem, and it requires institutional change to solve. In The Tenure Project, we want to face this issue head-on and encourage all schools to not ask, “Why don’t minorities get tenure?,” but rather, “What have institutions done to create a system where minorities don’t get tenure?”
De La Rosa: Oftentimes, I think I hear: “If we run more webinars and do more DEI training, it will fix this system.” Well, we know from behavioral scientists and marketers that increasing information often doesn’t change behavior. It’s the environment that changes behavior. We can train people up and down, but if we really want to see change, we need to change the environment.
K at W: How did The Tenure Project start?
De La Rosa: The kernel of what The Tenure Project is started in the summer of 2020. I was dealing with the racial awakening that was happening in our country. And I was also going into a market where very few institutions were hiring, and I was really struggling. But thankfully, I had this amazing community — a group of PhD students and very junior faculty. We really wanted to create an action plan for what we thought needed to change in academia to create a more equitable workplace. As part of that plan, we created a list of academics in marketing that deans, journal editors, department chairs, and colloquial organizers could easily access. We noticed that there were so many amazing researchers and educators who had been out in the field for decades and were still untenured. We wanted The Tenure Project to be that one-stop shop for junior faculty across business disciplines to arm themselves with the tools to navigate this uncertain process.
K at W: How have you collaborated with Wharton faculty to get this off the ground?
De La Rosa: I’ve been very blessed to have a colleague, Barbara Kahn, who said, “You know what? This is a great idea, and we should meet with our deputy dean, Nancy Rothbard, and put real dollars behind this. Let’s institutionalize this effort.” Nancy then got the support and backing of our dean, Erika James, and it started to take shape. Once the Foster School of Business and Wharton were on board, we got the backing of The PhD Project, and we now have over 14 institutional sponsors for The Tenure Project and a road map to host a conference for at least the next seven years. [Editor’s note: This year’s event will take place at Wharton July 24-26.]
Uduehi: Being able to continue to be connected with Wharton faculty is invaluable, because I really enjoyed my time and my discussions throughout my PhD. The Tenure Project, to me, is a natural extension of that. It allows me to still be a part of the Wharton community, so I’m excited.
KatW: The Tenure Project had its first conference in August, hosted by Foster. How was the experience?
De La Rosa: We were so surprised at the positive feedback. The need is just so clearly there. I think one other thing that really came out of that conference was, we sort of started to lift the lid on this black box. What does a tenure packet look like? How do I ask for letters? Who should my letter writers be? How do I think about the world pre-appointment and post-reappointment? So much of The Tenure Project conference is about giving people practical tools to help get tenure, but it’s also about recognizing that this is a very lonely process, and everybody needs an academic home.
Uduehi: That’s what excites me moving forward — that we’re not just creating a vision that works for one or two people; we’re wanting to create a vision that is going to work for the entire community.
KatW: What’s next?
De La Rosa: We know that when we survey our MBA students, they care about social issues and social equity and climate change. And we also need to prepare them for today’s world. How are we really training the business leaders of tomorrow if they’ve never had a senior faculty member in the classroom who is Black, Latinx, or Native? We’ve gotten so many emails from institutions that are ready to support and sponsor The Tenure Project [and] host future conferences.
Uduehi: There are several ways that institutions can be involved. That’s through financial support. That’s through supporting their faculty to attend The Tenure Project. That’s through supporting their senior faculty in being faculty mentors for The Tenure Project and being a part of the Senior Planning Committee. And it’s also through programming that we are hoping to start having throughout the year that goes beyond the conference. I think the goal is for us to understand the needs of junior faculty and help improve what was already a great conference into something even more faculty can feel like they’re included in.
Published as “Closing the Tenure Gap” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.