A Mass Exodus: Tufts’ Faculty and Staff of Color Leave Tufts

At least 17 staff and faculty of color have left Tufts between 2021-2022, according to current faculty, staff, and students. Staff and faculty of color have touched the lives of countless students, and their departures have left a gap within the Tufts community.

Concern regarding turnover of staff and faculty of color is not a new phenomenon. From 1995 to 2000, 24 tenure or tenure-track faculty members of color left Tufts, and in 2000, eight Black faculty members left in one semester. These turnover rates continued into 2018 when an additional 11 staff and faculty members of color left the university within a month. Patterns in retention rates of faculty and staff of color invite concern over what has influenced these departures.

A “Climate of Hostility”

Faculty and staff of color endure harmful working environments, making working at Tufts difficult. Erin Seaton, Faculty Senate’s Diversity Equity Inclusion and Justice Committee member and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education said, “Faculty of color who have left Tufts have described a climate of hostility that impacted their decision to leave the university.” However, Tufts Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins said in a written statement to the Tufts Observer, “[T]he university works to be a welcoming and supportive environment for faculty.”

Roxana Woudstra, former director of graduate school admissions, resigned in April 2022. She wrote in her resignation email that her departure was, “to gain some respite from experienc[ing] unrelenting discrimination.” Woudstra’s resignation came after 15 years on staff and attending Tufts as both an undergraduate and graduate student. 

Woudstra spoke of issues with an associate dean, but no action occurred to her knowledge aside from DEI workshops. She said, “I was told that unfortunately, there really are no accountability procedures in place for managers to follow. This means no one will ever have to be held accountable.” 

The Observer inquired as to whether the university had heard complaints from faculty and staff of color and if they had made any changes to try to retain faculty and staff of color; Collins did respond for comment on this issue.

As an institution, Tufts, “expects its staff to keep our heads down underpaid, understaffed, and overworked to produce revenue, while a DEI mission is used for marketing, and leadership purposely turns a blind eye to ongoing, repeatedly reported discrimination amongst staff and faculty,” Woudstra wrote in her resignation email.

S. Rae Peoples, an associate director of diversity & inclusion education who is currently on leave, echoed this sentiment in a written statement to the Observer, “[T]he truth is that Tufts is not structurally prepared or capable to support staff members.” The neglect of staff and faculty of color as well as “the institution’s ineptness reinforces an internal environment that perpetuates many forms of oppression—most notably racism, sexism, and classism—all of which disproportionately impact the trajectory of women at Tufts who identify as Black or a person of color,” Peoples said.

Collins wrote to the Observer, “We strive to provide opportunities for faculty members to be both professionally and personally fulfilled.” 

Financial Hardships and Power Differentials

A lack of sufficient pay has also pushed some professors and staff to leave the university. This fall, Joan Naviyuk Kane, an Indigenous professor, left her position as a Part-Time Lecturer in the Departments of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora and English. She said, “[As a single mom] the pay, even after teaching at Tufts for three years, was probably a third of what I would need to get paid in order to support my family.” When she received a better offer to teach only four classes this year at another university, she took it. “I couldn’t continue teaching five classes for less than $40,000 a year,” she said. 

Collins acknowledged these financial hardships. In a written statement to the Observer, he said Tufts is attempting to address these issues, “through a series of programs intended to assist with home buying… the cost of housing affect[s] faculty of color disproportionately, so we believe these remedies are urgently needed.”

Kane said she likely would have stayed at Tufts if it had been financially viable, but “as the system stands, it makes it impossible for people who really want to be at Tufts to stay.” She continued, “While the union for part-time faculty does a lot of good things I think, essentially, Tufts is an institution, not unlike many others, that gets by on a lot of underpaid labor by highly qualified academics and really skilled teachers and professors.”

In addition to lower pay, staff deal with an added layer of power struggles. Unlike faculty, staff do not have a union to mediate power differentials. “It is a problem at every [primarily white institution]… If you speak to a staff member, and in any office, they can talk about how the faculty and students are placed at a higher strata than the staff,” said Woudstra.

Kane said, “[If Tufts] wishes to really be anti-racist [it] needs to contend with the economic hardship that faculty of color face.”

The Paradox of DEIJ

Staff of color have recently spoken out about the work they are asked to do and the conditions they are forced to do it under. In 2020, Tufts committed to being an anti-racist institution. However, Woudstra believes Tufts neglects complaints, “in hopes that the people who are reporting these issues will just leave out of frustration to get some type of mental, physical, and emotional relief from the continuous oppression that they receive daily.”

In response to a question about how Tufts turnover rates compare to that of other academic institutions, Collins wrote, “Our schools do everything possible to retain faculty and staff,” and that Tufts is actively trying to increase diversity. Due to time constraints, the Observer did not inquire about specific DEIJ initiatives. 

Tufts’ promotion of insufficient DEIJ efforts has contributed to many faculty and staff of color’s exhaustion. Peoples said, “There is a saying among Black women that I hear constantly at many PWIs which is that they are ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ This is a clear statement of being exhausted from working, navigating, and surviving in an institutional environment that expects us to make things right at the same time that we are being wronged.” Peoples continued, “It is inappropriate to say that we are engaged in anti-racist work or even becoming anti-racist” if DEIJ efforts “do not fundamentally transform [the university’s] internal conditions.”

Seaton, a former member of Tufts for Black Lives, spoke of the need to center the leadership of those doing meaningful DEIJ work at Tufts. She said when Tufts launched its anti-racist initiative, “nobody called on faculty engaged in this work to be a part of that conversation… That seems like such a dismissal, but also, in some ways, kind of a silencing of the real conversations that are out there.”

Hope Freeman, the senior director of the Women’s Center and LGBT Center, echoed this sentiment. “There is a lot of talent within [the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion], and we want to figure out ways to move that talent into Ballou,” she said. Within the DEIJ office, as it stands, there have been allegations of a “lack of transparency in the provost’s office and a culture that runs contrary to the university’s anti-racism principles,” according to a Tufts Daily article.

BIPOC Faculty and Staff’s Importance to Students

Despite the varying reasons faculty and staff of color leave Tufts, many have wanted to stay. Kane said, “I was really, really amazed with the conversation, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm of the students… I think I have not had the opportunity to work with students so eager to learn and to really be advocates for the kinds of truly anti-racist education that I think Tufts students really want.”

Representation is important at a university where white faculty comprise 71%, 74%, 82%, and 90% of the total faculty in the Humanities, Social Science, SMFA, and Science/Math respectively. Senior Bella Hwang spoke to the lack of representation in a written statement to the Observer, “Only three of the 32 courses I’ve taken at Tufts were taught by faculty of color. Of those three faculty members, only one had a permanent position as a professor (the other two were lecturers).” They elaborated, “To this day, I still remember the warmth, empathy, and understanding they showed to me after I expressed the uncertainties and frustrations that come with being a POC at Tufts, not to mention the diverse and vibrant perspectives they brought to class.”

Junior Sabrina Rangwani spoke about the importance of her relationship with Dr. Zarin Machanda in the Departments of Anthropology and Biology in a written statement to the Observer. She said, “I think that if [Dr. Machanda] were to leave Tufts, first of all, we would lose that diversity in the Biology Department, which is already very dominated by white men. And honestly, she is the first person that I’ve seen in academia who looks like me.” For BIPOC students, it’s “important to see people who look like you in academia and other fields, so that you can see your own potential in that person,” said Rangwani. 

A New University

Despite the challenges of existing within the university, current and former faculty and staff also spoke to the ways Tufts could create a more hospitable work environment.

Nandi Bynoe, former Associate Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, just left Tufts last June. Freeman spoke to some of the work Bynoe was doing to improve retention rates for faculty and staff, specifically by trying to improve areas of growth and advancement into new roles. 

Freeman asserted promotions are often based on exclusionary qualifications. She said being able to value lived experience over particular qualifications comes “from a space of anti-racism.” She said higher education institutions typically value the number of degrees when hiring.  but “lived experience goes a really, really long way. And I personally feel like personal experience isn’t always prioritized in hiring practices.”

Seaton, along with Henry Wortis, a fellow member of the Faculty Senate’s DEIJ Committee and Professor in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, called attention to the fact that despite Tufts announcing a university-wide faculty survey in January 2022 called the “C-Change Faculty Survey” to “find effective ways to optimally support, develop and engage all University faculty,” there has been no follow-up or information about how this data will be used. 

The Tufts administration did not provide the Observer with the retention rates for all faculty and staff of color. However, Collins provided the Observer with the A&S DEIJ Strategic Plan which tracks retention rates for only tenured faculty. Based on the Faculty Senate’s data and reports by other faculty, the Observer knows of at least twelve former faculty who have left in 2021-2022.

The Pan Afrikan Alliance used to track retention rates for faculty of color, and the Faculty Senate is currently trying to track retention rates, but there are limitations. Seaton and Wortis spoke to the need for faculty retention data to be recorded by Tufts and published, saying, “If Tufts was committed to being an anti-racist university this would be something that was tracked.” Wortis said, “Here we are two years, at least, into Tufts as an anti-racist institution, and none of this has been worked on and made public.”

“I deserve to exist within a work environment that is not toxic and/or harmful physically, emotionally, or mentally,” said Peoples. “I deserve a work environment where I can fully trust and be genuinely supported by the leaders of the organization.”

When the Observer reached out to present and former staff of color for comment, multiple declined, citing safety concerns and fear of retaliation in their professional lives, even when offered anonymity.

After the “mass exodus” in 2018, two students described their feelings and desires in an Observer article, “We, as two students of color, are tired of seeing our professors and staff who support us treated as un-valuable commodities.” They continued, “We will stand firm as we demand that Tufts commit to hiring, supporting, and retaining faculty and staff of color.”
Students have the ability to pressure the university to do right by its faculty and staff of color. Tufts Labor Coalition said in a written statement to the Observer, “The administration is afraid of our strength when students and workers come together to organize on campus.” An anonymous faculty member said, “Students have so much power. The university will not run without you.”