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In this study, we sought to examine a growing phenomenon in academe of young full professorships, but through the lens of young Black full professors in higher education as a field of study. This study explores the experiences of seven young Black faculty who attained the rank of full professor before age 45 and whether their pathways to full were challenged because of their age. Challenges to Black faculty advancement through faculty ranks generally are well documented; however, this work adds a dimension of youth and inactionable age discrimination to the literature. Implications for law, policy, and practice are discussed. [End Page 811]

The title of full professor is generally the highest faculty rank awarded by a university. There are a few exceptions, including the ranks of endowed chair, distinguished professor, university professor, and professor emeritus (Harvard University, 2017; Thompson, Bonner, & Lewis, 2016). Nevertheless, while work on the challenges to advancement of Black faculty are well documented (Alfred, 2001; Benjamin, 1997; Croom & Patton, 2011; Edwards & Ross, 2018; Griffin & Reddick, 2011; Jones, 2000; Jones & West, 2002; Mabokela & Green, 2001; Smith 2004; Tuitt, Hanna, Martinez, Salazar, & Griffin, 2009), the general body of work on faculty advancement to full professor is limited (Croom, 2017; Finnegan & Hyle, 2009; Gardner & Blackstone, 2017; Hyle, 1999; Long, Allison, & McGinnis, 1993; Olsen, Kyvik, & Hovdhaugen, 2005; Tien & Blackburn 1993), a dearth most profound when considering research on the advancement of Black faculty to this level (Croom, 2017; Croom & Patton, 2011; Jackson, 2003).

The purpose of this study was to investigate the experiences of seven young black faculty who attained the rank of full professor before age 45 and whether their pathways to full were challenged because of their age. In this work, we briefly overview the literature on Black faculty advancement with special attention to the attainment of the full professor rank. We add to this discussion consideration of age and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), utilizing the critical race theoretical frame of intersectionality to consider discriminatory actions by race and age. Using a phenomenological qualitative research design, we explore the influence of ageism and age discrimination on the trajectory of study participants. This work is significant because, in addition to adding to the body of literature on Black faculty advancement to the full professorship, this work adds to the literature the dimension of youth and inactionable age discrimination as well as the intersections of age discrimination with race (Klotz, 2015). In bringing attention to inactionable age discrimination, this work sheds light on the limits of discrimination law more broadly in effecting a socially just society. In this vein, faculty and administrators should also account for the fiscal and temporal costs of replacing highly productive faculty due to internalized biases and objectified conceptions of full professors. Implications for law, policy, and practice are discussed.

In the next section of this paper, a review of pertinent literature regarding challenges related to faculty promotion to full professorships, U.S. age discrimination law, age, and intersectionality are presented. Thereafter, the manuscripts research design will be discussed, along with descriptions of the participants and data analysis process. Next, the results of the study will be shared along with a discussion and implications, for law, policy, and practice. And lastly, we concluded by providing a summary of the article and share a rationale for the importance of further attention to the subject of this article. [End Page 812]

Review of the Literature

In a 20-year synthesis of the literature, Turner, González, and Wood (2008) found the following challenges to the advancement of faculty of color:

undervaluation of their research interests, approaches, and theoretical frameworks and challenges to their credentials and intellect in the classroom contribute to their dissatisfaction with their professorial roles. In addition, isolation, perceived biases in the hiring process, unrealistic expectations of doing their work and being representatives of their racial/ethnic group, and accent discrimination.

(p. 143, emphasis in original)

With the exception of the latter, which may be applicable to African and Afro-Caribbean faculty, these challenges for Black, African American faculty are apropos and resound contemporarily (Dade, Tartakov, Hargrave, & Leigh, 2015; Griffin, Bennett, & Harris, 2013; Lloyd-Jones, 2014; Ross & Edwards, 2016; Siegel, Barrett, & Smith 2015; Wilder & Jackson, 2015). With declining rates of promotion and tenure, institutional isomorphism towards research institutional "publish or perish" approaches to research productivity, and diminishing share of tenured/tenure track faculty among faculty (Kezar & Gehrke, 2014; NCES, 2016), it may be the case that these strains are intensifying (Ostenson, Clegg, & Wiggins, 2017).

Clarity is the key difference between tenure and promotion to associate professor processes and procedures for promotion to full professor. Whereas, in the case of tenure and promotion, institutional guidelines tend to be clearer given the due process rights of faculty that attach to the conferral of tenure, a property right (Chait, 2002; Clark, 1987; Finnegan & Hyle, 2009; Hyle, 1999; Schuster & Finkelstein, 2006), with promotion to full professorship there are no set timelines (Clark, 1987; Finnegan & Hyle, 2009; Hyle, 1999), and faculty are more likely to take personal agency to request promotion based on situational factors and internal cues (Gardner & Blackstone, 2013, 2017; Gardner & Blackstone, 2013; O'Meara & Campbell, 2011; O'Meara, Terosky, & Neumann, 2008). The process is highly subjective (Finnegan & Hyle, 2009), which does not particularly bode well for faculty of color, given challenges as suggested by Turner, González, and Wood (2008). Whereas full professors represent 25% of all faculty (IPEDS, 2017), only 3% of Black faculty attained the rank of full by 2013 (Weeden, 2016).

An additional confounding factor may be that of age. Whereas the average faculty member is 55 years old, there are few faculty who become full professors before the age of 45, a time at which most tenure track faculty are awarded or hoping to be awarded tenure (Chou, 2015). In fact, among beginning career faculty, faculty from education fields are on average older doctoral recipients, having a median age of 38.9 as compared to counterparts in the social and natural sciences, humanities, arts, engineering, and the like who [End Page 813] complete around age 31.2 (NSF, 2017). Faculty in fields such as educational leadership and administration tend to be the oldest, on average starting at 43.2 (NSF, 2017). For many faculty in the field of education, teaching in the academy is not their first career. Most have gained significant prior experience serving in schools and other educational institutions, many having second careers as unit level administrators, and some having third careers including leadership at a system level. Thus, whereas the average professor in any discipline hopes to attain tenure by age 45, within education fields, this age tends to be delayed due to later entry.

Within any field, the attainment of full professor before age 45 is remarkable, and an achievement reserved for a select few (Chou, 2015, Lewis, 2016). This exceptionality is even more the case in education subfields. Chou recounts Friedrich Nietzsche and Markus Gabriel as clear "aberrations in academe, where the award of a university chair (the German equivalent of full professor) is a recognition few will achieve short of a lifetime's work of exceptional quality" (¶ 3). Nietzsche and Gabriel ascended to the university chair position at the ages of 24 and 35 respectively. In recent years, there have been a few notable examples of faculty attaining the rank of full professor across various disciplines prior to the age of 45 including, Sophie Morel (Mathematics), Dennis Gaitsgory (Mathematics), Roland G. Fryer, Jr. (Economics), Adam Grant (Management), Noam Elkies (History), and Nuno Maulide (Chemistry) (Chou, 2015; Reich, 2014; UnCon School, 2013).

As faculty populations age (AASCU, 2006; Leslie & Janson, 2005; Sax, 1996), longer work lives and older retirement ages notwithstanding (Arano & Parker, 2016), new faculty are found among a population that is more racially and ethnically diverse (AASCU, 2006; Colby & Ortman, 2017). As the trend of the aging professoriate is a long standing one (Sax, 1996), Black and Brown faculty who traverse initial tenure and promotion may be increasingly found within the small pool of younger full professors.

Yet, when one considers ageism and age discrimination in academe and the employment context writ large, the consideration typically is for workers of advanced age as opposed to youth (Adams, 2004; Burton, 1987; Kahana, Stone, Kahana, Langendoerfer, & Reynolds, 2017; Rees & Smith, 2014; Stonebreaker & Stone, 2015; but see Ford, Scott, Goings, Wingfield, & Henfield, 2016). Or, as framed by Chou (2015), "Think of the archetypal professor: Does a twenty-something 'millennial' spring to mind?" (¶ 3).

Part of the consideration here is that when considering ageism and age discrimination in the academy, unlike any other area of U.S. discrimination law, discrimination on the basis of age (real or perceived) is unidirectional. Thus, whereas under Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964, all race and sex discrimination, regardless of race or sex/gender(s) is prohibited (Kaplin & Lee, 2006), under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), [End Page 814] only persons over the age of 40 are protected (Kalet, 1990; Neumark, 2003; U.S. EEOC, 2017). As such, when considering the archetypal professor, and considerations that go into a promotion to full, in particular the evaluation of expertise, real and perceived (Finnegan & Hyle, 2009), youth and perceptions thereof may be a distinct disadvantage (Ford et al., 2016). This renders the remediation of discriminatory actions against youth inoperable utilizing legal frameworks, the thicket of U.S. antidiscrimination more impotent in the area of age than race and gender (Gafford Muhammad, 2007).

Just as in the case of white (racialized) supremacy (Anderson, 1988; Crenshaw, Gotanda, & Peller, 1995; Harley, 2008; Stewart, 2015) and patriarchal (gendered) dominance (Deats & Lenker, 1994; Kelly, McCann, & Porter, 2018; MacKinnon, 1982, 1989; Stewart, 2015), in the case of ageism against youth, age is hegemonic within academe as administrative and faculty leaders tend to be older. Characterization of academe as a gerontocracy in the same way as racialized and gendered dominance is problematic as such a characterization diminishes the contributions of older academic workers (Smith, 2017; Startup & Gruneberg, 1973). The fact of an age distribution wherein full professors tend to be older is not problematic per se, as for the average professor it takes a career to advance to the highest ranks. The challenge arises when younger faculty are able to traverse ranks more quickly, meritoriously, and they in turn experience resistance from colleagues because of their age real or perceived.

In this vein, modern age discrimination against youth is congruent to modern discrimination by race/ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and other identities, including older age, in that rather than overt actions impeding faculty advancement because of youth, discriminatory actions are more subtle and interpersonal in nature (Ellemers & Baretto, 2015; Gafford Muhammad, 2007; Jones, Peddie, Gilrane, King, & Gray, 2016; Krings, Sczesny, & Kluge, 2011). As such, younger faculty, when faced with the opportunity to ascend to the ranks of full, are less likely to be told outright that they are too young; however, purportedly age-neutral considerations such as time since degree attainment and time in rank may be used improperly, discriminatorily against younger professors given the dissimilarity between their age and the rank of full as stereotyped.

To be clear, ageism and age discrimination as experienced by younger persons is a real phenomenon (Chonody, 2016; Duncan & Loretto, 2004; Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, & Hummert, 2004; Truxillo, Finkelstein, Pytlovany, & Jenkins, 2015), the history and prevalence of age discrimination against older adults notwithstanding (Truxillo et al., 2015), especially within faculty contexts (Bailyn, 2014; Whitbourne & Montepare, 2017). By way of definition, ageism as defined in this study regards prejudices towards individuals on the basis of age, which may result in behaviors or actions [End Page 815] against individuals, but do not rise to the level of institutional employment actions. Age discrimination, as we define it here, is congruent with the ADEA prohibitions against workplace discrimination because of one's age. Section 623.4 generally prohibits adverse employment actions (failure to hire, promote, or fire) individuals because of their age as well as regulates considerations of employment compensation, benefits and retirement. Of particular consideration in the present study is Section 623.4(a)(2)'s limitation on employment opportunities because of one's age.It shall be unlawful for an employer- to limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual's age.While this provision is broadly written, the scope and purpose of the Act as delineated by Congress are directed towards the protection of older workers. Moreover, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in its interpretation of this act states:

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. It does not protect workers under the age of 40 …It is not illegal for an employer or other covered entity to favor an older worker over a younger one, even if both workers are age 40 or older.

(EEOC, 2018)

This interpretation comes from the Supreme Court's decision in General Dynamics Land Sys. Inc., v. Cline (2004) in which the Court declared that the ADEA only protects individuals over the age of 40. There are some states that provide recourse for individuals under age 40, for example New Jersey, Minnesota, and Florida. However, even progressive states like California and Massachusetts do not protect workers under age 40 from age discrimination. This leaves limited recourse for faculty under 40 who may have experienced age discrimination in consideration of their promotion to full.

At the same time, there is a growing number of more youthful faculty being promoted to senior faculty positions. This phenomenon seems driven by research productivity, a function of reward for quantity and quality of scholarship (Chou, 2015; Lewis, 2016; UnCon School, 2013). These faculty tend to be more regarded within their specific fields than within academe writ large, as was historically the case with Nietzsche or Gabriel. Little is known of these faculty experiences as young, full professors, much less the experiences of young full professors who also are racially minoritized. This study is an attempt to shed light in this area.

Age and Intersectionality

Rather than a singular theory, critical race theory (CRT) encompasses a collection of theories (Crenshaw, Gotanda, & Peller, 1995; Hulko, 2009) aimed [End Page 816] towards the creation of a socially just society (Yosso, Parker, Solórzano, & Lynn, 2004). The critical race feminist concept of intersectionality is but one of these theoretical constructs (Crenshaw, 1989; Wing, 2003), at the heart of which is the idea of the inability to receive a remedy for discrimination due to the construction of civil rights law. Therefore, in the case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors (1976), involving employment trends at GM, Black women were unable to receive a remedy for hiring discrimination because white women were hired as receptionists in the front office and Black men were hired as workers laborers in the back. As such, there was no gender discrimination as women were hired and no race discrimination as Blacks, albeit only men, were hired. The result was that Black women did not have a remedy at law because of their race and gender intersections. Antidiscrimination law as written and interpreted did not work in this case, and several others (Crenshaw, 1989, 1991).

Since Crenshaw's initial article in 1989, the adoption of the intersectionality construct was adopted from the field of law to education to the gamut of social science disciplines and beyond (Bowleg, 2012; Choo & Ferree, 2010; Collins, 2017; Davis, 2008; Hancock, 2007, 2016; Museus & Griffin, 2011; Núñez, 2014; Ortbals & Rincker, 2009; Ruiz Castro & Holvino, 2016; Tsouroufli, Rees, Monrouxe & Sundaram, 2011; Woodhams, Lupton, & Cowling, 2015). The level of scholarly interest is so prolific that there is consideration of intersectionality as its own field of study (Cho, Crenshaw, & McCall, 2013). And in recent years scholars such as Patton (2016) have adapted intersectional lenses such as CRT to apply to specific subfields such as higher education. Intersections considered beyond race and gender include class, nationality, linguistic diversity, indigeneity, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, and the like.

However, the present study focuses on intersectionality in the classic sense, only this time race as intersected by age. As noted by Chonody (2016), there are interactive effects between sexism and ageism. Within workplaces generally, Chonody found that negative, hostile ageism was associated with acts towards older women workers while benevolent or positive ageism was associated with acts towards younger women workers. Intersectionality studies employing age as a construct tend to focus on age as older (Cronin & King, 2010; Hulko, 2009; Krekula, 2007) or in the context of juveniles (Rodó-de-Zárate, 2017; Taefi, 2009) as opposed to younger adults. Regarding racism and ageism, in the studies we found, the interactive effect of race by age seems to be additive, although the effect examined was unilateral in the direction of older workers (Drydakis, MacDonald, Chiotis, & Somers, 2018; Wilson & Roscigno, 2018).

Looking specifically at the experiences of younger Black full professors, Lewis (2016) chapter titled, "'You're too young for a distinguished professorship and endowed chair' phenomenon: Naysayers versus destiny!" conveys [End Page 817] personal experiences illustrating higher levels of productivity. This productivity is fueled by a strong work ethic, mentorship, and a belief in one's propensity to be highly successful. Lewis also notes having an early awareness that many in the academy believe in a model that favors years of service over magnitude of contribution to the field or discipline, this work being one of the few considering the trajectory of younger, Black full professors.

Research Design

This aegis of the present study was a desire to examine the career pathways of Black full professors who attained the rank of full before age 45. The idea for this study arose through informal conversations in which it seemed to be the case that Black full professors seemed to expect challenges with respect to race and perhaps gender. Ageism—real and perceived—was an unexpected factor manifested during these informal discussions. However, it was unclear to what extent, if any, age discrimination was at play in their trajectories. This study more formally inquiries into these experiences as there seemed to be a distinct pattern across individuals and institutions, one worth querying in light of the ADEA's construct and institutional policy.

To do so, we employ a phenomenological qualitative research design. The purpose of phenomenology is to digest a universal essence of experience. Phenomenology regards the exploration of lived experiences among several individuals in an effort to derive a common meaning (Creswell, 2013; van Manen, 2016). As described by Sokolowski (1999), "phenomenology is reason's self-discovery in the presence of intelligible objects:" Through phenomenological research designs "we can evidence the way things are; when we do so, we discover objects, but we also discover ourselves" (p. 4). In this vein, the purpose of our larger work was to understand the career pathways to the full professorship by Blacks under age 45. However, as part of this specific study, we seek to discover whether ageism/age discrimination towards younger professors are part of "the way things are" (Sokolowski, 1999) in our field and perhaps in academe more broadly. If this is the case, then methods for redress through anti-discrimination law and/or institutional policies and practice should be considered in order to render a more level playing field.

Sampling Frame and Participants

We identified our population and sample by utilizing purposeful sampling. As noted above, faculty in the field of education tend to be older then faculty bodies on average. As such, our expectation was that the disjuncture between perceptions of who a full professor should be (by age) and image of young, Black, full professors would be greatest here. To narrow the field further, in our own quest to understand the phenomenon within higher education as a field of study, we reviewed the ASHE Directory of Higher [End Page 818] Education Programs to identify higher education programs and their Black faculty who had earned the rank of full professor. Invitations were sent to the identified faculty to participate in the study via email. And we arranged Skype interviews with each who consented to participate.

Participants were faculty within a singular discipline, higher education as a field of study, who identify as Black and/or African-American, who attained promotion to full prior to age 45. The number of participants who participated in this study was seven, which exceeded Creswell's (2013) recommended sample size range, which is between three and six participants. Of the seven participants, five currently serve at research institutions, one serves at a teaching institution, and another serves in an administrative policy-oriented position. With the exception of Dr. Smith, all became full professors at public institutions. The ages of the participants ranged from their early thirties to their mid-to-late forties, and both genders were represented equally in this study. Participants' gender, current positions, and the institutional type in which they served were not considered as a priori constructs for purposes of this study given the relatively small size of the field and risk of a confidentiality breach. Pseudonyms are employed to protect confidentiality and selected using the top seven names on a 2015 dual gender baby names list for first names (Baby Names-1000, 2016). Generic last names were assigned. See Table 1.

Table 1. P D
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Table 1.

Participant Descriptions

[End Page 819]

Data Collection and Analysis

Skype interviews were conducted using a semi-structured interview protocol, with follow up questions for clarification and further elucidation asked as appropriate. Topics were derived from the research literature on faculty advancement to full and included topics such as mentorship, peer support, learning institutional standards, individual professional development—research, teaching, and service - and institutional politics as well as fit (Bonner et al. 2014; Christian, 2012; Jackson & Johnson, 2011; Jacob, Cintron, & Canton, 2002; Matthew, 2016; Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008; Thompson et al., 2016; Thompson & Louque, 2005). An additional question required individuals to reflect on their experiences by age (Lewis, 2016).

To address the issues of validity and reliability we engaged in member checking by giving participants' the opportunity to review transcripts for accurate recording and interpretation of their stories as part of the research design (O'Dwyer & Bernauer, 2013; Schensul, 2012). For reasons of space, the full narratives of participants are not reported here. Results are not generalizable as they are qualitative data but provide valuable insights that transfer across academe. The limited sample size forces the restriction of the application of results to a limited population of Black faculty serving in higher education as a field of study; however, they may be insightful more broadly.


Yes: "Too Young"

In examining the responses of participants to the question of whether age impacted their bid for the full professorship, only one emphatically stated that age was an issue. Justice Taylor noted that colleagues were astounded by his/her/their number of publications and external funding and would ask "How is s/he/they able to do that at her/his/their age?" While perhaps for some this was a genuine question of astonishment—s/he/they is the author/editor of almost 15 books and over one hundred articles with just under a decade in the field. For others, however, there was a certain amount of envy at play: "People want to see you do well, but not better than them." While envy can play into interdepartmental politics (Anderson, 2009), Taylor was careful to keep envious colleagues from impeding in their success by inviting them to share in it. As such, s/he/they was generous with external funding awards, sharing with colleagues and providing them additional opportunities.

However, envy is not ageism, much less age discrimination, unless acted upon. But of Taylor, the question of "Is [s/he/they] too young?" was asked in relation to his/her/their application for full professor. If this question was asked in reverse, "Is [s/he/they] too old?" it may be viewed as an impermissible [End Page 820] expression of ageism under the ADEA. Moreover, if such statements were made, and Dr. Taylor was not awarded promotion to full, there would be grounds for suit under the ADEA. Given the weight of his/her/their work plus that impermissible statement, it could be found that but for his/her age, s/he/they would have been promoted. In making such a case, an individual would bring forth data regarding other faculty who have become full, their work, and the age at which they were promoted to full. In this particular situation, such a case could have been made. However, Taylor's promotion to full bid was successful, as such no legal remedy would be needed. Moreover, because of the limits of law federally and in his/her/their state, there would have been no cause of action for age discrimination under the law.

No: "They saw the writing on the wall"

Drs. Oakley Carmichael and Azariah Smith both reported age as being a non-issue in their promotion to full. In Dr. Carmichael's case, there was a time in rank policy in place in his/her/their institution and so the strategy taken, as advised by his/her/their mentor/sponsor, was to carefully build a package for full and be ready for when one's time would come.

You had to be associate for a number of years I think it was six years and I'd only been associate for three years. And I didn't like it at all. But it wasn't going to do me much good really, I wasn't going to fight it. And you just you know he [the mentor/sponsor] was just like there are bridges you know. You just need to … have your publications he told me to get to the top.

Time in rank policies are discussed more below. Carmichael credits the lack of age issue to the cohort of faculty around his/her/their age.

I don't think it was a problem. I think my record spoke for itself. There was a [White person] that went up before me and sailed through. And you know [they] were in their 40s so we both were able to get to full. So, they [colleagues] saw the writing on the wall.

As indicated, Dr. Carmichael did not believe that his/her/their package would be automatically accepted as full, but the sum total of the circumstances around promotion, including his/her/their administrative trajectory bolstered the likelihood of a favorable outcome.

For Dr. Smith, coming from a research doctoral university with an extensive publication record to a teaching institution, s/he/they had the package of productivity needed to meet the standards for full professor at that institution. As such, Smith was able to negotiate his/her/their full professorship as part of his/her/their initial hiring contract. However, Smith did experience ageism as s/he/they engaged the institutional environment: "some people mistake me as an undergrad." [End Page 821]

People are surprised when I walk into a room, when somebody understands rank. When I say I'm a full professor…when people understand rank, I can see the look like whoa, what's going on here? Who is this young African American wo/man who is a full professor? So, people haven't been saying anything about me, but just knowing the United States higher education in general, I know people question, hey, how did this happen? One person did actually pull me to the side… at orientation, and said, "I noticed that you're a full professor. When did you get your rank?"

For some colleagues to discover Smith's rank was more of a "surprise factor" and treated him/her/they as a "junior" faculty member because of perceived age with "no deference to rank as full." As such, the lack of deference to rank is a signal of disrespect. Although Smith did not work at an HBCU s/he/they had attended an HBCU and expressed their desire one day to serve as a president of an institution within that sector. However, although their credentials exceeded the standards for promotion to the rank of full professor at their predominately White religiously affiliated teaching institution, some colleagues began to question promotion guidelines based on his/her/their appointment. Thus, while ageism may be prevalent among faculty, there was no age discrimination, but perhaps the underpinnings of a hostile environment based on age. The matter of age discrimination and hostile environment are discussed further below.

"It was never an issue for me," but…

Three of the seven participants responded that age was not a concern in their pursuit of the full professorship. However, even while stating that age was not an issue for them in their path, there were a number of challenges raised over the course of their work lives that raise questions of ageism and age discrimination and if there were grounds for legal action had employment actions been adverse.

The most prominent consideration of these in the findings regarded navigating time in rank policies. Time in rank policies are facially neutral with respect to age, in that they do not account for how old an individual is, but how long s/he/they spent as an associate professor before pursuing the full professorship. Legitimately, an institution may want to ensure that individuals are taking the time to develop an expertise at the level of associate before moving on to full (Finnegan & Hyle, 2009; Hyle, 1999).

Of these three, Armani Bennett noted that the discourse of it being "too early" arose within his/her/their department, although there were no formal institutional policies regarding time in rank. For Bennett, age was not an issue as s/he/they received administrative support as s/he/they was being sought after for administrative service. However, talk among faculty at times was at odds with this administrative push. That talk was not always aligned around age, but as interpreted by Bennett more classically implicated race and gender. The case of Armani Bennett is discussed further in the following section. [End Page 822]

For Landry Johnson, in his/her/their first application for full s/he/they was asked: "why do you want to become a full professor so fast?" There were a number of improprieties regarding the promotion of faculty by race within that institution and an African American wo/man full professor from another department made it known to his/her/their department chair that she was aware of previous situations within that department and warned about improprieties. Johnson was successful here, but then time in rank became an issue upon changing institutions. Johnson was initially tenured at a regional institution, but upon relocating to a flagship institution, joined the faculty as an associate professor, and once again went through the process of applying to full. This is where the issue of time in rank was overcome by waiting. In this vein, Johnson was successful twice over. While Charlie Williams emphatically stated that age was not an issue personally s/he/they shared,

I think you know when I was talking to people initially about going up and I think some of the feedback I got may have been inspired by people thinking I was too young or hoping to know that oh I'm moving too fast and all that nonsense, but there was never an issue for me.

Within the department, on the basis of a significant text published within the field, Dr. Williams was given the signal that it was time to go up. Thus, for Williams, age was a non-issue as his/her/their personal sense that it was time was congruent with external signals.

Age & Intersectionality

Armani Bennett noted the action of "fishing" and having colleagues articulate standards elevated above those marked in policy or practice at their institution. So, for example, s/he/they learned of informal objections to their tenure bid because s/he/they had not served as a president of ASHE. However, if this was the standard for higher education full professors, there would be no full professor in his/her/their unit. Currently, there are four.

The feedback that I received was never about the work that I had to do. It wasn't about the quantity or quality, because I knew I had close to 100 publications. Between tenure and promotion in just two years I had produced 45 publications.

In addition, Bennett was awarded a National Science Foundation grant. Bennett reported that "The conversation was never about the amount—quantity and quality of work I produced… any turbulence came with no rationale."

Similar to Taylor, Bennett found that colleagues questioned the quantity and quality his/her/their work "because they can't do it." Here the underlying driver of the objections to Bennett's pursuits could be a function of age or race. However, as ageism here operates as modern-day discrimination and given the interconnectedness of the intersecting identities, it would be [End Page 823] difficult to disentangle and accord a remedy if there were impermissible actions because of these biases. If it was the case that there was an adverse employment action and there were others similarly situated by race or gender and promoted but happened to be older, then perhaps the age factor could be better teased out. However, it is rare to have enough professors, much less with that much diversity, within a unit or even university attaining full professorships within a given time period in order to identify the bias at root in a particular adverse employment situation.

Even then the intersections may not be able to be disaggregated:

The actuality of our layered experience is multiplicative. Multiply each of my parts together, 1x1x1x1x1, and you have one indivisible being. If you divide one of these parts from one you still have one [emphases in the original].

For this reason, it may be the case that antidiscrimination frameworks need to shift from an inquiry into the nature of impermissible considerations within employment to a work-focused paradigm: Did the employee meet standards (however defined)? If so, there ends the inquiry. If not, then what are the work-based ways in which they failed to meet standards? In addition, the application of time in rank policies and other practices that arise only when considering the advancement of someone who does not fit the typical description when none exist should be noted under the suspicion of pretext.


Overall participants tended not to view age as a barrier to promotion to full or even regard it as an issue. However, as explored systemically there seems to be a phenomenon around age and promotion to full which we taxonomize as follows: Ageism/Age discrimination (the too young phenomena), Hostile environments, and Policy considerations (time in rank policy pressure towards ageism).

Ageism/Age Discrimination

While generally speaking ageism is age discrimination, within the context of the present study we have isolated them such that ageism speaks to age related prejudices and age discrimination to adverse employment actions based upon age. Within the context of this study, by definition each of the participants is highly successful: They succeeded to the highest professorial rank of full professor and most notably so before age 45. However, had employment actions been adverse and connected to statements made by colleagues regarding age, Justice Taylor, Landry Johnson, and Charlie Williams may have had claims for age discrimination in states like Florida, New Jersey, and Minnesota where age discrimination claims can be made for persons under the age of 40. Each of these individuals recalled [End Page 824] statements made by colleagues sitting in judgment of their packages for full who intimated that they were "too young" or questioned their timeline as "too fast." From a CRT as social justice vantage, each of these participants experienced a social injustice, a microaggression that was mala in se (Yosso et al., 2004). Age in this vein was one more hurdle endured to be considered at equal rank for equal work.

From an institutional risk standpoint, the risk of an age discrimination suit in the form of the classic discrimination - "but for" one's age s/he/they would have been hired, promoted or not fired—is low. There is no statutory cause of action under federal law and states with laws recognizing age discrimination among people under 40 are few. As such, this study with others focusing on the employment travails of millennials in the post Great Recession age (Truxillo et al., 2015) raises the question of whether there should be. More granularly though, as we consider interpersonal relations among colleagues, the people in our departments, colleges, and the field of academe writ large, the greater consideration is for that of healthy work environments. Workers tend to perceive healthy work environments most when there is good communication and social support in the workplace. This includes the elimination of discriminatory practices, whether illicit or not. Workers in healthier work environments tend to have a higher job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and morale. They are also less likely to quit (Harmon, DeGennaro, Norling, Kennedy & Fontaine, 2017; Lowe, Schellenberg, Shannon, 2003). Thus, there is good reason to become aware of and curb ageist behaviors as faculty job searches and replacement costs are high.

Hostile Environments

For three of the seven participants, conditions described may in the aggregate contribute to hostile working environments. While evidence of classic discrimination was predicted by researchers, evidence of hostile working environments was not considered at the onset of this study. Taylor, Bennett, and Johnson all spoke to units in which their work was scrutinized unduly in manners not experienced by other-raced faculty. They were not always able to disentangle the nature of this hostility—whether race, age, some interaction between the two, gender, or other factors. Hostile environments from a legal definition are ones in which racist or sexist activities have become so pervasive in a work environment that they impede employee work productivity and/or impact employee psychological well-being. As defined by the courts, pervasiveness can occur in a single action; however, such a single action would have to be so severe as to shock the conscience. Typically, it is more likely to be a combination of micro assaults and insults giving rise to a claim (Berring & Chan, 2014; Hughes, 2003). While there are some courts that are growing in their awareness of intersectionality claims, individuals are less likely to receive relief if they cannot connect discriminatory actions to race or sex exclusively (Best, Krieger, Edelman & Eliason, 2011; [End Page 825] Carbado & Gulati 2001; Crenshaw 1989, 1991; Kennelly, 1999; Lidge, 2014).

While an approach assessing the sum total of actions and assessing whether an adverse employment action is connected to sex, race, or interactions thereof would be more reflective of how discrimination is experienced in society, antidiscrimination law is written and tends to be interpreted discreetly—race or sex particularly (Lidge, 2014). In fact, perhaps the better legal inquiry would examine the work relatedness of actions, including inappropriate statements by race, sex, age, ability, orientation, and the like, for their bearing on adverse employment actions as well as the creation of hostile environments. However, the courts do not recognize hostile environment claims on the basis of ageism, much less heterosexism and a number of other civil rights domains (Gembala, 1999; McCormick, 2015; Neagle, 2001; Wiener, Gervais, Brnjic, & Nuss, 2014).

Given current Congressional inaction in the present Department of Justice's diminishing attention to civil rights claims, such a turn in attention by law or policy in the near future is unlikely. Perhaps we should not be merely reliant on the law to effect positive social change and work environments. As academics, we should want to promote a healthy field where we all have an opportunity to thrive (Findley, Jones, Dodd-Walker, Edwards, & Orendorff, 2015). It is in our collective enlightened self-interests, as unhealthy environments are associated with unnecessary turnover and inefficient use of the limited dollars within the higher education sector. It is simply not good for business (Findley, Jones, Dodd-Walker, Edwards, & Orendorff, 2015).

Policy Considerations

Through on campus advocacy, faculty can have an influence on institutional level policies. Specifically, here, time in rank policies that are facially neutral with respect to age, and can apply to faculty regardless of biological age, may give an improper venue to considerations of faculty age, which is most poignant when considering promotions. Time in rank policies apply at the time of promotion but can disproportionately impact relatively young hires as institutions bring in faculty without tenure or below current rank due to a number of factors. Here we believe that institutions should evaluate both the initial purpose of these policies and the use of these policies in practice. Are these policies being used to reward faculty loyalty? If so, maybe a fair reason to keep them around and there are perhaps other positive reasons to retain them. However, if their sole purpose is to be exclusive, to maintain a certain faculty distribution at each rank, perhaps now is a good time to review and revise. This point is particularly poignant as the baby boom generation retires and there is a need for younger faculty to replace their leadership among administrative and faculty ranks. Towards this end, having a workforce that includes younger full faculty members is important to leadership succession and institutional continuity. [End Page 826]

Implications for Future Research and Recommendations for Practice

Future Research

This study was limited in that beyond race, we did not consider other faculty identities such as gender, LGBTQ, and class. In addition, while there were faculty who expressed their reasons for pursuing the full professorship included the ascension to administrative positions, analysis of institutional need and administrative leadership development was beyond the scope of the present manuscript. However, it should be noted that there can be symbiotic administrative need along with individual aspirations that can factor in the pursuit of full professorships. Additional institutional factors to consider are that of institutional size, prestige, and control as well as the presence of a faculty union.

In future studies, it would be useful for researchers to investigate the faculty at the associate professor rank who were unable to successfully earn the rank of full. It may provide the field with insights regarding other possible challenges with the promotion process and possible pitfalls that those faculty may have experienced. While practitioner oriented fields of study, like education, are probably more likely than the disciplines to have wider age gaps between older and younger faculty, in general, it would be helpful to know the conditions under which age bias manifests and if there are variations by discipline or field. Other possible studies could examine best practices related to the creation of transparent and clear policies regarding the promotion process and expectations for faculty applying for full professorships. Another study could investigate the nature of negotiating the rank of full professor when accepting an offer from a new position when leaving one's current position. The examination of institutionally-based full professor pipeline programs would be an important contribution to the literature. And finally, this study could be replicated to see if other racial and ethnic groups such as Latinx, Asian-American, and Native American faculty have experienced similar challenges related to age and race as Black faculty within this study experienced.


It is important for universities, colleges, schools, and departments to be proactive in addressing the issues associated with younger faculty achieving of full professorship considering the imminent retirement of Baby-boomer faculty. If not, a large knowledge and leadership vacuum may occur. One way that this issue could be addressed is by clarifying promotion to full professorship policies. As mentioned earlier in this article, given the legal nature associated with the conferral of tenure as a property right, it often necessitates clarity regarding standards for tenure. By contrast, promotion to full policies are generally less explicit and clear. It may be important for colleges, schools, and departments to review their current policies and assess whether their promotion policies are truly meritocratic and do not discriminate by age, race, or the intersection thereof. [End Page 827]

Another way in which universities, colleges, schools, and departments can be proactive in communicating the importance of promoting younger full professors is to discuss and explain the importance of that rank upon initial hire. When tenure-track faculty initially arrive, the institution should communicate that they are invested in their long-term growth as a professional. Academic leadership should also bring to the pre-tenure scholar's attention that in addition to earning tenure, seeking promotion to full professor should be an important professional goal. Academic leaders at all levels of colleges and universities should be intentional about communicating to associate professors that earn tenure the importance of earning a full professorship is a significant step in their academic career, which could lead to increased academic leadership positions at the institution (i.e., department chair and dean). This is particularly important as senior faculty leave their academic leadership post for retirement.

Lastly, colleges, schools, and departments should actively support young faculty who display the breadth and depth of academic scholarship and professional maturity who seek to earn a full professorship early in their career. Provosts, academic deans, and department chairs should provide training to their existing full professors within their institutions specifically related to age and race discrimination, especially prior to these professors' service on promotion committees. Academic leaders should actively find ways to facilitate a culture that promotes faculty to the rank of full professor based on the quality and quantity of work rather than age.


In this study, we sought to examine a growing phenomenon in academe of young full professorships, but from the vantage of young Black full professors in higher education as a field of study. We found that while only one was cognizant of subtle ageist actions against them on their pathway to full, all but two experienced some form of ageism prior to attaining full. Of those two, one experienced ageist actions after becoming a full professor. Given the concentration of ageist action within this small sample (n= 5 of 7), further attention to ageism against younger faculty in academe more broadly is needed. While it may not be the case that these actions give rise to legal cause especially when they are implicated in adverse employment actions, it is important to reduce discrimination, whether illicit or not, so as to create healthier work environments in academe. Beyond rendering work environments healthier, and more engaging, there is an underlying bottom-line to consider, that is the cost associated with unnecessary faculty turnover. [End Page 828]

Crystal R. Chambers

Dr. Crystal Renée Chambers, J.D., Ph.D. is a Professor of Educational Leadership at East Carolina University and 2018 recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Fellowship. She serves as Senior Editor in Chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education (JSPTE). Her areas of expertise are centered on issues of race and gender in higher education and include college choice, faculty advancement, and doctoral education.

Sydney Freeman

Sydney Freeman Jr. is an Associate Professor of Adult, Organizational Learning & Leadership at the University of Idaho. He is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education (JSPTE). His research interests include higher education leadership and faculty development, faculty careers, and higher education as a field of study.


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