Staff with terminal degrees matter, too: On keeping and growing staff of color

Christopher Sewell

Choosing to leave Williams this past June was one of the hardest decisions that I have ever had to make. My love for Williams and its students gnawed at me as I spent the early part of May trying to decide if Williams was where I should stay for the foreseeable future. There were personal factors at play, but overall, I did not feel seen in my work, and I felt like I was stagnating as a result of the limited professional development and avenues for growth available to me.

For many student-facing and faculty-facing staff roles, a terminal degree is preferred. Terminal degrees refer to having the highest degree available in your academic discipline. I have heard College admin and faculty alike argue this level of education is necessary for the faculty to “take you seriously” in your role at the College. When I interviewed at Williams in 2017, the search committee chairs told me that teaching would not be on the table. Ultimately, my love for my alma mater pushed me to turn down a tenure-track faculty position at a different institution to become associate dean at Williams. Although I had little experience in higher education, my K-12 experience as a teacher and school leader, my doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from Vanderbilt, and my research on minoritized gifted students helped me win over the students and the search committee.

My first year at Williams, I was pleasantly surprised to meet many other minority staff members who had terminal degrees and exciting research interests. Ironically, many of their research interests were in fields of study that the College did not offer but were of interest to current students. I chose to remain an active scholar – dean in the day and writing academic articles for publication at night.

For me, the library’s annual faculty publication event in the spring of 2019 highlighted the ways in which College staff who have terminal degrees were discouraged from using them for teaching or research. Colleagues working at the library knew that I was still publishing and suggested that I submit my work — two journal articles and a co-edited volume. I did so, but as I walked into the library on the day of the celebration, I felt as if eyes were on me like I did not belong. Quizzical looks were on faculty faces as I made my way through the room and to where my work was on display. It was at this very moment that I knew that Williams faculty would not value my full intellectual self — only the administrative responsibilities that I held.

This experience was not happening in a silo. I know many of my staff peers felt similarly. Why were we asked to be amazing in our roles at the cost of diminishing parts of ourselves that were critical to our identities? How could we develop both in our roles and in parts of ourselves that not only mattered to us but were critical in our hiring? Why were we not considered to be co-creators and drivers of the College’s educational mission?

As we all fought to find a way for us to be seen as scholars, not just as the roles that we were hired into, we were met with roadblocks because of an informal campus policy that keeps Williams from taking full advantage of the incredible people it recruits. As Williams has gotten more diverse, there has been an active effort to recruit a more diverse staff, with many in roles which require terminal degrees in the job description. At the same time, over the last five years, there has been a sizable turnover of staff members of color who hold terminal degrees (by my count at least seven) in very visible campus roles.

As a result, the campus has a retention problem that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown staff members. We were used to establish programs and get students of color invested in our respective programs and offices (i.e revamping First Days, various student of color and first-generation student initiatives), but have not been given the ability to grow and thrive both personally and professionally. Upon further reflection and examination after leaving Williams and talking to some of my fellow alumni, almost all of the few staff members of color that were at the College when I entered in 2001 are no longer there. At the same time, if we look at the role of lecturer/ senior lecturer at the College, which could be the title given to those staff members with terminal degrees, most (if not all) of these roles are held by white people. This problem is not new, and it is systemic.

But what was most hurtful to me was the notion that we would have to leave Williams in order to grow and be our full selves. The College would not offer us the growth opportunities that would help us realize our full impact. Each time someone leaves, the College frames it as a “wonderful opportunity” for a rising star to pursue a new chapter in their career. It begs the question as to why Williams does not seemingly want to have these stars shine at the College. Why is the College not working hard to retain these rising stars that have and could continue to benefit the College, its students, and its mission?

As Williams works to support growing diversity in its student body, telling minority staff with terminal degrees that growth means leaving is ultimately a detriment to the students and the institution. Our scholarship could have made Williams and its students stronger both inside and outside of the classroom. We, too, deserve to see 30-year-plus careers at Williams that don’t force us to dim our lights because of structural issues that prevent us from being able to fully contribute to the community. The College’s rules that prevent staff from teaching or being able to utilize research support afforded only to the faculty defeats the purpose of recruiting those with terminal degrees.

There are so many ways that addressing turnover among staff with terminal degrees can not only support the individual but also the College’s mission and finances as a whole. To provide only a few examples, providing teaching and research opportunities to staff would reduce turnover-related recruitment costs, make it more cost efficient to fill teaching roles traditionally held by visiting faculty, create a broader community for scholars and staff of color to feel connected to the College, and expand the diverse pool of people who can share their lived experiences with students through teaching.

As minoritized students yearn for mentors and supporters on campus who share their identities, having a rotating cast of characters is not good for the longevity of the institution. Minoritized institutional memory matters. Those memories only remain if we have both faculty and staff who stay at the institution and have the ability to grow and change with it.

Christopher Sewell ’05 was an associate dean of the College from 2018-2021. Currently based in New Jersey, he is now the DEI Learning and Research Specialist at Praxis Labs.