Yesterday, the academic excellence committee of the trustees of the University System of New Hampshire approved the President’s recommendation to promote me to Associate Professor with tenure. This brought to an end a journey that I’ve been on since I was 11, when one of Stephen Hawking’s graduate students responded to my e-mailed query about how to become a theoretical physicist. There are many people to thank for their support of me on this journey, including my family, my friends, my committee, the late Karsten Pohl and the late Julie Williams, my other colleagues including the administrative staff at my home institution of UNH as well as MIT (where I am a research affiliate), and the many people who mentored me, wrote letters for me, talked through problems with me, promoted my work, read and shared my book, and collaborated with me, most especially the early career members of my research group. Thanks to this community, I am the first Black woman in North America — and possibly the world — to earn tenure in either particle theory or cosmology theory.
I earned tenure primarily on the basis of a body of work that includes notable contributions at the intersection of theoretical particle physics and astrophysics to our understanding of axion dark matter and how it might shape observable structure formation. Value was almost certainly placed on my ability to bring in almost half a million dollars to fund this research, most of which went to paying the salaries of early career researchers, who I got credit for training. I was also judged on my more minor contributions to research on neutron star structure, an award-winning book for general audiences that is now taught in classrooms around the country, and a well-regarded interdisciplinary body of service and peer-reviewed research that touched on questions relating to race, gender, ethics, justice, and diversity in science — on dreams deferred.
But, while I was dreaming of becoming a theoretical physicist like Stephen Hawking, the academic world and the world of particle physics were both going through seismic changes due to changes in funding. Particle physics was in the midst of a decline that has accelerated during the two decades since I graduated from college and began graduate studies. More broadly, public universities and colleges, in a process that roughly began with Ronald Reagan’s two disastrous terms as POTUS, have gone through extensive defunding that transfers the cost of higher education away from community-wide responsibility and onto individuals and their families. The same people who have pushed through these changes have also transformed university management into a neoliberal corporate enterprise that thinks in terms of products and customers and prizes the mythical market over ensuring we all have our basic needs met. Fuck curiosity, they said. Education must serve capitalism, not humanity.
By the time I applied for college, as a Pell Grantee, I could not afford to attend any of the five University of California campuses that I applied to and where I was admitted. I chose Harvard because I wanted to work at (what was then) the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, but also ultimately out of necessity, despite the expectation that I would have to work to survive financially. The fiscally responsible alternative — Caltech, which offered me a full scholarship with cash in my pocket — would have potentially meant being the only Black girl in my entire entering class, and at age 16, I was not prepared to choose that life.
For today’s students, the conditions are even worse, with not only UCs and other flagships around the country becoming even more unaffordable — despite occasional programs that keep tuition low for Pell grantees because the cost of living has gone through the roof — but also community colleges and institutions designed to improve economic mobility becoming increasingly costly. As someone noted on Twitter, “number of students selling plasma to eat” isn’t a category that affects how colleges are ranked; I think it probably should be because the number is not zero.
The defunding of public higher education has not only stuck students with a higher bill: it has also stuck faculty and staff with a higher workload and lower pay. The life of a particle physics and cosmology professor that I signed up for as a kid simply no longer exists. The majority of university and college faculty are no longer tenure-track and are instead overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who have varying levels of job stability, sometimes not knowing until the end of the semester whether they are employed for the next one. They are sometimes paid as little as $3000 to teach a course. Even with five courses per semester, that’s $30,000/academic year before taxes. And they probably have student loan debt.
I debated whether to say I am lucky or fortunate or privileged because I am one of the increasingly small number of people to have a tenure-line position. I will simply say I managed to squirm through the slim opening through a combination of factors that mostly have little to do with my scientific curiosity: I experience less racism than other Black people because I am light skinned, I was a good test taker as a kid, I pushed myself beyond reasonable physical and psychological limits including being willing to remain in a community that required me to have occasional contact with the men who sexually assaulted and sexually harassed me, occasionally family and friends helped me out financially, and I had enough community support that I got the letters and resources I needed despite petty bullies (not all of them senior to me) who actively worked to damage my career because of what were often petty disagreements, which are quite abundant in academia.
But I also did not get the job that I was promised at age 11, and it’s not because as a kid I was naïve. It’s because as more people from the margins have entered historically white colleges and universities, these institutions have been defunded by people carrying Reagan’s hateful torch. I had to pause working on this piece multiple times to reply to administrative emails that a few decades ago would have been managed by an expert. Today, as a faculty member I am expected to not only be an excellent researcher, pedagogue, and mentor. I am also expected to be an excellent grant writer (or else my graduate students have nothing to eat in summer, which is a terrifying burden), a financial manager and accountant signing off on documents that have serious legal implications, and an expert bureaucrat who has memorized a dizzying array of information about what forms to fill out and who to talk to in order to solve problems (instead of there being one person for me to talk to in HR, there are something like five, and before anyone will explain anything to you, first they will email you an opaque PDF and only then will they take the time — to send lengthy castigations when you use their poorly designed software wrong).
Nearly all faculty have to deal with this bullshit. My experience with this isn’t unique, and we in the sciences still have it better than our colleagues in the humanities. But I’m not done. On top of all the usual crap, I have to deal with the microaggressions that people like me face and because of my own ethical standpoint, I end up helping others deal with the oppression they face, not just at my home institution but at institutions across three continents. I have no regrets about the support I provide people, but I am angry that these are our working conditions. These are our labor conditions. And it’s not just faculty, of course. Graduate student salaries are typically poverty wages, and faculty have limited ability to change that. Administrative and facilities staff are underpaid (and no, I don’t mean executive admin, LOL) and overworked. It’s been made clear to the faculty where I am that the executive administration intends to transfer more administrative responsibilities onto principal investigators — research faculty like myself. This isn’t something I’m paranoid about. This is something they are openly telling us.
I struggle to find time where I can truly focus on actual ideas because there is so much time spent doing management and struggling to pay for the time where I and my research team might hypothetically have time to truly focus on actual ideas.
And my students suffer for it, including the undergraduates who pay our bills with their high price tuition. There were a number of mornings last semester where I went into class less focused on the material than I would have liked because I had just been managing a slew of emails related to what can only be called bureaucratic bullshit. Where I am, we still handle a bunch of things using PDFs that get circulated for signature. This inevitably leads to mistakes as information is transferred off the PDFs. There is also no central storage system for this information, which makes getting audited by the NSF interesting. People who are responsible for knowing information come to me asking me to look through my emails. Then another person who clearly hasn’t spoken to the first asks me for the same information again. I am frustrated. They are frustrated. We are all tired and especially tired of being asked to do things that we didn’t sign up for.
There’s more I could say (and did, in my book), for example, about the gruesomeness of this particular political moment which is such that I kept my bid for tenure a secret lest any political actors try to make an example out of me. I didn’t talk about the death threats I received, or the harassment my department chairs weathered because of people who claim to care about “American freedom” but don’t like it when I use my free speech. These same people are doing everything they can to claw back any civil rights gains that queer people, people of color, and women as legal classes have won over the last century. As a Blackqueer and Jewish agender woman, I am the outspoken and non-compliant bogeyman they are worried about. I am the thing they want to snuff out. In some cases they want this because they have been told that their freedom depends on my silence and even my non-existence. The psychological wages of whiteness, as W.E.B. Du Bois called them, and white skin privileges, as socialist Noel Ignatiev called them, are real — real dangerous. They articulate me as a divisive concept so that the white working class forever remains divided from their class interest in solidarity with the rest of the 99%.
Despite all of my complaints about academia, I make N times what my mom raised me on, I have had the opportunity to think about ideas and become a decent (and award-winning) writer and scientist, and I don’t have to punch in and out at a job where I am constantly being watched — yet. This is all to say that I have better working conditions than many, and I work to stay aware of that and to close that gap (to stay “woke,” as it were, before a certain demographic ruined that word, as they tend to do with anything they get their hands on).
I don’t think I would choose another path if I had to do it again because all of the things that happened to me in the world of academic physics could have happened to me elsewhere. As a particle cosmologist, I am able to hew more closely to my values than I would in most other workplaces that utilize a physicist’s skillset. And I occasionally get to do the thing that I love: math which maybe describes the universe. I have a stack of quantum field theory books that I like to lug around with me, and thanks to my training, I can already understand much of what’s inside of them and have the competency to work out what I don’t understand.
I am glad that I have this kind of freedom, and I am genuinely pleased that I live within reasonable driving distance of the beach and work in a department with colleagues that I respect both as individuals and as a group. But I am sad that it’s not more — for me or for others. Capitalism is a shitty system, and it has brought us to the edge of total ecological collapse. Our world does not have to be this way. We can and should liberate ourselves from capitalist notions of education and intellectual work. This is an endeavor that should go hand in hand from saving ourselves from the capitalist technological crisis that has wreaked havoc on our ecosystems.
The universe is too fucking awesome for capitalism. The universe is too fucking awesome for us to let capitalism control our relationship with it. Now that I have tenure, nothing’s changing: I intend to keep pointing that out.
(x-posted to Medium.)