Start Now: 3 Lessons for Womxn of Color Faculty Exploring Administration

By Dr. Jane S. Bray
Former Dean, Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University Dean Emerita, Millersville University of Pennsylvania

As a Latina who has been serving as the Vice Provost for Faculty Success at San José State University (SJSU) for the past two years, I’d like to reflect on my journey from faculty to administration and share three key takeaways for womxn of color faculty.

As Vice Provost, I work to recruit and retain diverse, equity-minded faculty and oversee the support provided to nearly 2,000 tenure-line and lecturer faculty at every career stage. Before entering this role, I was a professor and chair of SJSU’s Chicana/o Studies department. In fact, I had just started my second semester as chair when the pandemic hit, putting my leadership skills to test.

Still reeling from that experience, I received an unexpected invitation to meet with the Provost in June 2020. I wasn’t sure what to think when he began describing the organizational changes taking place in his office. “I’d like to get your thoughts on a new position I’m creating,” he said. On the screen was a description for the Vice Provost for Faculty Success. “This looks great,” I told him, “we need someone to do this work!” I was stunned into silence when he then asked, “Do you want to do it?”

As a woman of color, I try never to act overly humble or downplay my expertise, but this invitation truly caught me off-guard. “I’m so flattered,” I gulped, “but I’ve only been a full professor and department chair for one year.” His response will always stay with me: “After four years of being a chair, would you be ready to step directly into this role? Sure. But why not start now?”

After consulting with mentors and friends, I took the leap into administration. There were many lessons to be learned and they came at me fast, but after two years in this role, I can answer questions with more knowledge and understanding. There are three takeaways from this story I would like to share:

You are more prepared than you realize. Looking back, I had made choices and cultivated experiences that prepared me for the new role, even though I hadn’t realized it. For example, I had offered workshops at our faculty development center since my second tenure-track year. As an associate professor, I had a role in SJSU’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, where I redesigned our faculty search committee training, created professional development programs for faculty of color, and facilitated faculty learning communities. I also had a long roster of speaking engagements and workshops, on and beyond campus, on how historically excluded faculty and students navigate academia. You likely have a breadcrumb trail of accomplishments that have given you skills and perspectives to step into administration.

Listen to mentors who see something in you that you cannot see in yourself. When I was a faculty member, SJSU’s Chief Diversity Officer and my college dean—both of whom are BIPOC scholars—frequently encouraged me to consider administration. My response was always, “What? No way!” I couldn’t imagine myself in a non-faculty role, in part because I didn’t understand the range of administrative roles and responsibilities that existed within the university. Two years in, I have learned so much about the inner workings of my campus and discovered that facilitating institutional change is a deeply intellectual project which I bring a unique perspective to as a woman of color. My administrative mentors, having already gained that experience, were encouraging me for a reason.

Finally, let your core values guide you to the work that is most meaningful to you. As a first-generation scholar, I learned that the key to academic success is community building and the real meaning of my work comes from applying it for the betterment of a larger collective. My mission has been to expose and challenge the unwritten rules and expectations of the academy so that the scholars who follow will have clearer pathways to success. When I was a faculty member, that work took the form of supporting students as they progressed towards their degrees. Now, as an administrator, it means helping other faculty discover the teaching, research, and service that bring them fulfillment.

I am proud to be part of the leadership team at a Hispanic Serving Institution, especially when other womxn of color share how much it means to them to see me in a prominent role. As the saying goes, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Indeed, who are we to not step into the leadership roles that we are uniquely qualified for and that we will bring our greatest commitment to? After all, the time to start is now.

Magdalena Barrera
Vice Provost for Faculty Success, San Jose State University

In her current role as Vice Provost for Faculty Success, Magdalena oversees all aspects of faculty recruitment and the tenure and promotion process, with a deep commitment to supporting diverse faculty who bring asset-minded pedagogies to the classroom.