Presumed Incompetent: Important Lessons for University Leaders on the Professional Lives of Women Faculty of Color

28 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2014 Last revised: 25 Sep 2014

See all articles by Maria Pabon Lopez

Maria Pabon Lopez

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Kevin R. Johnson

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: April 7, 2014


Academics have long known that the experiences of women faculty members of color differ in important respects from those of any other faculty members. Adding significantly to that body of knowledge, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by Professors Angela P. Harris and Carmen Gonzalez in a collection of essays of different voices offers important lessons for scholars, university administrators and leaders, faculty members, and, for that matter, students interested in the experiences of women of color in academia. People of good faith who want to “do the right thing” may find it difficult to read the unsettling stories and pleas for empathy, internalize the lessons as based on common occurrences rather than outlier experiences, and consider how to address and redress the issues. Still, we as a collective have the obligation and responsibility to think about what might be done to improve the day-to-day lives of the next generation of women faculty of color.

To that end, this review essay directs attention at one chapter of the volume, which offers invaluable commentary and perspective on the other chapters and provides many lessons for university leaders hoping to make a positive difference. This is terrain where one might expect two minority law school deans (and faculty members) to feel most comfortable. In addition, as people of color with real life experience with these issues, we hope to provide insights that help university leaders to better appreciate, grapple with, and attempt to effectively address the concerns of women faculty of color.

In Lessons from the Experiences of Women of Color Working in Academia, Professor Yolanda Flores Niemann ably distills valuable lessons from the preceding chapters of the book (p. 446). She cogently analyzes, synthesizes, and elaborates upon the lessons from the experiences of the diverse group of faculty women of color, who offer different perspectives on the challenges that they have encountered in academia. In this essay, we by necessity narrow our focus to just a few of Professor Flores Niemann’s many insights. In so doing, our hope is to highlight, and expand upon, ten important lessons from her rich chapter. Building on these lessons, we offer relevant experiences both as minority faculty members ourselves and law school deans.

The pursuit of equity for women of color faculty members obviously requires consideration of a wide array of academic personnel matters and issues of general university and faculty governance. This short essay, of course, cannot do justice in the analysis of those issues in their entirety. What we instead hope to do is to briefly explain how and why university leaders should be sensitive to the possible diversity consequences of just about every decision that he or she makes and take preliminary steps toward beginning a process that can improve the experiences of faculty members of color.

As discussed in this review essay, devotion to a transparent process of decision-making has proven critically important to our success and happiness, as well as to that of many other influential university leaders. In addition, awareness, sensitivity, and commitment are important ingredients to any process aimed at ensuring that the academic workplace is fair, safe, and hospitable to all faculty members. The next steps for academic leaders include concrete and practical action on a variety of fronts.

We currently live in a time of considerable tumult in American law schools, with falling numbers of applications, a challenging legal job market, and rising tuitions. Many of the same trends are evident in higher education generally. The pressing concern in the minds of many university leaders involves financial viability, which unquestionably deserves attention. Concerns with the diversity of faculties and student bodies, as well as the experiences of minorities in academia, are secondary at best to most university leaders and not nearly as high a current priority as one would hope.

The crisis mentality about the economic trends at many universities makes it all the more important to take to heart the lessons of Presumed Incompetent. We collectively must strive to avoid allowing the turbulent times in modern academia to drown out the voices of women faculty members of color and ultimately distract us from the goals of diversity and social justice in academia.

Suggested Citation

Lopez, Maria Pabon and Johnson, Kevin R., Presumed Incompetent: Important Lessons for University Leaders on the Professional Lives of Women Faculty of Color (April 7, 2014). Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 375; Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Research Paper No. 2014-12. Available at SSRN:

Maria Pabon Lopez

Loyola University New Orleans College of Law ( email )

7214 St Charles Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

Kevin R. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
400 Mrak Hall Drive
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States
530 752 0243 (Phone)
530 752 7279 (Fax)

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