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Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity

reviewed by Nichole Ray - October 18, 2021

coverTitle: Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity
Author(s): Sekile M. Nzinga
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421438763, Pages: 212, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

In an essay published in the classic anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, Dr. Constance Carroll (1982) observed the following on the status of Black women in the academy: “There is no more isolated subgroup in academe than Black women. They have neither race nor sex in common with white males who dominate the decision-making stratum of academe...Black women have had to develop themselves on their own, with no help from whites or Black men, in order to ‘make it’ in academic institutions” (pp. 118–119). In the nearly 40 years since this essay was published, there has been an outpouring of research and personal narratives focusing on the status and experiences of Black female academics in a variety of institutional contexts. From research 1 universities, to liberal arts colleges, to local technical schools, Black women have powerfully voiced the challenges that they encounter as a result of race and gender oppression, as well as how they survive and thrive along the margins of academia.

Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity, by Dr. Sekile M. Nzinga, director of the Women’s Center and a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University, is a compelling and timely research study that enriches and expands on the topic of Black women faculty higher education. Using intersectional and Black feminist approaches, Nzinga critically examines how our modern university perpetuates and reproduces inequity, which in turn has a material impact on Black women faculty. More specifically, this study places at its center those Black women in higher education who are most vulnerable: contingent, or adjunct faculty. Nzinga incorporates a tri-fold methodology that includes the narratives of contingent Black women faculty, national data, as well as policy analysis.

Organized into four major chapters, Lean Semesters opens with a powerful argument that speaks to today’s university as a reproducer and sustainer of inequity. Nzinga insightfully notes that the university “operates as a hyper-producer of inequity for marginalized populations, particularly academic women of color” (p. 3). Chapter 1 provides a solid context highlighting the economic cost and implications for Black women seeking graduate degrees, specifically PhDs. The second chapter focuses on the “precarious” situation that Black women in these positions find themselves navigating with overwhelming odds against them. The next section emphasizes the intersection of work and family for these women and the myriad ways in which Black women’s families and roles as mothers and caregivers are devalued by these institutions. Aptly entitled “Jumping Mountains: Resisting the Marketized University, Chapter 4 more deeply focuses on the documented strategies of resistance both in the literature and in the personal narratives of the women the author interviewed.

In Chapter 1 of Lean Semesters, Nzgina properly contextualizes this study of contingent Black women faculty through her personal narrative of presenting at a conference at the University of Illinois, Chicago. This presentation closely aligns with the themes in the current text, as she spoke on the tremendous impact of university privatization on students of color,  the increasingly high cost of education, and other relevant topics. Nzinga noted that no member of the audience asked questions after the panel, but that some Black women spoke with her privately about the “pain, guilt, shame, confusion and betrayal” they felt as contingent faculty (p. 18). Nzinga presents very engaging questions to the reader regarding the inner worlds of these women, such as “After all, how could someone safely ‘expose’ oneself as a successful academic, a committed activist, and a model community member?” and “How could the Black women who approached me expose the struggles related to the exceedingly high costs of their education and their need for economic support without evoking the racialized and gendered stereotype of the state-dependent ‘welfare queen’?” (p. 18). These questions reflect a real conundrum that contingent Black women faculty must navigate. On one hand, they are models of success and achievement, and for many, they represent the legacy of struggle for African American educational and economic advancement. They have, in the modern parlance, “made it” by virtue of earning a PhD, working at a university, etc. On the other hand, the women face severe economic hardships, as evidenced in the data. Posing these questions can create a safe space for the women to share their experiences, and is a powerful reminder that they need not be ashamed and that the system, not the individual, is to blame for the challenges and hurdles that they face.

Nzinga also calls attention to the paradox that further complicates the matter, which is that women of color are entering into higher education in droves but are overrepresented in the category of those who are least likely to benefit from graduate education. She cites relevant statistics from national data to illuminate both growing numbers of Black women earning graduate degrees and the dismal numbers of Black women in tenure-track positions. The narrative excerpts combined with statistical data provide a complex view into the material realities of contingent black women faculty, as well as the impact of growing privatization and corporatization of the contemporary university.

In the subsequent chapters, Nzinga dives into the problematic and precarious nature of contingency, as well as the corporatized university’s model that reproduces and sustains it. Nzinga shares rich and moving personal stories of economic constraints from her research participants, which supports her overall argument. In addition, she provides relevant examples of academic women’s labor organizations that seek to address the economic exploitation and marginalization of this demographic. Another significant aspect of this text is Nzinga’s analysis of the women’s narratives as situated in the context of “liberal ‘family friendly’ policies in higher education, the restriction of labor protections for contingent academic workers, and the specter of Clinton-era welfare reform policy” (p. 109). Using intersectional and Black feminist approaches, Nzinga presents the reader with moving testimonies of contingent Black women faculty who are mothers and caregivers. The use of a Black feminist is very appropriate here, as it can provide a useful lens through which to gain a more complex and richer understanding of how the neoliberal university penalizes these women and, by extension, their families. This chapter concludes with a strong message of the need for massive and expedient institutional change and support, as well as major shifts to create the conditions by which real and lasting institutional transformation can occur.

It is no secret that we are living and working in a moment in which a majority of academics are working on the margins of higher education as adjunct, or contingent, faculty. Nzinga’s Lean Semesters is a powerful, engaging, and important text, as it brings to light issues that often go overlooked or swept under the proverbial rug. In addition, it is “a call to action” in that it centralizes “Black academic women and...the impact of the current inhumane and market-driven practices of higher education on their lives” (p. 177). The text is well organized, methodologically innovative, and offers the opportunity for readers to gain a more in depth and nuanced understanding of contingent Black women faculty working in the neoliberal, corporatized university.


Carroll, C. (1982). Three’s a crowd: The dilemma of the Black woman in higher education. In G.T. Hull, P. Bell-Scott, & B. Smith (Eds.), All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave: Black women’s studies (pp. 115–128). The Feminist Press at CUNY.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 18, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23875, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:28:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Nichole Ray
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    NICHOLE RAY, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer for the Institute for Women's Studies at the University of Georgia. Her most recent publications are: Phelps, R., Thomas, K, Ray, N,. & Johnson-Bailey, J. (2020). Black women administratorsí narratives of struggle and support in the ivory tower. In D. Cobbs-Roberts & Esnard, T. (Eds.), Mentoring as critically engaged praxis: Storying the lives and contributions of Black women administrators. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Ray, N. (2021, April). Invited guest speaker for the closing ceremony honoring the UGA Chapterís National Council of Negro Women. UGA Athens, GA.
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