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Seattle University


Presumed Incompetent

Written by Mike Thee
January 28, 2013

For Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs of the College of Arts and Sciences and Carmen González of the School of Law, entering academia was a bit like traveling in a foreign land. Their parents had not graduated from high school. They were not expected to become professors. As women of color going through the tenure process, they sought mentors who could relate to their experience and provide guidance. There were none to be found. 

In time, Gutiérrez y Muhs and González themselves would become mentors to other women of color who were just starting out on their own academic journeys. "What I found as I was mentoring other women is that the same issues kept coming up over and over," says González. As González and Gutiérrez y Muhs got to know each other and compared notes, "We realized there was no guide book for women of color going through the academy," Gutiérrez y Muhs says. And so one day, while on a walk at Seward Park, they decided to publish such a book. 

The SU professors are co-editors with two other colleagues of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Utah State University Press). The book, which came out this fall, combines a diversity of voices and methodologies. "We have personal narratives, as well as surveys and interviews done by social scientists," González says.

National Attention

The academy has taken notice of Presumed Incompetent. From the moment its ink dried, the book has inspired considerable dialogue in higher education circles. 

The book has been endorsed by such luminaries as Mari Matsuda, Gloria Steinem, Norma Cantú and Kimberlé Crenshaw, as well as Bettina Aptheker, Deena González and John Dovidio. The Chronicle of Higher Education reprinted two of its essays in a special issue on diversity in academe in October ("Good Silences, Bad Silences, Unforgivable Silences" and "Lessons From a Faculty Portrait: Keep Calm and Carry On"). 

Favorable reviews of the book have appeared in such publications as the popular Latino blog, La Bloga, the  American Association of Colleges and Universities' newsletter, On Campus with Women, and the blog of the Society of American Law Teachers.  

A number of national conferences are focusing on the book and its co-editors were included in the top 10 authors to watch by

Demand for the book has been so high that it was immediately printed in soft cover. Clearly, a chord has been struck (see sidebar).

Seattle University scholars are well-represented in the publication. Of the 30 essays in this ambitious 500-page undertaking, four are written by SU professors (Deirdre Bowen and Dean Spade of the School of Law, and Connie Anthony and Mary-Antoinette Smith of the College of Arts and Sciences). More than 40 authors are included.

"The importance of Presumed Incompetent is that the contributors bring personal experience and critical analysis to bear on the complexities of academic life for women of color," says Nalini Iyer, director of the Office of Research Services and Sponsored Programs. "These conversations and discussions have occurred in informal settings, at some conferences, and through the personal and professional networks of women academics. What this book brings is a very strong feminist scholarly perspective on academia. I think that this book will not only be useful for administrators and senior faculty who are seeking to improve academic culture but it will serve as a guidebook for new faculty. Given the number of reviews this book is receiving, I think its impact is notable and it is a matter of pride for SU that two editors and several contributors are our faculty."

"What we hope this book will do is provide comfort as well as information and empowerment so that women will realize that the obstacles they confront in academia are part of a larger, structural, political problem," says González.

Much of Presumed Incompetent applies to women of color, but the editors are quick to point out that many other perspectives are represented as well. And while the essays confront some uncomfortable realities about the experiences faculty from underrepresented backgrounds face, Gutiérrez y Muhs and González both stress that the book is not intended as an avenue for venting or a means to level blame or inflict guilt.

"This is not about victimization," says Gutiérrez y Muhs. "What's most important to me about the book is that it precisely gives solutions."

Carmen González and Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs

González agrees, saying, "Each author lays out [his or her] strategies to succeed and to thrive in academia."

"It's meant to be empowering," Gutiérrez y Muhs says.

The editors point out that the book is also intended for university leaders. "We really wanted there to be something that would be helpful not only for the person up for tenure but also for university administrators to educate them about the particular issues faced by faculty who are underrepresented in academia," Gutiérrez y Muhs says.