A groundbreaking project for a trailblazing team

Spencer Foundation grant supports study of health outcomes for Black women in academia

By Todd Finkelmeyer

A team of Black women doctoral students from the UW–Madison School of Education is playing a leading role in a major new study examining how racial stress within higher education relates to health outcomes for Black women in academia.

The work is important — and it’s personal.

“Being a part of this team and this project has been an amazing experience,” says Khadejah Ray, a fifth-year PhD student with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA). “I have a space where I’m gaining valuable training on what it means to be part of a research project — and I’m also able to center Black women in my work.”

ELPA Research Team
Members of the research team include (top left, clockwise) doctoral students Imani Barnes, Janella Benson, Khadejah Ray, Paris Wicker, and LaShawn Washington, and Professor Rachelle Winkle-Wagner. (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Professor Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, an ELPA faculty member, first partnered with Bridget Goosby of the University of Texas at Austin to begin research in this realm after receiving a $50,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in 2020. Winkle-Wagner and Goosby then received a new award from the Spencer Foundation this past fall for nearly $500,000. The new project builds off the previous study and is titled, “Do Campus Contexts Make Black Women Faculty Sick? A National Study of Black Women Academics’ Health Outcomes at Historically Black and Predominantly White Postsecondary Institutions.”

Together, Winkle-Wagner says she believes this work marks the single largest study to date of Black women faculty members. Winkle-Wagner and Goosby explain that through this research they are dedicated to elevating Black women, many of whom have often been made invisible in academia.

“I love the fact that this project unapologetically centers Black women faculty and how the research team came together to support each other during this project,” says LaShawn Washington, a fourth-year PhD candidate with ELPA.

In addition to Winkle-Wagner, Ray, and Washington, the research team on the UW–Madison campus also currently consists of Paris Wicker, Janella Benson, and Imani Barnes.

Winkle-Wagner and Goosby
Winkle-Wagner (left) and Goosby

“The goal is that one day we can use the team’s findings from this project to help inform future policy and practice related to equity and retention of Black scholars nationally,” says Winkle-Wagner.

Currently, only 3.6 percent of all tenure-line faculty members across the United States are Black. Previous research has indicated that Black women are at a disproportionate risk for adverse health — including higher rates of chronic illness— relative to their white counterparts. Studies have also shown that Black women with terminal degrees remain at high risk for racialized stress exposure and associated health risks. In addition, research indicates that higher education, in particular, can be a location of significant racial stress.

With the initial Spencer grant funding from 2020, plus additional support from UW–Madison, researchers collected data via four rounds of national surveys with a cohort of 154 Black women academics. The team also collected two rounds of interviews (102 interviews total) with approximately 54 Black women faculty members in social sciences disciplines from across the nation. This mixed-methods work allowed the research team to study the conditions under which Black women academics in the social sciences experience racial stress, how they cope, and the degree to which stressors relate to their health profile during the path to tenure and beyond.

“The project was important and impactful for members of the team, because most of these doctoral students want to become faculty members themselves and they also identify as Black women,” says Winkle- Wagner. “The doctoral students were interviewing people who have been faculty members and know what it means to be working in higher education — and it allowed our team members to contemplate what it might be like for their own careers.”

The new Spencer Large Grant project, which is getting underway this summer, extends this mixed- methods project to allow the research team to expand to Black women faculty members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The project will then compare results across historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) nationally over the next three years.

The UW–Madison researchers are leading the qualitative side of the project, which includes interviews with Black women faculty members, while the team at the University of Texas at Austin will direct the quantitative analysis, conducting panel surveys with the same Black women faculty members.

“As someone who uses both qualitative and quantitative methods, I am most excited to engage with mixed-methods research to combine the advantages of both methods to understand the connection between Black faculty women’s work and their health,” says Wicker, a fourth-year doctoral student who was recently awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship to study the well- being of Black and Indigenous college students. “I am also excited to be a part of a multi-site research study collaborating with those from different institutions.”

Winkle-Wager notes that it is her and Goosby’s goal that this project is also used as a research training effort to produce more Black women faculty members in academia.

“Through this experience, I’ve learned how to put a grant together and how to recruit participants and train a team on conducting interviews for this research,” says Ray, who was recently awarded an American Educational Research Association Minority Dissertation Fellowship for her work on how Black doctoral students are racially socialized in sociology disciplines. “Being in this community with other Black women with similar interests has been a remarkable graduate school experience.”

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