Lincoln University administrator’s suicide spotlights Black women’s struggles in higher education

Written by on April 13, 2024

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(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.) — When Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey, the former vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University in Missouri, died by suicide on Jan. 8, the tragedy brought attention to the difficulties and obstacles that many Black women report experiencing in higher education.

Candia-Bailey, who received a termination letter from the historically Black university on Jan. 3, had previously accused the school’s president, John Moseley, of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

“It was shocking,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University, told “Nightline.” “And I think there was a lot of fear that if the experiences that Black women are going through are not being paid attention to, that they can have really devastating results.”Moseley was reinstated to his position last month after a third-party investigation found no evidence of substantiated bullying claims by the university president. He’d been on a voluntary paid administrative leave.

In a press release, the board of curators from the university said that an “exhaustive, independent investigation” found that “Dr. Candia-Bailey’s claims that she was bullied by President Moseley were unsubstantiated.”

The press release added, “Specifically, when directly asked in the course of this investigation, no witnesses reported that they had ever witnessed President Moseley engage in bullying – and all denied having ever personally felt bullied by President Moseley.”

ABC News attempted to contact the university but have not received a response.

In a statement, Moseley said “our thoughts and prayers have been and continue to be with Dr. Bailey’s family, friends, and our campus community.”

Moseley added, “There is not a lot I can say about the independent report and its findings, but I am grateful to the Board of Curators for their faith in me and their vote of confidence.”

Candia-Bailey’s loved ones are still grappling with the loss of the woman they affectionately called “Bonnie.”

“My confidence in the thoroughness of the investigation is zero,” said Omega Tillman, a close friend to Candia-Bailey. “Bonnie was not a person to mince words or, if she felt bullied, if she felt unheard, unseen, then that’s what it was. It’s frustrating.”

For 20 years, Candia-Bailey had worked to climb the professional ladder in academia. In 2016, she wrote a dissertation on the challenges that Black women face in academia.

Her dissertation is titled, “My Sister, Myself: The Identification of Sociocultural Factors that Affect the Advancement of African-American Women into Senior-Level Administrative Positions.”

“Attempts need to be addressed to look at how African American women can increase and advance in higher education,” Candia-Bailey wrote in the dissertation. “These factors also link to being treated like the help, the outsider within, keeping them away from the table.”

Candia-Bailey’s death brought shock and sadness, prompting social media videos showing Black women sharing their own frustrations and experiences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women and other women of color face harsher evaluations at work due to harmful stereotypes. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist, studies how negative stereotypes affect the mental health of Black women. According to her, Black women are often stereotyped as “angry Black women, strong Black women, and hypersexual Black women.”

“The No. 1 thing that I believe Black women can do to protect their mental health is to establish very clear boundaries,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “Being a strong Black woman can come with taking on too much, feeling like you just can’t take it anymore and often we don’t recognize it until it’s gone too far,” she added.

Hannah-Jones said it is a concerning trend that despite being highly qualified for leadership positions, Black women are often subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism once they assume their roles.

“It’s a struggle to be respected, it’s a struggle to be heard. There’s so many obstacles, and often the higher you ascend, the lonelier it gets,” Hannah-Jones said.

Recent data from the American Association of University Professors reveals that Black women represent only 2.4 percent of tenured professors in colleges and universities nationwide.

“Tenure is the highest status that you can achieve at a university,” Hannah-Jones said. “So Black women get hired, but they aren’t getting tenure, and they aren’t being moved through that process.”

Amidst the tragedy, the next generation of black women academics are forging their own community and advocating for change.

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