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‘More Rivers to Cross’ for Penn State to Improve Status of Black Faculty

Penn State University still has “more rivers to cross” to improve the status of its Black faculty, according to a recent report by two of its professors who spent more than eight months researching the subject in an effort to highlight diversity issues at the institution.

“More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University” examined the 13 academic colleges on the University Park campus. Written by Dr. Gary King, a professor of biobehavioral health, and Dr. Darryl Thomas, an associate professor of African American studies, the 97-page report most notably found a decline in tenured and tenure-track Black faculty in recent years.

Dr. Gary King (Photo: Penn State)

According to their study, in 2004, there were 83 tenured or tenure-track Black faculty at Penn State. By 2018, the number had dropped to 68. By percentages, the tenured and tenure-track African American faculty declined from 76.1% in 2004 to 60.7% in 2018.

There were 30 Black associate professors in 2018, down from 37 in 2004; and there were 23 Black full professors in 2018, the same number as 10 years prior in 2008.

The study, which was published on the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education website and presented to faculty and administrators at Penn State, also raised questions about the institution’s official diversity data.

For example, King and Thomas point out that “the actual count of Black faculty is artificially inflated and misleading, because according to the Office of Planning and Assessment, ‘for 2018, with the implementation of a new human resource information system, post-doctoral scholars and fellows were reclassified from part-time to full-time.’”

The professors contend that the new system “statistically and pragmatically” misrepresents the number of Black professors on the University Park campus in 2018. They note that “post-doctoral scholars and fellows are temporal and unlikely to have a major impact on classroom teaching, mentoring or be substantively involved in departmental affairs and service to the university.”

Even using the university stats, the report states that over a span of 15 years the number of Black faculty had seemingly increased from 109 to 112 “representing a net increase of just 3 professors or 2.8%.”

Dr. Darryl Thomas (Photo: Penn State)

King told Diverse that the university figures “also include people who are emeritus and are no longer there,  and they include people who are administrators but have faculty status — many of them do not teach — and are erroneously counted as faculty.”

According to the report, African American professors in tenure and tenure-track positions experienced the greatest decline in their absolute numbers and relative proportions compared to Latinx, Asian and international faculty whose numbers did not decrease.

The analysis of professorial rank and gender revealed that African American women were far less likely to be represented at the full professor level than their male counterparts whereas African American men were underrepresented as assistant professors.

In addition to examining faculty diversity data, the report also discusses a cultural climate that includes frequent microaggressions, systemic racialized encounters, double standards based on race and bias in student evaluations of Black faculty as impediments to faculty promotion and retention.

“The report is very worthwhile reading, and an important reminder of challenges that we face, not only at Penn State but in higher education nationally,” President Eric Barron said in a statement on the university’s website. The study makes it clear that Penn State is not alone among flagship state institutions confronting diversity issues affecting faculty and students.

“Racial battle fatigue sets in as Black faculty struggle to navigate majority White institutions, anticipate and avoid cultural clashes to fit in, and maintain scholarly productivity while at the same time they are called upon to mentor African American students who are protesting issues that they perceive as dangerous, widespread, and often ignored,” the authors state in the introduction.

They credit Black faculty members, who have spoken out on the lack of diversity, and student activists with prompting the analysis. Citing previous research, the report states that “as student populations are growing more diverse, students are pressing universities to hire more minority faculty members.”

Black faculty in Individual colleges:

  • In the Smeal College of Business, two professors (1.3%) were Black — a 50% decrease since 2004, while non-Black faculty increased by 22%.
  • In the College of Engineering, six of 428 faculty members (1.4%) were Black
  • In the College of Health and Human Development/Nursing, of the 341 faculty members, nine (2.7%) were Black — decreasing by 47% since 2004, while non-Black faculty increased by 25%.
  • There were a few notable increases in Black faculty. In the College of Education 12 of the 202 professors in 2018, (5.9%) identified as African American — an increase of 25% since 2004. In the College of Arts and Architecture, of the 217 faculty members, 13 (6%) were Black — increasing by 18.2% since 2004. In the College of Liberal Arts, Black faculty increased by 12.5%; however, the non-Black faculty rose by 63% since 2004.

Several “challenges” outlined in the report included the need for more representation of Blacks in senior leadership roles and accuracy and transparency in data reporting. King said actual recommendations would be forthcoming in part two of “More Rivers to Cross.”

Thomas said the intent was to expose the “cosmetic diversity” that was being reported by the university, adding, “We want them to make a good faith effort to increase the numbers  . . . and to make a commitment to improving the climate not only for faculty but also for the students.”

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