Black faculty work to ensure access, while making the academy hospitable to minority faculty, students”Like most non-Blacks, I guess, I have, anyway, always thought that Afro-American Studies is a pseudo-discipline, invented by guilty White liberals as a way of keeping Black intellectuals out of trouble and giving them a shot at holding professorships at elite institutions without having to prove themselves in anything really difficult, like math.”
— John Derbyshire, National Review online edition, Jan. 11, 2002If you had asked any higher education official in 2001 to name a poster child for the marginalization of African American professors in the academy, Dr. Cornel West’s name probably would not have made the list.
But what a difference a year makes. Earlier this year, West’s clash with Harvard president Dr. Lawrence Summers over questions of his commitment to serious scholarship made national headlines (see Black Issues, Feb. 14). And as West settled in at his new home, Princeton University, his name made headlines again — this time because a group of prominent conservative scholars decided to boycott a conference to which he had been invited.
That controversy ended with a whimper when the conservative scholars — historians Dr. Gertrude Himmelfarb and Dr. John Patrick Diggins, art critic Hilton Kramer, and political essayist Dr. Irving Kristol — backed down. But a chill traveled down the collective spine of Black academics everywhere. If it could happen to West, considered by many to have reached academic superstar status, it could happen to them.
Small wonder, then, that African American professors have been circling their wagons, gathering in small, intimate as well as large, formal settings to discuss their plight — and what to do about it.
The problem, according to Dr. William Harvey, host of one of the year’s most important gatherings — the invitation-only “Marginalization in the Academy” conference held at the University of Maryland, College Park in June — is directly linked to recruitment and retention issues: the failure of most predominantly White campuses to achieve anything close to a “critical mass” of African Americans among the faculty.
“Just name the disciplinary area,” says Harvey, vice president and director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Minorities in Higher Education, “the social sciences, the humanities, and certainly sciences and technical areas. Even in education and social work, my guess would be that you won’t find a critical mass on the faculty.”
And that’s hardly surprising, notes Dr. Manning Marable, professor of history and international and public affairs and director of Columbia University’s renowned African American Studies program.
The American higher education system “was never designed to educate Blacks,” Marable says. “There were fewer than 100 Black faculty (outside historically Black institutions) in 1950. Three-quarters of all Black students attended HBCUs in 1960, and 90 percent of Black faculty taught (at such schools) … The first time 10 Black people graduated at the same time, in the same cohort, from Columbia College was 1969.”
Those numbers have improved — and improved sharply in some areas. The number of African Americans seeking doctorates, for example, shot up nearly 79 percent between 1988 and 1998, though it should be noted that the numbers involved were quite small: 1,467 doctorates for African Americans, out of 42,683 total doctorates. By contrast, the numbers of African American faculty improved only slightly during the decade, rising from 4.5 percent of the total professoriate in 1988 to 5 percent in 1998. In 1998, fully 86.3 percent of the nation’s 553,355 faculty were White.
And “we should not be surprised that this situation still exists,” Marable says. Not only is 40 years a very short period of time from the historical perspective, but just as importantly, “the schools were never designed to accommodate us — they were forced to do so by the civil rights and Black power movements.”
That is not to say that the picture for African American faculty is unremittingly grim, says Dr. Charlie Nelms, vice president for student development and diversity vice chancellor for Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. “My honest and candid view is that there’s a considerable amount of acceptance — on an individual level.”
Scholars like Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and Dr. William Julius Wilson have achieved something close to academic star status. “But when you look at African Americans as a community of scholars, I don’t think we’ve reached a point where we can say we have acceptance,” Nelms says, and he adds that Black faculty are partly at fault.
“We’re always hearing from the National Association of Professors or the Center for Individual Rights on conservative issues. Where is the voice of Black scholars as a community speaking to issues that concern us and our community, like the challenges to affirmative action?” Nelms asks.
It is certainly true that, on campus, African American views are sought on African American issues, notes Dr. Bernard E. Anderson, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — and the first African American tenured at the Wharton School.
Presidents and provosts frequently sound out “people who are visible and articulate … for their views on minority group admissions, problems of retention, questions of the diversity of the faculty.”
Of course, Anderson adds, “seeking those views is quite different from saying that the views having been sought are listened to and implemented.”
The situation is even worse for Black female faculty, notes Dr. Marie V. McDemmond, president of Norfolk State University. While African American women seek and obtain degrees at higher rates than African American men do, they represent less than half of the African American faculty ranks, just a fraction of the tenured faculty ranks, and their ability to rise is still limited by “sexism and the glass ceiling,” McDemmond says.
Neither Whites nor Blacks seem to “know how to deal with Black females in a professional setting. We’re seen as overly aggressive. I’ve been called a ‘b,’ a ‘turbo-b,’ a ‘hatchet woman’— you name it,” McDemmond says.
“This notion that political correctness has taken over the campuses is a myth. It never was true,” Marable says.
With African American faculty representing only 5 percent of the faculty at all institutions and 3 percent at elite institutions, and with Blacks and Latinos representing less than 1 percent of top administrators at major research universities, Marable says it’s more accurate to say that “there is a silent policy of exclusion and a kind of tracking of Black careers not unlike the tracking that occurs with children in public schools.”
Black faculty, he explains, are “tracked” into disciplines and administrative areas — for example, student support, athletics, community affairs — that don’t allow them to learn about their schools’ crucial for-profit structures. That makes it much more difficult for them to make the leap to top executive positions, to become provosts, vice presidents for finance and, of course, presidents.
In the short term, African Americans in the academy must take a hard look at the college-funding crisis. “When I was in school, if you were very smart and African American, you could expect a decent shot at being supported,” Marable says. But that promise is endangered.
Tax-cut-happy politicians have created a situation in which levels of support at the state and federal level have dropped to 20-year lows. In 1980, for example, a Pell Grant covered 80 percent of the cost of attending a four-year college, Marable says. Today, such grants max out at $3,500 — an amount that’s only a quarter of what’s needed to fund a year in college.
“What we’re seeing,” Marable says, “is the long-term impact of Reaganomics. It’s going to have a debilitating impact on the production of future professors and administrators.”
Marable places his hopes on the doctoral pipeline: the programs proliferating at foundations and on campuses around the nation to identify promising minority candidates at the undergraduate level and provide them with the emotional, financial and advising support to get them through the rigorous process of getting a doctorate.
McDemmond notes that once these candidates are in graduate school or at the early stages of their careers, mentoring is the key. “The academy is not good at nurturing their young — they eat their young,” she says.
Gatherings such as ACE’s conference on marginalization are helping senior Black faculty and administrators to look beyond the goals that absorbed them when they made their assault on the gates of academe back in the ’60s and ’70s. Then, they were concerned with access. Now, the agenda is shifting to more uncertain ground — that of ensuring access while making the academy hospitable for minority students and scholars. What’s required is no less than a transformation of the African American community’s relationship with institutions of higher learning.
Partly, that can be achieved through making more financial contributions to those institutions. “If you want a Black studies program, you are more likely to get it if a wealthy donor comes to the table and funds it,” Anderson notes.
Even more importantly, senior faculty must raise their voices and their public profile, begin speaking out on the issues of justice and fairness that still plague American society, Nelms says. “We have to be careful not to confuse diversity with equity,” he adds. “We want both.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com