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Professors: Higher Education’s Change Agents

Professors: Higher Education’s Change Agents

All of us can remember a professor that made a difference when we were in college. We remember both those professors we absolutely adored as well as those we loathed. Ironically, we learned important lifelong lessons from both. From the ones that were in our corner and supportive, we learned the value of having a reliable mentor. From our hostile professors, we learned how to negotiate seemingly insurmountable situations and odds. Both types of professors, as well as the complacent and apathetic ones in the middle, were precursors for the types of barriers, opportunities and people we would encounter for the rest of our lives.

That is why we delight in introducing you to some rising stars in the academy. Each of these professors, as well as the hundreds of others they represent, traveled their own unique path to get to where they are today. In addition to the expertise in their respective fields, they bring something more. They bring a perspective that has been honed because they are faculty of color. To say that they are role models is an understatement. Their very presence refutes stereotypes that students, based on media typecast, bring to the classroom.

One of a professor’s most important roles is to help students interpret the world around us. From understanding the latest theories of nuclear physics to a thought-provoking analysis of why national leaders still utter racist remarks, good professors always serve as a catalyst for expanding our realm of inquiry. Black and other professors of color, however, literally change the campus environment. All research confirms that students are retained at higher levels and there is a more stimulating environment among faculty and staff when a diverse faculty is present and involved in the academic lives of the students. Administrators can set the right tone for change, but ultimate success rests with the faculty. That is why the pending University of Michigan (affirmative action) case is so important. If the Supreme Court curtails Black student enrollment, it is only a matter of time before Black faculty will be missing from our nation’s campuses as well.

I call your attention to Kendra Hamilton’s interview with Dr. John Casteen, president of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Under Casteen, the university enjoys 77 percent four-year and 83 percent six-year Black student graduation rates, which are the best among public colleges in America. Yet, these students and others throughout the nation still contend with racist incidents. Casteen’s response is both instructive and insightful.

Given the persistence of racism in American society and on our campuses, we can be sure that our featured scholars got at least a taste of it. Each of them had to survive and even thrive at the undergraduate level in order to be where they are today. And you can be sure that somewhere along the line they had a professor that made the difference.

Now it is their turn and their time to reciprocate.


Frank L. Matthews

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