With Record-breaking Attendance, Annual SREB Conference Addresses Recruitment, Retention of Minority Faculty

ARLINGTON, VA.

Hundreds of doctoral candidates, faculty and university administrators converged on Arlington, Va., last week for the 14th annual Compact for Faculty Diversity Institute, a three-day conference on teaching and mentoring hosted by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), an educational advocacy organization based in Atlanta.

Every year the institute aims to address the shortage of racial and ethnic minority faculty members on college and university campuses nationwide. According to a recent report released by SREB, only one of out every 30 faculty members at traditionally White institutions is a person of color. Furthermore, minority students are attaining graduate degrees at far lower rates than their White counterparts.

The primary objective of this institute and every institute is to increase the number of minority students who earn doctoral degrees and become college and university faculty, SREB officials say.

The largest gathering of minority Ph.D.s and recent graduates, this year’s institute lured a record-breaking 1,100 attendees, according to Alan Richard, spokesperson for SREB. Many attendees like Dr. Rynetta S. Davis, a presidential fellow and visiting assistant professor at State University of New York Brockport, were on the hunt for permanent faculty positions during a seemingly competitive season. 

“I’m not sure why I wasn’t offered a permanent position [at SUNY Brockport],” said Davis who is currently filtering through other employment options as her fellowship nears its end. “I am more than qualified. My teaching scores are off the charts. I did the research. I published and still wasn’t hired.”

One of the institute’s most beneficial features is the access it allows those like Davis to minority faculty who’ve been in similar positions. These faculty members share insight and survival tips with doctoral candidates that seek to become tenured faculty members.

“I am here looking for answers,” said Davis.

Speaking on the barriers to access and success as faculty, institute presenters shared their experiences of overcoming the pitfalls of the professoriate.

“You definitely need a strong back,” said Dr. Stephon Alexander of Penn State University, to a crowd of students during Friday’s opening session. “You will face many challenges, but none of them harder than the challenges that those who preceded you faced.”

Alexander, an assistant professor of physics, refused to believe that physics was an area academia reserved for the White and privileged. Haunted by the stereotype that people of color do not succeed in the field of mathematics and science during his undergraduate career at Haverford College, Alexander worked harder to succeed at his postgraduate endeavors.

After studying at Cambridge University in London, then landing a job at Stanford University, Alexander experienced some not so subtle stereotyping. “

They assumed that I was the affirmative action kid,” said Alexander.

Alexander emphasized the importance of persistence and self-identity. He advised students to be strong and to insert their own brand of originality and passion in their field. Promising that one’s passion for their profession would not go unnoticed. “For me, doing physics is like playing jazz,” said Alexander who is also a musician. “When I do physics, no one does it the way that I do it.”

The significance of outstanding mentorship was also stressed to attendees. Students were advised by institute lecturers to find great mentors and to be great mentors. Dr. Erika Camacho, assistant professor of mathematics at Arizona State University, demonstrated during her presentation the profound impact a great mentor can have on one’s life.

Camacho always excelled at math but never aspired to be a mathematician. Daughter of an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, Camacho presumed that her mathematical genius would be best utilized by the neighborhood grocery store where she planned to work as a cashier, until an instrumental mentor stepped in and shifted the direction of her life.

“My mentor told me that if I stuck with him, he would take me anywhere I wanted to go,” said Camacho. “He took me to Wellesley College.”

In a message directed specifically at faculty members, Camacho said, “Understand that we touch many lives through our work. We are able to inspire others just by being there.”

Camacho told students to be encouraged. “Get your Ph.D.’s, become professors and get promoted. We have a lot of work to do if we plan to implement fundamental change in our communities,” she said.

During an afternoon seminar, faculty presenters also addressed another impediment to success for faculty of color — high turnover rates.

“There is indeed a revolving door that undercuts the proactive work required to diversify the faculty ranks in terms of race,” said Dr. Alma Clayton-Peterson, vice president for educational and institutional renewal at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. 

In an analysis of 28 public California universities, researchers set out to explore the status of faculty racial/ethnic diversity and examine what factors contribute to the lack of substantial progress. Twenty-seven campuses submitted annual data about the racial and ethnic demographics of their students, faculty, administrators, and governing boards between the years of 2000 and 2004.

Over the five-year period, there was a slight increase in the percentage of faculty of color. Underrepresented minority faculty increased from seven percent to nine percent and Asian American Pacific Islanders (which are not considered as underrepresented minorities in California) increased from seven percent to eight percent.

The average net increase in overall faculty across the 27-campus sample was 10 percent. The 27 campuses hired 1,498 new faculty members from 2000 to 2004. However, 58 percent or three out of every five of all underrepresented minority faculty hires took the place of other minority faculty who had left the institutions. 

There has been very little change in the proportion of underrepresented minority faculty on college campuses, said Clayton-Peterson.

The data indicates that a substantial number of minority faculty were hired, but not retained. During the five years, underrepresented minority faculty made up 12 percent of all new hires, but made only incremental gains in the overall population of collegiate faculty.

Clayton-Peterson suggests that these slight gains shouldn’t be perceived as “substantial” progress. She notes in the study that such high turnover rates clearly limit progress toward diversification. Using a mathematical equation, Clayton-Peterson scrutinized the overall turnover quotient (TQ) for underrepresented minorities among the sample campuses.

Eleven campuses had TQ’s of zero — where all minority hires contributed to diversifying the faculty. Thirteen campuses had TQ’s of between zero and 100, and three had TQ above 100 –where minority hires did not replace that minority faculty who left.

Clayton-Peterson suggested that college and universities implement support mechanisms to retain faculty.

“Colleges and universities should host focus groups that feature faculty of color. They should finding out what are their likes and dislikes. What do they need and what do they lack,” said Clayton-Peterson.

–Michelle J. Nealy

 

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