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Scholar Says Research Universities Not Serious About Faculty Diversity

WASHINGTON – To Dr. M. Cookie Newsom, director for diversity education and assessment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there’s no delicate way of describing the lack of commitment she believes many top research universities demonstrate as they allegedly seek to diversify their faculties.

“The dismal truth is academe doesn’t really want a racially-diverse faculty,” Newsom said during a faculty diversity presentation at the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) annual national conference in Washington, D.C. “It’s totally a myth.”

Newsom said she based her conclusion on research and statistics she collected showing that, while peer research institutions have documented plans to retain and advance minority faculty, the outcomes detail nothing more than lip service.

“If you are an African-American, American Indian or Latina/o with a Ph.D., your odds of ever receiving tenure at a Research I (school) are between slim and none,” she said. “Of course, there are always exceptions.”

Using an unscientific sample of nine Research I institutions, Newsom aggregated data about the sample schools’ minority faculty hiring, finding consistent and, in her opinion, mortifying patterns. In those surveyed schools, the proportion of faculty of color is woefully smaller than the proportion of minority populations in the states where the schools are located.

“There are an insufficient number of people of color at the heads of classrooms where students of color are increasingly the majority,” she said.

Between 2001 and 2007, Black professors consistently represented just 3 percent or less of tenured or tenure-track faculty year after year at Harvard University, Ohio State University, University of Florida, University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley, University of Illinois, University of Texas, Stanford University and the University of North Carolina, according to National Center for Education Statistics data cited by Newsom.  

Even among Asian American faculty, who have seen their numbers increase at majority White institutions, most are hired into science and health disciplines, where just a limited number of students may encounter them as role models and mentors, Newsom said. Latino faculty prospects for advancement are even slimmer, she added.

Overall, faculty of color consist of only 16 percent of all full-time professors in the U.S., according to Newsom.

After working at a progressive college in Ohio, Newsom said she moved south to UNC to accept a position in the school’s diversity and multicultural affairs office. Tasked with conducting an assessment and designing a diversity plan, Newsom oversaw strategies that required administrative and academic units to outline diversity efforts and submit progress reports annually.

But after three years in her position, Newsom’s initial excitement was extinguished by the absence of progress and the reverberation of excuses from deans and committees for why so few underrepresented minorities were hired and retained in the faculty ranks.

The usual defenses Newsom said she’s heard from decision-makers are: 1) There are not enough qualified candidates of color; 2) There is no need to interview them because they are in high demand from other institutions; and 3) They are too expensive.

Underlying the excuses is an insidious presumption of inferiority, Newsom said, recalling an instance at UNC where a Black female staff candidate was disqualified because she didn’t “fit well” and because she “spoke too loudly.” Much of the diversity research literature, she said, has not focused on examining the inner workings of the tenure process in committees where most of the biases emerge.

“It’s racial discrimination,” she said unapologetically. “We know what’s wrong, there is inherent bias in committees and negative perceptions based on race.”

Apart from institutional racism, Newsom reiterated what scholars have found are barriers for junior faculty, including overburdening service work, undervalued qualifications, and the lack of mentorship and support from senior faculty.  

In a subsequent session on faculty diversity, George Mason University’s Dr. L. Earle Reybold, who has published on ethics in higher education, said she has interviewed several faculty of color on their experiences. She concluded that, to break the impulse to re-create themselves, White professors need to participate and engage faculty of color and avoid passive indifference.

“If you’re White, you have to ask yourself if you’ve ever been to a conference on minority issues, attended the presentation of a colleague of color, or supported the work of faculty of color,” she said. “That’s what we need to be doing.”

The AAUP is one of the largest faculty organizations in the U.S., and its annual conference provides a significant forum for scholars, such as Newsom and Reybold, reporting on faculty trends and developments.

In his opening remarks at the conference, AAUP president Cary Nelson said the current budget crisis offers the ideal opportunity for faculty to forge community against the onslaught of forthcoming challenges.

“We have to try to stand together. We have to try to protect our most vulnerable colleagues,” Nelson said about non-tenured faculty. “Otherwise we’re just going to go down.”

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