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The pace of racial progress on university failures

Recent articles and events have prompted discussion about the pace and amount of racial progress in our nation.

First, President William Jefferson Clinton went to Little Rock,
Arkansas, on September 25 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of
the Little Rock Nine’s first foray into organized White hostility.

Then, several magazines have run reviews of the new book by Abigail
and Stephen Thernstrom, America in Black and White (Simon and
Schuster). The Thernstroms, passionate advocates against affirmative
action, bow to the past by spending a third of their book writing about
“American apartheid.” Then they fast forward to the present, using
their analysis of past wrongs to congratulate our nation for how far it
has moved.

The Thernstroms’ use of the rah-rah “we’ve-come-along-way-baby” view
of race relations can be used to argue that affirmative action is
unnecessary. We’ll reach a level playing field, they seem to imply, if
we just give it time. Meanwhile, tools like affirmative action cause
“White resentment” which does little to bring the races closer
together. Missing in action from their drive-by analysis is the
resentment that many “we’ve-come-along-way” Black folks might feel
about the ways we are required to prove ourselves day in and day out.

In all the talk of racial progress, just a few facts are missing.
There has been progress, but also setbacks. And there is much less
visible progress the higher up the ladder you go. Some companies have a
relatively representative number of African American workers, except in
upper management. Sports teams are more likely to have Black players
than they are owners, managers, or coaches. And university faculties
may be among the worst offenders, with Black faculty woefully
under-represented at every rank from entry level to full professor.

When confronted with these numbers, some universities offer the
intellectual equivalent of “the-dog-ate-my-homework” excuse. “We can’t
find any,” they say.

Of course, too often when they find us, they don’t know how to treat
us. Many African American faculty say their path to tenure is .steeper
and more rocky than that of some of their colleagues. The subjectivity
of the tenure process is best understood by considering that
“collegiality” (i.e., how well do you get along), is one of the areas
in which faculty are rated.

I’m not saying that universities aren’t trying to do better. Many
are. But even if some campuses earn an “E” for effort, their grade is,
at best, “incomplete” when it comes to the matter of results. One might
guess, too, that some of the departments that say they “can’t find”
African American faculty, don’t really want any. Who, after all, would
want to join a department where senior scholars are such vocal
opponents of affirmative action programs that sharing common space with
them might easily be considered working in a hostile environment. I
wonder if their collegiality ratings tumble for the snide comments they
sometimes make about junior faculty of color. I forgot, though, they
have tenure and can’t lose it no matter how hostile their behavior.

Those who are waxing eloquent about racial progress haven’t
addressed the faculty situation. There may be two reasons for that.
First, universities are atypical, and faculty members are considered
relatively privileged. Progress for faculty members may be low on the
list for some who find more pressing areas of progress to consider.

Secondly, there is something to be said for the “pipeline” – also
known as the “we-can’t-find-them” – argument. Of some 33,000 Ph.D.s
awarded in any given year, the number awarded to African Americans has
ranged between 1,000 and 1,200 annually. If just three percent of the
degrees awarded go to African Americans, some might argue that it is
miraculous that faculties have so many – as opposed to so few – African
Americans on their staffs.

However, the experiences of too many African American faculty
members suggest that faculty numbers could be higher than they
currently are. And the status of African Americans on university
faculties should be of concern because of the number of students who
are exposed to these faculty members.

If students are not exposed to faculty of color, how can they be
expected to respond to bosses of color? Or has there been so little
racial progress that it is still permissible for Whites who have Black
bosses or supervisors to behave as if this is unusual?

Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom have written a very cunning book.
Buried in their celebration of racial progress is some very insidious
language about affirmative action and mislabeled “preferences.”

In the chapter on higher learning, the Thernstroms make the standard
case against affirmative action, as they do in the chapter on jobs and
contracts. Unless I missed a passing sentence on the composition of
university faculties, the Thernstroms seem to ignore this subject in
their discussion of racial progress. I understand why. If they don’t
think that African American students belong at universities unless they
are SAT-certified, what must they think of the African American Ph.D.s
who are potential faculty members?

Certainly we have come a long way on race relations in America. But
almost any African American faculty member will tell you how much
progress we have not made!

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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