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After Decades, Revolving Door Remains for Black, Latino Scholars in the Academy

Despite decades of research and recommendations, a revolving door continues to cycle Black and Hispanic faculty into and out of predominantly White higher education institutions.

Interviews with the scholars and researchers who have examined this issue in recent years suggest that, although some institutions have ramped up their recruitment and retention efforts, more proactive measures need to be taken. In addition, numerous racial incidents on university campuses have focused attention on the composition of faculty at many top universities.

A lawsuit filed this year by a surgeon at UCLA, the only tenured African-American faculty member in his department, raised the specter of racism to a new level. Dr. Christian Head sued the board of regents in April for a series of discriminatory actions including a slideshow in 2006 depicting him as a gorilla being sodomized by his White supervisor; it was shown at a UCLA School of Medicine graduation roast.

Head’s suit highlights just one of a number of incidents targeting African-Americans and other minorities in academia.

Reports of racial intolerance and insensitivity have become commonplace. In recent months, several incidents garnered national publicity. Members of Northwestern University’s ski team dressed in stereotypical “ethnic” costumes and ridiculed various cultural groups; on the same campus, a Latina student reported being taunted by a group of girls in broken Spanish. A bottle-throwing incident at Cornell and the defacing of an African-American’s memorial portrait at Purdue also occurred in 2012.

Diversity Hard to Find

In the aftermath of the Northwestern incidents, African-American and Hispanic students, joined by others, demanded that the university release an internal white paper on diversity and inclusion that had been completed in 2010 but not made public. One of its findings was that “options are limited for students to take classes with faculty of color because the number of faculty of color is limited, and in many departments non-existent.”

A 2011 report from the National Center for Education Statistics stated that, in fall 2009, 6.6 percent of faculty members were Black, 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander and 4 percent were Hispanic at all institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported in its winter 2008-2009 issue that, because HBCUs were included, the published percentages of Black faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities are inflated.

“Approximately 60 percent of all full-time faculty at the nation’s historically Black colleges and Universities are Black. … If the Black schools are eliminated from the count, the total percentage of Black faculty in the United States declines to about 4 percent,” JBHE stated.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, a former professor of finance at Syracuse University and founder of, made headlines recently when he reported the results of a 2011 survey by his website, which found that 42 percent of Blacks who attended predominantly White universities never had a Black professor. Almost three-fourths had only one Black professor during their college careers. Watkins wrote that, in his own undergraduate, master’s and doctoral education, he never had a class taught by an African-American professor.

According to Dr. Uma Jayakumar, an assistant professor in the University of San Francisco’s School of Education, “An often cited argument for the low numbers of faculty of color is a lack of qualified students of color entering and graduating from doctoral programs.”

However, she pointed out that the National Science Foundation 2009 survey of earned doctorates found the total number of students of color who earned doctoral degrees in 2008 showed a 20 percent increase compared to the 1998 cohort.

Campus Climate Concerns

So why do the disparities persist? Jayakumar, who has published extensively on campus racial climate and diversity, told Diverse, “Much of the literature, including my own research, suggests that the continued underrepresentation of faculty of color is largely attributable to persisting institutional racism and to individuals who continue to—intentionally or unintentionally—perpetuate racially disparate outcomes.”

Jayakumar also said a “negative campus climate” can contribute to poor retention of minority faculty members, as well as “problematic hiring, review, promotion [and] tenure processes … which are legitimized as color blind and race/gender neutral while they are not.”

Discriminatory practices in the tenure process were alleged in a federal lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Chapman University on behalf of Stephanie Dellande in 2010.

The complaint alleged that Dellande was twice denied tenure and ultimately fired, while non-Black professors who were less qualified were granted tenure. Dellande did not prevail. A federal judge in California issued a summary judgment in favor of the university in April 2012. EEOC attorney Michael J. Farrell said he has filed a notice of appeal.

The lack of Black faculty at predominantly White institutions adversely impacts student outcomes, according to Lamont Simmons, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Memphis, who has focused his research on undergraduate student persistence and retention.

“Some of the research I conducted last year found that there has to be a greater presence of African-American and Hispanic faculty and administrators on predominantly White campuses,” Simmons said. “There is a correlation that shows their presence [contributes] to increased graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students.”

Simmons also said a “striking finding” from the narratives of the participants in his survey was that peer and minority faculty connections support the value of participating in higher education and earning a degree.

He explained that, particularly in the case of the African-American males who participated in the survey, it was important for them to interact with African-American professors.

Catalysts for Change

Simmons also suggests that students, more than other stakeholders, will be the main catalysts for change in the area of faculty diversity. “The students will make the difference. They are the ones who put the pressure on the institutions, and there needs to be more pressure from the students.”

His statements were borne out at Northwestern where students circulated a petition calling for the release of the internal diversity report after the two racial incidents occurred earlier this year.

Several scholars said innovative, even bold, measures need to be taken for improved recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty.

For example, Dr. Charles Taylor, professor of education at Wisconsin’s Edgewood College and former dean of Edgewood’s business school and founder of the website, suggests, “Advisory boards are great tools for campuses to use. … There is nothing wrong with community leaders of color serving on college hiring committees.”

Taylor noted other successful strategies: “Many colleges partner with HBCUs; others establish grow-your-own programs. Still others offer incentives to departments to diversify their staffs by funding visiting professorship positions or teaching assistantships that may lead to permanent employment.”

Taylor added, “Successful campuses tend to have strong leaders and committed champions of change who find a way to hire a diverse faculty despite … lean budgets and organizational resistance to change.”

Retention Best Practices

To improve retention, Jayakumar suggested remedies including “acknowledgment of the greater burden on these faculty to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, and service commitments related to diversity … issues that disproportionately fall on the few faculty of color.”

Jayakumar recommends that the acknowledgement of these functions be reflected in “the reward structure, release time for teaching, and organized writing retreats for faculty of color.”

Jayakumar also said tenure often becomes problematic for faculty of color because of views on the “legitimacy” of their body of work.

She referenced a ground-breaking study by Drs. Dolores Bernal and Octavio Villalpando titled “An Apartheid of Knowledge in Academia: The Struggle over the ‘Legitimate’ Knowledge of Faculty of Color” (Equity & Excellence in Education, May 2002).

The authors contend that “the scholarship, epistemologies, and cultural resources of minority faculty” are marginalized and devalued in higher education.

In the Northwestern University report, suggestions for improving retention included developing a variety of support systems for faculty of color and even hiring an external organization to conduct exit interviews annually with faculty members to determine why they are leaving.

Simmons also stressed the need for formal programs to foster tenure for faculty of color. He said, “There needs to be recognition that these faculty bring a unique set of characteristics, ideas, background and history to the institutions.”

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