Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

The Struggles of Foreign-born Faculty

The Struggles of Foreign-born Faculty

Conflicts between African and African-American professors
must be addressed.

By Emmanuel K. Ngwainmbi

When any academic embarks on a teaching career, he must confront
three challenges — tenure, promotion and recognition. He must be continually evaluated on his ability to teach, conduct research, publish and perform other duties within and around the campus in order to augment the relationship between the institution and the community.

However, the challenges grow even more difficult for foreign-born faculty. About one-third of the professors at historically Black colleges and universities come from developing areas, mainly Africa and India. Though highly qualified, many say they are overworked, underpaid, underappreciated and face discrimination from African-American professors, students and staff.

If they are invited to serve in the administration, foreign professors are often stuck in the lower echelons as program advisers, coordinators or chairpersons. And in an era when the global marketplace is increasingly seeking graduates who can relate to clients from diverse backgrounds, administrators, hiring units and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ought to be paying closer attention to the plight of foreign staff now.

The wings of globalization are spreading quickly around the world, and an understanding of foreign cultures is no longer optional. Yet, as more developing nations embrace democratic governance and implement free-market policies, migration to the United States could slow. HBCUs in particular could be hit hard, as talented foreign scholars choose to remain in their native lands. Smaller schools could close down or face a major recruiting crisis of qualified instructors.

What can be done? According to some, there is evidence that cultural bias, racial profiling and sheer nepotism impede advancement and scholarship on some campuses. Some PWIs (Primarily White Institutions) have been accused of preventing tenure-seeking minority professors from enjoying the same academic freedoms as their White colleagues. In many cases, PWIs have implemented narrowly defined scholarship policies that are inconsistent with the broader spectrum of academic freedom. By doing so, tenure committees have undermined cultural research. These constitute significant aspects of the research interests of many minority professors, and hence the professors are more often denied tenure.

Some institutions are notorious for racially profiling candidates before a “suitable” one is selected for a teaching and/or administrative position. Others recruit persons who fit a geographic, ethnic or gender profile without seriously evaluating his/her credentials. When a human resource officer or committee chair has difficulty pronouncing a name, I suspect he or she is less comfortable evaluating his or her credentials. As a result, they may move on to a candidate with a less foreign-sounding name.

Conflicts between African-American and African professors also may be contributing to the tenure problem. Foreign professors, who are the minority on most college campuses, often hear statements like, “These foreigners keep coming here and getting our jobs,” or “How did you get here?”

And the discrimination and stereotyping go both ways.

African-born professors often feel that African-American professors are under-qualified to serve at traditionally White institutions, so they gravitate to HBCUs because they have nowhere else to go. 

Racial and cultural biases exist in the classroom as well. White students often openly question the intellectual caliber of their Black professors, while African-American students automatically accept the authority of White professors. Both groups often minimize the talents and contributions of foreign-born faculty (particularly African and Asian professors). Some people believe that students learn less with foreign-born professors because of their accents and problems articulating American phonetics. Is there data showing that student learning suffers when the instructor mispronounces words or uses unfamiliar phrases and gestures? Perhaps the instructor’s ethnic background actually has a positive impact on the delivery of course content and student performance.

I believe there can be common ground for students and minority faculty if they use their diverse experiences in positive ways.

Dr. Emmanuel K. Ngwainmbi is a professor of communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. He was born
in Cameroon.

Reader comments on this story:

There is currently 1 reader comment on this story:

“Foreign-born professorate”
From a personal perspective, I can empathize with many of Professor Ngwainbi’s complaints/observations.  However, I strongly disagree with his assertion that African-American professors are unqualified to seek appointments in “PWI’s”.  I am of a generation that elected to remain at an HBCU when the “brain-drain” movement was in full vogue.  If he feels this strongly that he and his cohorts are being discriminated against at HBCU’s, I recommend that he search for his nirvana at a PWI that may willing, “albeit reluctantly” to give him an appointment.

-Eugene A. Eaves

© Copyright 2005 by

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics