Colleges want faculty diversity. Black professors say they have a long way to go.

Colleges and universities are reaffirming their commitment to recruit and retain faculty of color during this time of racial justice and reckoning, but many professors and instructors from underrepresented communities remain unconvinced that they’ll see lasting progress and equitable opportunities. Sustaining a diverse faculty, they caution, will take deep change—to campuses’ racial climate, mentorship expectations, and professional and social supports.          

Amid a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, Inside Higher Ed asked Black scholars to describe what it’s like being a professor in 2020 and who is ultimately responsible for carrying the mantle of antiracist work at institutions. As institutions jumpstart diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, Black scholars say they are inundated with requests to lead those efforts yet are provided insufficient support, compensation, or resources. 

“There has never been a golden age for Black faculty in the United States,” says Douglas M. Haynes, vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion and African American studies and history professor at University of California, Irvine. “Too often people assume that there was after the Civil Rights Act, that the door was opened, that there was no more resistance. On the contrary, there has been and will likely continue to be resistance.”

After student protests at the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2015, institutions across the country launched faculty diversity efforts. Yet, the average representation of Black full-time faculty on campuses across the nation has barely budged, remaining stuck at 5.5 percent; in contrast, about 14 percent of college students are Black.

Retention also is a hurdle. Climate surveys conducted at campuses like the University of Pennsylvania have shown lower levels of overall work environment satisfaction among underrepresented faculty, such as women and minority and LGBTQ communities. 

‘We are tired, emotionally and physically tired.’ 

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says diversity initiatives fall short when they fail to address “the structural issues behind what happens to faculty when they get to these campuses” and leave the labor of service and mentoring on the shoulders of Black professors. 

“You have an issue, you bring it to a nontenured faculty member who is a person of color, or a woman, and they have to do all the heavy lifting because they teach race or some related issue. Everyone’s calling them all the time, they can’t get enough work done and you’ve already set that person up for failure.”

Terza Lima-Neves, department chair of political science at Johnson C. Smith University—a historically Black institution in North Carolina—describes her own experience being asked to take on “invisible labor,” for instance, when another institution requested that she join a slavery initiative, even though the topic fell outside of her expertise. Citing the imbalanced racial and gender expectations placed upon Black women, many of whom already are carrying heavy teaching, research, and service loads during the pandemic, Lima-Neves says she declined the offer to join the initiative. 

“[When Black women] do say no to additional projects, we are seen as anti-team player, unwilling to be collegial,” she tells Inside Higher Ed. “When we speak up and address our concerns, we are bitter and angry. …We are tired, emotionally and physically tired.”

Black faculty also face headwinds in the classroom, where they are often subject to student bias during evaluations, considered to be less credible than white professors, and advised by white colleagues to “smile more,” “lighten up,” and be “more entertaining.” Across academia, Black professors have high representation in non-tenure tracks and lower-paying disciplines, but they are underrepresented in science fields and face disproportionate hurdles in seeking tenure.  

Tyrone B. Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, emphasizes that higher education cannot address systemic racism without acknowledging the clear connection between excellence and diversity. “Diversity results in better, more impactful, and more innovative science, and it is essential to building novel solutions to challenges faced by marginalized and nonmarginalized communities. [Culture shifts] will require making tenure dependent on excellence in research, teaching, and service that centers on equity and inclusion.” 

Committed to change or capitalizing on a moment?

Communities across academia continue to weather the storm of the pandemic while holding true to their stated goals of recruiting and retaining diverse faculty. With institutions taking a financial hit, many higher ed leaders are cognizant of the cards stacked against them. 

“The current crisis requires us to be nimble and flexible to pull these initiatives off,” Zulema Valdez, associate vice provost for faculty and professor of sociology at University of California, Merced, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “We have had to accept the challenge and recognize that we might have to temper our expectations a bit, but it doesn’t mean we can’t provide a valuable resource and foster a sense of community, albeit one that exists almost entirely online for the foreseeable future.”

The UC system is devoting funds and resources, where possible, to increasing faculty diversity and has created a faculty equity advisor program on most of its campuses. 

At the University of Chicago, Dr. Melissa Gilliam, the vice provost for academic leadership and Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice, says the institution has an early-career faculty recruitment program geared toward scholars underrepresented in their respective fields. She also launched a post-doctorate-to-faculty program, in hopes of funneling scholars of color into tenure-track roles within the university. 

While some institutions like the University of Chicago have slowed, or even paused, hiring in the face of the pandemic, Inside Higher Ed reports that other schools, like Syracuse University and the Rhode Island School of Design are proceeding apace with their diversity admissions and hiring plans. 

In the meantime, Gilliam, like other higher education leaders who recognize the importance of sustaining collaborative and inclusive pedagogy during this time, have created virtual spaces for faculty to connect. 

“[The pandemic] has created a level of collaboration, and we’ve been working on how we use this collaboration to continue these really important efforts around creating a more inclusive campus. …There’s a lot of frustration…but I think one of the outcomes will be the ability to work more collaboratively around this issue.”

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