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Racial Diversity Among College Professionals Lags Behind Other Professional Fields

Donna ParkerGraphic

I started with a question, What percentage of people of color are college professors, in the United States? when I came across the following:

Charles L. Reason (1818 – 1864) was active in efforts to gain voting rights for black men. Reason believed strongly that industrial education was very important for blacks to gain their freedom. He also valued classical education as well and started a teachers training college in New York City. Reason and Charles B. Ray started the Society for The Promotion of Education among Colored Children, a black organization approved by the state legislature to oversee schools for blacks in New York City. In 1849, the mostly white Free Mission College (renamed New York Central College) in Courtland County, NY hired Reason as an instructor making him the first African American to teach at a predominately white college.

Despite gains in faculty diversity at American universities over the last two decades, Black and Hispanic professors remain underrepresented compared to their students and to professionals with advanced degrees in other fields, according to a federal report released Tuesday. Black professional workers in industries such as law, science and engineering make up roughly 9.1% of the workforce, compared to 7.1% of college faculty, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Hispanic people represent 8.3% of professional workers, compared to 6.3% of faculty.

Faculty diversity can improve the sense of belonging and retention rates for students of color, said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va, who requested the GAO study. “The good news is that faculty diversity has improved over the last twenty years. The bad news is that faculty diversity is still not representative of the students they teach,” he said.

Students of color often face systemic barriers in academia, said Jinann Bitar, director of higher education research and data analytics at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. Many doctoral programs require students to work for a small stipend, often in areas with a high cost of living, and that can make a different career more appealing for students from low-income families.

Bitar said, the best efforts to recruit and retain diverse faculty members start early on, during undergraduate years, and continue to keep students on track with doctoral programs despite financial hurdles. Those interventions range from introducing students to research as a career in college to providing support like child care to doctoral students. “The best efforts we’re seeing are when things are both intentional and longitudinal, programs where they’re starting to catch students earlier in what would be a faculty pipeline,” Bitar said.

Minority-serving institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities, have been successful in developing faculty of color and elevating them through tenure-track positions, which are more secure than part-time or adjunct roles, Bitar said. The focus on educating students of color at these institutions often carries over into how they approach hiring and developing their faculty, she said.

nvesting in mentorship, retention studies and creating leadership opportunities are practices that could improve retention of faculty of color, according to the GAO report. Additionally, the report found, a supportive campus climate was a factor in whether professors stayed at their institutions.

The GAO report also found inefficiencies in the way the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigate complaints of discrimination at colleges and universities. Although Education Department policy requires complaints to be forwarded to the EEOC within 30 days, the average time for a referral was closer to 71 days.

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