Diverse Faculty? Maybe “We Don’t Want Them”

BY HANK REICHMAN

“Why aren’t college faculties more racially diverse?”  That’s the important question addressed in a recent column published in the Hechinger report and the Washington Post by Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and holds secondary appointments in history, Africana studies, and the School of Social Policy and Practice.

“While giving a talk about Minority Serving Institutions at a recent higher education forum,” Gasman begins, “I was asked a question pertaining to the lack of faculty of color at many majority institutions, especially more elite institutions.  My response was frank: ‘The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.'”

She goes on to explain why, offering five explanations for her candid, if damning, assessment.  Here’s some of what she wrote:

First, the word “quality” is used to dismiss people of color who are otherwise competitive for faculty positions. Even those people on search committees that appear to be dedicated to access and equity will point to “quality” or lack of “quality” as a reason for not hiring a person of color.

Typically, “quality” means that the person didn’t go to an elite institution for their Ph.D. or wasn’t mentored by a prominent person in the field. What people forget is that attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.

Second, the most common excuse I hear is “there aren’t enough people of color in the faculty pipeline.”

It is accurate that there are fewer people of color in some disciplines such as engineering or physics. However, there are great numbers of Ph.D.’s of color in the humanities and education and we still don’t have great diversity on these faculties.

When I hear someone say people of color aren’t in the pipeline, I respond with “Why don’t you create the pipeline?” “Why don’t you grow your own?” . . .

If you are in a field with few people of color in the pipeline, why are you working so hard to “weed” them out of undergraduate and Ph.D. programs? Why not encourage, mentor, and support more people of color in your field?

Third, I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to “play by the rules” and get angry when any exceptions are made.

Let me tell you a secret – exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Fourth, faculty search committees are part of the problem.

They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department.

They reach out to those they know for recommendations and rely on ads in national publications.

And, even when they do receive a diverse group of applicants, often those applicants “aren’t the right fit” for the institution. What is the “right fit”? Someone just like you?

Fifth, if majority colleges and universities are truly serious about increasing faculty diversity, why don’t they visit Minority Serving Institutions — institutions with great student and faculty diversity — and ask them how they recruit a diverse faculty.

The column drew an immediate and intense response.  Gasman reports that she received more than 6,000 emails about the column, mostly from minority faculty members (and potential faculty members).  “Most were from people of color telling me their stories, many of them gut-wrenching and sad,” she wrote.  Some minority readers told her the essay made them cry.  Others thanked her for telling “the truth in a raw and forthright way.”  Ten individuals sent their resumes.

Many wrote about the times they were “told privately that [they] didn’t fit in by a member of a search committee” or that they “weren’t good enough to join the faculty” at various institutions “due to their institutional pedigree.”  One African American man wrote “I’m actually optimistic that if people read your essay and reflect, perhaps they will change … sometimes it takes being shamed to change your ways and to see the world from the perspectives of others.”

Gasman also reported that she received

countless emails from white people telling me that they have seen or experienced most — or everything — I wrote about at their own institutions.

A white man told me, “We did the same things you described in your essay to women in my chemistry department for years. We questioned their quality to keep them out.”

Some white people told me their stories of fighting for justice and becoming unpopular as a result.

Others said that they had remained silent all too often and that my essay inspired them to act and that they were “committed to challenging their colleagues’ racism even if it means being marginalized.”

Still others admitted that they were guilty of many of the actions I pointed out in my essay and regretted their behavior. One white man characterized himself as a “recovering racist fighting the good fight now after realizing how much fear and hatred I had about the changing landscape of higher education.”

Gasman closed her initial column “by asking you to think deeply about your role in recruiting and hiring faculty.  How often do you use the word ‘quality’ when talking about increased diversity?  Why do you use it?  How often do you point to the lack of people of color in the faculty pipeline while doing nothing about the problem?”

These are important questions that demand appropriate answers.  According to the census, 62 percent of the U.S. population is white, 18 percent is Latino, 13 percent is black, 6 percent is Asian/Pacific, about 1 percent is American Indian/Alaska Native.  Yet in fall 2013, 79 percent of all full-time faculty in colleges and universities were white. Six percent were black. Five percent were Latino. Ten percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. And less than 1 percent were full-time faculty who were American Indian/Alaska Native.  It’s long since past time for us to catch up.  Our society in increasingly diverse, our students are increasingly diverse, and as a consequence if we are to fulfill our mission we the faculty must grow more diverse.  It’s those colleagues who still “don’t want them” that are “a poor fit.”

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