The United States Can’t Wait for More Professors of Color

Dan-El Padilla Peralta, a professor at Columbia University, speaks during a lecture in New York on August 26, 2015.

Marybeth Gasman is proud of her work teaching graduate education students at the University of Pennsylvania. In a New York Times bio, she says her greatest professional accomplishments are receiving the university’s Provost Award for Distinguished Ph.D. Teaching and Mentoring and serving as the dissertation chair for nearly 60 doctoral students since 2003. Essentially, Gasman is preparing future generations of students to teach others at the college level.

Or is she?

In a provocative opinion column for The Hechinger Report, Gasman questioned whether the students of color that she ably instructs will find jobs in the nation’s top colleges and universities. Gasman, who is white, wrote that she was asked at a higher education forum why many institutions with largely white student bodies have a woeful lack of faculty of color, a problem that is all the more acute at more elite schools. Her answer was brutally frank: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them,” she wrote. “We simply don’t want them.”

faculty by race and gender

That’s harsh. But figures compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES—a branch of the U.S. Department of Education—support Gasman’s critical commentary. Of the 791,391 full-time faculty on the campuses of degree-granting, postsecondary institutions in fall 2013—the most recent period for which figures are available—6 percent were black, 5 percent were Hispanic, and 10 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander. A whopping 79 percent were white, including 43 percent white men and 35 percent white women. Just to be clear, the NCES counts professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors as full-time faculty.

In her column, which was reposted by The Washington Post and widely circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms, Gasman outlined five reasons college officials give for not hiring more people of color and offered cogent rebuttals to each:

  • People of color lack the necessary “quality,” meaning an otherwise-qualified applicant did not attend an elite institution for their Ph.D. or was not mentored by a prominent person in the field. She countered that such criteria have more to do with “social capital and systemic racism” than the qualifications of the applicant.
  • Not enough people of color are in the “pipeline” for college teaching jobs. While acknowledging the paucity of people of color in some fields, such as engineering or physics, she noted “great numbers of Ph.D.’s of color in the humanities and education and we still don’t have great diversity on these faculties.”
  • Officials are unwilling to bend the rules for the appointment of a person of color. In contrast, this is a common practice for a favored, white applicant. “Let me tell you a secret—exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe,” she wrote.
  • Candidates of color “aren’t the right fit.” In reality, she writes, faculty search committees tend to hire people just like themselves instead of seeking out and valuing diversity among their ranks.
  • Officials are reluctant to seek advice and knowledge about how to attract faculty of color. However, she noted that officials at minority-serving institutions, such as high-performing historically black colleges and universities, have a wealth of experience in this area and are able to recruit and retain diverse faculty.

I called Gasman, curious to know the reaction she might have received to her bold claim. “I’m very much an activist … and over the course of my career, I’ve written over 300 opinion pieces on this topic, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve said this or something of the sort,” she said, adding that this time it struck a nerve. “The Washington Post said within the first three hours of the posting, it attracted over 60,000 tweets. I received 6,009 emails, and I’m still answering them.”

So what happened this time?

“I just told the truth,” she said. “To have a white woman from the Ivy League saying this, it must have hit a nerve. [Black] people have written me to say they have thought the same thing, but my saying it let them know they’re not crazy for thinking what they’re experiencing is unique. I’m a tenured full professor, and I can say anything I want. Others can do that too, but they choose not to.”

Gasman may be rare in speaking out, but she is far from alone in noticing or calling out the leadership of ivory towers for turning blind eyes away from seeking diversity inside their ivy-covered halls. A 2015 Mother Jones analysis of NCES figures found that:

Unsurprisingly, the teaching staff at America’s universities are much whiter and much more male than the general population, with Hispanics and African Americans especially underrepresented. At some schools, like Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Princeton, there are more foreign teachers than Hispanic and black teachers combined. The Ivy League’s gender stats are particularly damning; men make up 68 percent and 70 percent of the teaching staff at Harvard and Princeton, respectively.

The racial composition of college faculties is a significant issue that is only going to become more important as the nation’s population becomes increasingly diverse. “Today the majority of our children under the age of 1 are of color and, before we reach the end of this decade, more than half of all youth will be of color,” according to “All-In Nation,” a forward-looking report by my colleagues at the Center for American Progress and PolicyLink on the impact of demographic change.

What’s more, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicted in a 2012 report that the number of high school graduates will decline over the next 25 years, leading to a diminishing supply of college applicants and heightened competition among colleges for tuition-paying students. Of those expected to enter college in future generations, nonwhite students who reflect the changing face of the nation will make up the largest pool of applicants. Trends such as these make a compelling argument for doing all that is possible to make college affordable and accessible to the coming wave of students of color.

In The Washington Post, two leading African American education experts—Leslie T. Fenwick, then-dean of the Howard University School of Education and a former visiting scholar in education at Harvard University, and H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of both Howard University and the State University of New York at Albany—noted that “The nation’s college students benefit from learning from diverse faculty. Such interaction teaches students that all people can serve as models of intellectual authority and can provide students a visceral antidote to the myth of black intellectual inferiority.”

Yet Fenwick and Swygert lamented that a 2007 Journal of Blacks in Higher Education report found that, at the time, the pace of change in adding diversity to college faculty would require “about a century and a half for the percentage of African-American faculty to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the nation’s population.”

Truth be told, the nation can’t wait that long for college faculty search committees to catch up with the accelerating demographic forces buffeting their campuses and American society. The time to act is now.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.