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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

The Snail-Like Progress of Blacks Into Faculty Ranks of Higher Education

Today there are more than 33,000 African Americans teaching full-time at colleges and universities in the United States. But the progress into faculty ranks is so slow that, at the current rate, it will take 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.

Over the years this journal has given major attention to institutional efforts that bring more black students to their campuses. But of equal importance to the progress of blacks in higher education is the presence of black faculty.

Black faculty members are important role models and mentors to black students. A critical mass of black faculty members on campus tends to have a major positive impact on efforts to recruit black students to a college campus. Not to be overlooked, too, is the fact that black faculty often offer students a different perspective on racial and social issues which can enrich the education process.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2003 there were 33,137 African Americans serving in full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities in the United States. They made up 5.3 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. Thus, while blacks are 12 percent of the total enrollments in higher education, the black presence in faculty ranks is less than half the black student enrollment figure.

In considering these statistics it is important to note that approximately 60 percent of all full-time faculty at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are black. The thousands of black faculty members at these institutions mean that the African-American percentage of the total faculty at the nation’s predominantly white institutions is significantly less than the 5.3 percent total for full-time faculty nationwide.

The U.S. Department of Education data also shows that while blacks are increasing their numbers in holdings of faculty posts, the progress has been slow. A quarter-century ago in 1981, blacks were 4.2 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. Today, as stated earlier, the figure is 5.3 percent.

If we were to project into the future the progress blacks have made into full-time faculty positions over the past quarter-century, we find that it would take about 140 years before the percentage of black full-time faculty equaled the current percentage of the black population in the United States.

Black Faculty Are Scarce in Full Professor Positions

Not only is there a significant shortfall in the number of black faculty nationwide, but those blacks who do hold positions are concentrated in lower-level faculty posts. In 2003 only 3.2 percent of all full professors were black, up from 2.9 percent a quarter of a century ago in 1981. Of all black full-time faculty in 2003, 16.1 percent were full professors. In contrast, 28.6 percent of all white full-time faculty members were full professors in 2003.

In 2003 blacks made up 5.5 percent of all full-time associate professors, 6.3 percent of all assistant professors, and 6.9 percent of all instructors and lecturers. Nearly 24 percent of all black full-time faculty members were instructors or lecturers. Only 18 percent of white professors were instructors or lecturers.

In 2003 nearly 45 percent of all full-time faculty members of all races at U.S. colleges and universities held tenure positions. For blacks, 38.3 percent of all full-time faculty have tenure. Some 47 percent of full-time white faculty members hold tenure. More than 24 percent of all full-time black faculty members are in tenure-track positions compared to 18.7 percent of all white full-time faculty.

The Black Gender Gap in Faculty Posts: Men Losing Ground to Women

In 1981 black women held 9,136 full-time faculty posts at U.S. colleges and universities. This was 46.5 percent of all faculty posts held by blacks. As late as the year 2001, black men continued to hold more full-time faculty positions in U.S. higher education than black women.

In 2003, for the first time since the Department of Education began to collect data on the subject, black women held more full-time faculty posts than black men. That year there were 16,867 black women full-time faculty members and 16,270 black men employed as full-time faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities.

Black women are now 51 percent of all black full-time faculty members in higher education. It would come as no surprise that in future years the black gender gap in faculty positions, which once highly favored black men, will heavily tilt toward black women. Black women now earn nearly 65 percent of all doctorates awarded to blacks in the United States. This large lead in black doctorates is clearly having a positive effect on the percentage of black women in faculty posts at U.S. colleges and universities.

Why the Slow Progress in Increasing Racial Diversity in Faculty Positions?

Traditionally, the academic world has attributed the poor departmental performance in hiring blacks to a perceived “pipeline” problem in the United States. The perception is that there is a small number of black students who pursue graduate studies and stay on to earn a Ph.D.

First of all, the perceived trickle of black Ph.D.s is a myth. Over the past 20 years, more than 20,000 African Americans have earned a Ph.D. Yet during this period the percentage of black faculty at American colleges and universities has risen only insignificantly.

Another flaw in the pipeline defense is the assumption that there is only one pipeline — the specific United States pipeline that carries newly minted Ph.D.s into tenure-track appointments. The argument ignores the common institutional practice of lateral hiring of faculty from other colleges and universities. In fact, there are at least 20,000 African Americans currently teaching at American colleges and universities in a part-time capacity. Many of these African Americans hold jobs in business and industry or government but teach a night course or a one-day-a-week seminar. With the right offer, many of these black part-timers could be hired to full-time positions.

A further flaw in the pipeline defense is that the theory does not take into account the significant number of distinguished black academics teaching abroad. There are hundreds of African-born or Caribbean-born black scholars now teaching at universities in the United Kingdom and in other European nations. Among the Caribbean-origin blacks, the scholarly qualifications of black professors are very strong. They provide a rich source for recruitment by the great universities in the United States. There are also thousands of black scholars at African universities, many of whom have been trained in the United States.

In many cases, the “no blacks in the academic pipeline” defense is simply a lame excuse used by universities across the nation to deflect criticism of a deeply entrenched unwillingness to seek out black faculty. There is a significant, though not large, untapped supply of black scholars qualified and willing to teach at America’s great universities. But often the university environment is unsupportive of black faculty and, as a result, those in the pipeline seek employment in government or industry rather than pursue an academic career. It is up to the academic institutions to make their working environments more hospitable to blacks and to provide incentives for African Americans to pursue a career in academia.

Regrettably there is a widespread view held by large numbers of American academics that blacks as a race simply lack the ability and qualifications to hold important positions in academia, particularly positions where they are entrusted with the teaching of white students.