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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

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

Today there are more than 37,000 African Americans teaching full-time at colleges and universities in the United States. But at the current rate of progress, it will take nearly a century and a half for the percentage of African-American college faculty to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the nation’s population.

The struggle toward equality in academia will become more difficult in the months and years ahead. Curtailing of searches for new faculty instituted at many colleges and universities due to the current economic crisis will have a disproportionate negative impact on black hirings.

Over the years this journal has closely monitored the success of colleges and universities in efforts to bring more black students to their campuses. We have devoted equal attention to the important issue of the progress of blacks in faculty positions.

Obviously, 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. There is great value too in the fact that black faculty often offer students of all races different perspectives on racial and social issues, a pedalogical resource that can broaden and enrich the educational process.

According to the most recent, 2007 data from the U.S. Department of Education, there were 37,862 African Americans serving in full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities in the U.S. They made up 5.4 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. It turns out then that while black students are 12 percent of the total enrollments in higher education, the black presence in faculty ranks, on a percentage basis, is less than one half the black student enrollment figure.

Black progress in faculty posts is even more disappointing when we look at numbers and percentages of tenured faculty. In 2007 there were 13,338 blacks holding a tenured faculty post at degree-granting educational institutions in the United States. They made up 4.6 percent of all tenured faculty. Thirty-five percent of all black full-time faculty members in 2007 held tenure. For all white full-time faculty members, 44.6 percent were tenured.

Because of the historically black colleges and universities, published percentages of black faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities are inflated. Approximately 60 percent of all full-time faculty at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are black. The fact that there are many thousands of black faculty members at these institutions tends to overstate black success in that it significantly enlarges the African-American percentage of the total faculty in the United States. If the black schools are eliminated from the count, the total percentage of black faculty in the United States declines to about 4 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education data shows that while blacks are increasing their numbers in holdings of faculty posts, the progress has been slow. More than 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 5.4 percent. If we project into the future on a straight-line basis the progress of blacks into faculty ranks over the past 26 years, we find that blacks in faculty ranks will not reach parity with the black percentage of the overall American work force for another 140 years.

Moving toward greater racial equality in faculty ranks will be slowed by the fact that many colleges and universities recently have instituted freezes in faculty hiring due to the current economic crisis. Among the universities that are pressing for a hiring freeze are Harvard University, Middle-bury College, and Cornell University. Undoubtedly, many more colleges will cut back or curtail all faculty hiring.

Inevitably, these hiring freezes will stall progress in increasing the number of black faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities. In a tight employment market, those last hired will be the most likely to be dismissed when reductions are required. Blacks make up a disproportionate percentage of newly hired non-tenured faculty in higher education. Now at a time when colleges and universities are looking to cut costs, black studies programs, rather than mainstream academic departments, will more likely have to surrender faculty slots. In a period of economic crisis, non-tenured black faculty are disproportionately vulnerable to tenure denial. Also, when budgets are tight, colleges and universities may likely soft-pedal affirmative action measures in hiring or in efforts to seek out and recruit black faculty. To the detriment of black academics, the traditional “old boy” network of referrals is likely to increase the percentage of whites who are hired to faculty posts when budget constraints weaken affirmative action efforts.