Published on 2016/05/24

How the Diversification of Mainstream Higher Ed Could Impact HBCUs

The EvoLLLution | How the Diversification of Mainstream Higher Ed Could Impact HBCUs
Mainstream colleges and universities are focusing on improving administrative and faculty diversity in response to political pressure, but these moves are unlikely to be detrimental to HBCUs as mainstream institutions tend to promote from within.

As protests unfold on college and university campuses across the United States, majority institutions in the country are being pressured to change their policies, faculty and even their campus structures.

Students, much like their counterparts in the 1950s and 60s, are using their agency to push for fundamental change on campuses. They are pushing back against the historic mementos of racism present on their campuses, demanding that their institutions be more inclusive and open to difference, and refusing to be taught by a majority-white faculty.

It is this last demand that has many people talking about the impact of increased diversity at majority institutions on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). If majority institutions are true in their commitment to diversify their faculties, will HBCUs lose large swaths of their faculty members?

Let’s tease out the issues.

First, HBCU faculties are 60 percent African American according to recent research conducted at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. The rest of their faculty is white, Asian American, and Latino; there is also a considerable population of international faculty of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Most people assume that HBCUs are not diverse in terms of their faculty, but they have been since their founding in the post-Civil War period.

Second, majority institutions have little diversity on their faculties and have made excuses for this lack of diversity for decades. When presented with lists of highly qualified faculty of color, many majority institutions have still found fault in them. Oftentimes, when people of color are part of the pool for a faculty position, the committee decides—using traditional measures (prestige of institution and who one knows) that privilege white men—that they are not qualified. It is telling that despite ample research and practitioner-focused work on recruiting and retaining faculty of color at majority institutions, the needle has barely moved.

Third, as HBCUs have been around since the decades after the Civil War, it would seem that majority institutions would have looked to them as incubators of talent and might have sought potential faculty from their ranks. However, research shows us that it is rare for a faculty member at an HBCU to make the transition to a majority institution. Once a faculty member at an HBCU, most individuals stay within the HBCU environment. We know little about their reasons for doing so; they may enjoy the HBCU environment or they may have trouble moving to a non-HBCU environment. Research fails us on this topic.

Fourth, given the deep and consistent push from students to diversify the professoriate at majority institutions, there is a chance that HBCU faculty will be pilfered. If this happens in great numbers, it will fundamentally change the ethos of HBCUs, as their faculties will become less and less African American. The role of African American faculty at HBCUs is profound, providing mentors and role models, and serving as the foundation of a curriculum that recognizes the value of African American contributions across the disciplines.

However, based on my experience with faculty search committees—as well as the research I have conducted for years—I do not think that majority institutions will look to HBCUs to diversify their faculty in any great numbers. Instead, if they decide to take the lack of diversity seriously (and that’s a big “if”), they will approach this in a “grow your own” manner. I think they will work with other majority institutions to enroll greater numbers of students of color in Ph.D. programs and set up pathways to bring those students, upon earning a Ph.D., into post-docs and faculty positions.

Of note, there are many PhDs of color that do not get faculty jobs immediately and even for years after graduating. The issue is not the lack of people of color in the pipeline. Instead, the issue is that many majority institutions are dead set on maintaining the status quo. Majority institutions have to redefine their understanding of quality and stop privileging those who earn their Ph.D.s at a select group of institutions and are mentored by only those known by the existing faculty.

Lastly, HBCUs foster opportunities. Majority institutions must ask themselves if they want to do the same for African American faculty.

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