Understanding the Limited Black Share of College Faculty

Understanding the Limited Black Share of College Faculty
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An outgrowth of the post-George Floyd anti-racist movement has been heightened awareness that the black share of college faculty nationally has languished, reaching only 5.5% in 2018.  Recently, a few influential articles have claimed that a substantial part of the problem is that black faculty face discriminatory treatment particularly when being considered for tenure. Black faculty does have distinctive factors that weigh on their academic careers. However, the lack of a significant pipeline of qualified PhDs is the most important explanation for the dearth of black college faculty in a large number of academic disciplines.

In a Five-Thirty-Eight article, Mathias, Lewis, and Hope point to three cases of a refusal to grant tenure to black faculty: Hannah Nicole-Smith, Cornell West, and Lorgia Garcia Pena, all of whom immediately obtained tenured positions at other prestigious universities. Two were older public intellectuals who had particular issues surrounding their decisions but Pena’s experience has circumstances similar to many younger Black professors. Black faculty invariably have a much larger student engagement than other faculty. They often counsel students seeking personal guidance who are not even in their classes. Often, these are first-generation students who are often attending colleges that have alien cultures and demands that can be hard for them to navigate.

Moreover, Black faculty are too often expected to provide leadership in opposing perceived racist practices, as well as teaching courses that emphasize racism as the driving force for all racial inequities. Many outside faculty members believe that this overly politicizes classroom dynamics, undermining critical thinking where alternative viewpoints for racial disparities are ignored if not vilified. This seemed to be the undercurrent that led to Pena’s tenure rejection at Harvard.

Furthermore, in general, black faculty members have undergraduate and often graduate degrees from less prestigious colleges. Indeed, Adam Harris reported that “roughly 50 percent of black doctoral students were enrolled at for-profit colleges.” Not surprisingly, many of these faculty members may have trouble sustaining research beyond their doctoral study, especially meeting the quantity and quality demanded at more prestigious institutions. This may be at least part of the explanation for why one-third of Black faculty was denied tenure at Amherst compared to only one percent of white candidates.

Certainly, giving more weight to student engagement and more flexibility on what constitutes quality research would help in tenure cases. However, the aggregate numbers indicate that the main problem is the dearth of Black doctorates. This is especially true in the STEM fields. In 2017, Black students were awarded only 1.1% of PhD’s in physics; in mathematics it was 0.9%. However, the trend is true also in non-STEM fields. In History and Philosophy, it was 4.0% and 0.9%, respectively.

It is important to note that this situation is not universal to all fields. For example, in 2017, Blacks received 13% of the PhD’s in psychology and 12% of the PhD’s in education. While these numbers are proportionate to the population, to a large degree, people who earn such PhD’s do not go into academia so that, unsurprisingly, these are the fields that disproportionately reflect enrollment in for-profit institutions.

There are a number of ongoing efforts to increase the PhD pipeline particularly in STEM areas: summer programs run by the American Economics Association prep juniors and seniors in theory and math backgrounds so that they have the skills necessary to enter economics PhD programs; and the joint Vanderbilt-Fiske Masters program prepares students for PhD programs in the science fields. While these programs are successful, the core problem is that too few Black students have the mathematics skills necessary. For example, Black students comprise only 1% of high school students that scored at least 700, and only 6% that score 600-699 on the mathematics portion of the SAT exam; and studies find that this is a key predictor of entry and success into STEM fields.

There may be a further impediment to the limited black share of faculty: alternative choices.  PhD programs have increasing difficulty placing their students in faculty positions, particularly in humanities fields. Moreover, the majority of job openings, especially at prestigious colleges, are outside major metropolitan areas. These seemingly idyllic campuses most often have a very small Black population that is seen by many Black students as an impediment to desired social life. Thus, capable Black students will have other desirable career paths than belaboring in PhD programs that require many years of uncertainty with potentially less than desirous outcomes.

Indeed, more desirable alternatives is one of the reasons why there has been a substantial decline of Black youth entering baseball. As the Los Angeles Times reported a decade ago, “other sports have become more available — and perhaps more compelling — to African American youths.” A top high school baseball player has a great deal of uncertainty and must labor in small-town minor leagues for a few years. By contrast, top high school basketball and football players have a much higher probability of gaining professional careers and are able to spend their apprentice years at top colleges. Similarly, top Black students can go to medical or law school, top MBA programs, or train for a range of executive diversity-specialist positions to name a few of the professional alternatives. This might explain why the underrepresentation of Black faculty goes well beyond the STEM fields and no amount of efforts to increase pipelines can bring about the desired outcomes.

Robert Cherry and Noson Yanofsky are, respectively, retired economics and current computer science professors at Brooklyn College.

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