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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

February 2, 2021

From: Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez

Subject: Race on Campus: What I Learned From a Deep Dive Into Diversity Data

Welcome to Race on Campus. This week, Sarah Brown offers insight from a forthcoming Chronicle report that shows how higher education has fallen short when it comes to diversity.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Grim Numbers

For the past two-and-a-half months, I have been working on a report that examines why colleges have fallen short for decades on their racial-diversity promises.

It’s no secret that, on most campuses, student populations have diversified steadily — people of color now make up nearly half of undergraduates — while the faculty, staff, leadership, and boards haven’t kept up. But in the course of my reporting, I learned just how dire higher education’s racial-representation problems are.

Let’s start with the data. These numbers aren’t new, but they are grim:

Black and Hispanic workers tend to hold the lowest-paying jobs on campus.

Black and Hispanic employees are most prevalent among the service and support staff. These positions, like groundskeepers, dining-hall workers, and secretaries, also tend to offer the lowest pay. White workers, meanwhile, are most prevalent in roles such as librarian, management, or construction — positions that, on average, offer higher salaries.

Among all staff roles that don’t require a college degree, Black employees are overrepresented, making up close to 17 percent of campus staff in 2018, despite being only 13 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, or CUPA-HR.

At first glance, the racial makeup of all full-time higher-education staff seems more equitable than the faculty and leadership; in 2017, nearly 30 percent of staff members were people of color, compared to 21.5 percent of professors and 17 percent of presidents. But that figure doesn’t account for where most people of color are actually employed on campuses.

In reality, the distribution is pretty uneven. Look only at mid-level professionals, for instance — employees in offices like student affairs and information technology — and the share of people of color drops to 22.9 percent.

Scholars of color are much more likely to be assistant professors than full professors.

People of color are most prevalent among assistant professors. It’s clear that colleges are trying to hire scholars of color into early-career faculty positions, says Jacqueline Bichsel, director of research at CUPA-HR.

But there’s a drop-off at the associate- and full-professor ranks, roles that offer higher pay and often better job security. That trend has held for years, Bichsel says, so the problem won’t be solved simply by waiting for older, white professors to retire. Scholars of color aren’t getting promoted often enough to shift the disparity. “People have been saying it’s just a matter of time for decades,” she says.

Colleges haven’t invested enough in retention or addressed the structural barriers that often derail faculty of color, says Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change and Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. “If you build it, they will come, but if you don’t keep building it, they will leave.”

Scholars of Color, By Faculty Rank
In fall 2018, faculty members of color were most likely to be assistant professors; they were least likely to be full professors.

Over all, Hispanic faculty members are most likely to hold instructor and lecturer roles, and Black faculty members are most prevalent in positions with no academic rank — in other words, faculty roles at institutions that lack tenure systems, like many for-profit colleges and two-year colleges. Professors from underrepresented groups often occupy the most vulnerable faculty positions.

At the current rate of growth, Black college presidents won’t reach parity with the U.S. population until 2050.

Fewer tenured professors of color means fewer people of color moving into senior roles. Most new deans come from the faculty. Most new presidents come from the provost’s or dean’s office.

“When you’re not promoting women and minorities to full-professor positions, you’re taking them out of the running for those higher leadership positions, particularly for the roles of provost and president,” Bichsel says.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data were available, 17 percent of college presidents identified as people of color, according to the American Council on Education. That number had increased 4 percentage points since 2011, a more encouraging sign than the period between 2001 and 2011, when the share of presidents of color didn’t budge at all.

Percentage of Black Presidents, 1986-2016
The share of Black college presidents has increased just a few percentage points in 30 years, from 5 percent in 1986, to 7.9 percent in 2016.

The lack of progress among Black and Hispanic college leaders is especially troubling. While African Americans made up 8 percent of presidents in 2016, that share increased just 3 percentage points in three decades. At that rate, it will take until halfway through the 21st century for the share of Black college presidents to match the U.S. population.

Meanwhile, Hispanic students are the fastest-growing demographic group in higher education, but among college presidents, Hispanic representation actually declined from 2006 to 2016, from 4.5 percent to 3.9 percent.

The Future of Inclusion

Taken together, these three trends clearly paint a picture of inequity. Much of the time, students of color don’t see themselves reflected in positions of power. That sends all the wrong messages. Why would students of color want to pursue academic careers when they see such disparities on campuses?

Racial-representation gaps harm students — research shows that a more diverse faculty produces better graduation rates across the board — and leave colleges unprepared to thrive in a nation that’s on track to become majority-minority in the 21st century.

During my reporting, I have learned how crucial it is for white people to gain cultural competence and shoulder more of the burden of institutional change in the academy. I have learned about my privilege as a white woman and how I need to step up more in my own workplace. Academics of color told me, over and over again: We are tired.

I have learned that campus-diversity programs and efforts tend to be one-offs and add-ons, instead of baked into the day-to-day operations of colleges. So one department might hire one or two professors of color, but that alone doesn’t change anything about the department’s culture, nor does it affect all of the other departments that continue to do hiring their own way.

But at certain campuses, there are signs of success. Some institutions are starting to follow through on promises, making changes to create more inclusive environments, and bringing more diversity to their institutions.

In early March, my work will be featured in a new Chronicle report, spotlighting a few of those wins along with a clear picture of the work ahead. So stay tuned. —Sarah Brown

Read Up

  • In December, The Washington Post reported that Virginia Military Institute expels Black cadets at a higher rate than their white peers. Now, the institution is mulling some changes. (The Washington Post)
  • Nia Dennis, a gymnast at the University of California at Los Angeles, is the latest to have her floor routine go viral. The music and the moves are a tribute to Black culture. (The Lily)
  • President Biden wants to remedy environmental racism, when communities of color disproportionately live in polluted or dangerous environments. Presidents have tried to tackle the issue before. They haven’t been successful. (NPR)
  • Recent enrollment shows a 5.4-percent drop in the number of Latino undergraduate students enrolled in the fall semester. Before the pandemic, colleges saw a steady number of Latino students enrolling. (The Washington Post)

—Fernanda

Fernanda is newsletter product manager at The Chronicle. She is the voice behind Chronicle newsletters like the Weekly Briefing, Five Weeks to a Better Semester, and more. She also writes about what Chronicle readers are thinking. Send her an email at fernanda@chronicle.com.