Colleges lagging on faculty diversity

Numbers trail makeup of Hub’s student bodies

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 16, 2010

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The lack of black and Hispanic professors, highlighted in two recent reports critical of the faculty makeup at MIT and Emerson College, is a problem shared by the most prominent universities in the Boston area, a Globe survey reveals.

Among those struggling the most is the city’s largest school, Boston University, where blacks and Hispanics make up 3.4 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty, a figure that has barely budged over the past decade. At BU, like the other schools, the percentage of minority faculty lags far behind the demographics of its student body.

Other local institutions don’t fare much better. At Brandeis University, 3 percent of so-called tenure-line professors are black or Hispanic, and at Harvard, they make up 5.8 percent.

Colleges across the country are struggling to bolster the faculty ranks of these underrepresented minority groups as student populations grow more diverse. Nationally, blacks and Hispanics constitute 8.8 percent of tenure-line faculty, according to the American Council on Education.

A diverse faculty helps universities recruit top minority students and provides them with mentors and role models, say students and university officials. The different perspectives and experiences that minority faculty bring can also make colleges more competitive academically and further intellectual debate.

“If we are homogenous, we are weaker as an institution,’’ said Julie Sandell, BU’s newly appointed associate provost for faculty development who oversees the university’s diversity efforts.

Too few minorities enter academia, studies say. The ones who do often report feeling isolated, with poor mentoring and a campus climate that some perceive as unwelcoming. And unintended racial bias can make the quest for tenure, a long slog for any candidate, particularly grueling for some minorities.

MIT’s unusually frank, two-year study released last month outlines the difficulties black and Hispanic professors experience, such as in getting promoted and feeling ostracized from the university community. Underrepresented minorities account for 6.4 percent of MIT’s tenure-line faculty.

At Emerson College, where that figure is 8.5 percent, an external review this month said its leaders have ignored the role racial bias plays in tenure decisions. Emerson, which has granted tenure to three black professors in its history, commissioned the review amid a controversy that erupted after the college refused to promote two black professors in 2008.

The difficulties black colleagues faced at Emerson have had a “chilling effect’’ for some faculty of color at the downtown school, discouraging them from seeking tenure, said Michelle Johnson, a former Globe editor who taught at Emerson for three years before arriving at BU last fall as a visiting professor.

“I’ve seen people shown the door who failed that process,’’ said Johnson, an African-American multimedia professor who decided against pursuing tenure-track positions. “I just chose not to run the gauntlet.’’

So few minorities make it through the academic pipeline that the ones who do are in great demand. BU is prepared to offer competitive salaries to entice minority professors, Sandell said, but a better strategy is to nurture its own talent.

“I would like to develop some creative ways of grabbing people before we’re in a bidding war with someone else,’’ said Sandell, who hosted a luncheon Thursday for minority professors to discuss how the university could better attract and support a diverse faculty.

Too often, though, bright minority students, especially those who are the first in their families to go to college, choose law, medicine, or business over academia.

“When you talk to young students of color, they say, ‘Why should I get a PhD when I can become a real doctor?’ ’’ asked Judith Singer, senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Harvard.

To help draw more minority students into academic careers, Harvard has started two summer programs that allow its undergraduates and those from other colleges to conduct research with Harvard professors in various fields.

But focusing on the pipeline problem is not enough, college officials say. Universities need to pay closer attention to how the experiences of minority faculty may differ from that of their white colleagues. Minority professors say they often feel both hyper-visible and invisible as the only people of color - with their presence noted in a room but their concerns not necessarily heard.

Simple diversity training during new faculty orientation does not work to foster a more inclusive community, said Jamshed Bharucha, provost at Tufts University, where 7.7 percent of tenure-line faculty are black or Hispanic.

Tufts has asked some of its psychology professors who conducted research on stereotyping and stigma to speak with faculty and administrators about recognizing their own implicit biases.

“You can talk all you want about diversity but often, it’s preaching to the choir,’’ Bharucha said. “You need to present good data, from good science, to get the skeptics to not say, ‘I’m not biased. I don’t need to pay attention.’ ’’

College presidents and deans must be strong enough to put their foot down and suspend a faculty search if the pool does not include qualified minority candidates, said Hubie Jones, dean emeritus of BU’s School of Social Work. In the early ’80s, Jones caused an uproar by suspending the hiring of white professors in his school until administrators tapped more minority faculty, even when it meant turning away national stars. At one point, he said, he posted the photos of every faculty member in the school along the main corridor.

“I wanted them to look in the mirror and see that this was not a diverse faculty,’’ said Jones, who is African-American. “I laid down the law, and as a result, we found five faculty of color.’’

Once they hire minority faculty, schools should see to it that the newcomers are hooked into social networks within and outside of their universities, administrators said. The schools also need to work hard to retain minority hires. That means having regular conversations about how the university could support professors’ goals and creating paths for advancement - be it more money for research or a lightened teaching load to focus on their scholarship for tenure.

White college leaders must be willing to seek advice from minority colleagues to better understand the experiences of faculty of color, said William Smith, who recently left Emerson to direct Wheelock’s National Center for Race Amity.

“White institutional leaders often equate liberal views with cultural knowledge,’’ Smith said. “They need to acknowledge that they need help.’’

The schools that have the highest percentages of black and Hispanic faculty in the Boston area, UMass Boston (12.6 percent) and Wheelock College (23 percent), have black leaders. Minority college leaders tend to bring more diverse networks that schools can tap into, said Adrian Haugabrook, Wheelock’s chief diversity officer.

Ibrahim Sundiata, a Brandeis University professor who teaches history and African and Afro-American studies, said the college has lost prospective students to more diverse Boston-area schools because of Brandeis’s dearth of black faculty.

“Often, students want to know that there will be someone like them that they can talk to within a department, that they’re not just going to a white school,’’ said Sundiata, who is black.

At BU, junior Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican student from New York, said universities will look antiquated if the makeup of faculty does not reflect the realities of the world.

“It’s harder to produce a progressive environment when you don’t have people with different perspectives challenging one another,’’ said the 20-year-old. “It’s about having an optimal learning environment and an optimal education.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at