Mind the Gap: Patterns in the Academic Careers of Underrepresented Minority Faculty

By Kimberly Griffin
Associate professor
Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education at the University of Maryland
Ellin Scholnick
Professor Emerita of Psychology
Chair,  President’s Commission on Women’s Issues

Despite significant increases in the diversity of undergraduate and graduate students in the United States, the underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos among tenured and tenure track (TTK) faculty continues to be a challenge. According to the data collected for the IPEDS  (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System produced for the National Center for Educational Statistics) database of all U. S. degree-granting institutions, African Americans comprised 5% of TTK faculty and Latinos 4% in 2013. Similar national data have been reported over the past 40 years; the representation of African American and Latino faculty has marginally increased. Statistics also suggest that members of these two underrepresented groups travel different career paths from white and Asian faculty.  The percentage of white and Asian faculty who are associate or full professors far exceeds the percentages for Latino and African American faculty, and these differences are particularly pronounced for women.

As institutional leaders seek strategies to address these trends, it is helpful to consider how current data and scholarship can inform our understanding of the challenges and barriers that may perpetuate the underrepresentation of black and Latino faculty.  In this article, we begin by presenting statistics on the representation of various racial groups and their divergent faculty career trajectories.  We then offer findings from research, particularly qualitative data gathered from local discussions with black faculty, on the challenges they face.  Finally, we conclude by suggesting ways to lessen these challenges.

Data derived from the 2014 IPEDS database of full-time faculty in 84 institutions (including the University of Maryland) with graduate instructional programs are presented below. See Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), 2014. Provisional release data. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/InstitutionByGroup.aspx.

These data do not differ markedly from the numbers derived from the data representing all colleges.  The 2014 IPEDs database enabled calculation of the percentage of TTK faculty within diverse groups at each faculty rank. We consider the representation of male and female faculty separately. However, because of the small numbers, in the graphs we have pooled the data from African Americans and Latinos. The first graph takes each race-ethnic x gender group separately and depicts the percentage of faculty at each rank.  It shows that while 59% of white male and 47% of Asian male TTK faculty are full professors, only approximately a quarter of Asian and African American and Latina women are full professors.  The data from African American and Latino men (41%) and white women (39%) fall in between. These percentages have not changed appreciably over the past decade.

Attainment of the rank of professor constitutes a pinnacle of achievement in an academic career. Full professors are important gatekeepers; they decide which faculty can gain tenure and eventually join their ranks, defining the next generation of gatekeepers. The combination of the low percentage of African Americans and Latinos in the TTK faculty with the comparatively low percentage of faculty members who are full professors leads to an even greater imbalance in the academy. The higher the rank, the less diversity. This is apparent from the second graph, which depicts the same data from the perspective of rank. It shows the percentage within each rank of each race/ethnic x gender group. For example, as the second graph shows, only 4% of full professors are African American or Latino males and 2% are female African Americans or Latinas.

Fewer African American and Latino scholars are in the academy, and fewer seem to be making it to the top of the academic hierarchy.  While we certainly must attend to the number of doctoral students completing and entering the academy to address these patterns, and it will take time for those already in faculty positions to be promoted, it is also important to consider how the experiences of African American and Latino faculty promote or limit their success.  Research shows that in addition to dealing with challenges commonly encountered when forging an academic career, Latino and African American faculty generally, and women in particular, experience unique issues and demands that make them more vulnerable as they aim to persist and advance.  Our insights on these issues are drawn from existing research, Kimberly Griffin’s interviews with African American faculty in two research universities (names of the institutions have been withheld to protect the identities of participants), as well as from our academic experience.

Scholarly productivity is central to career advancement of all faculty employed at research universities. Research suggests that there may be differences in how the scholarly work of black and Latino faculty is evaluated. Many Latino and African American faculty have research agendas that aim to tap into the daily lives of underserved populations and support marginalized communities. In addition to being difficult to gain access to and collect data on these populations, community focused scholarship can highlight topics which are often devalued or ignored in the disciplines in which these faculty work. Further, this research is often interdisciplinary or integrates cutting-edge methodology.  This kind of work may be more likely to appear in topical, issue based journals or those that speak directly to policymakers and practitioners, rather than in those that are considered more general, theoretical, and prestigious. Thus, as scholars’ tenure and promotion packages are evaluated, they may encounter three sources of evaluation bias: (1) Their publication records don’t fit the usual criteria for faculty evaluation because they are not published in premier outlets (such as top-tier journals or prestigious university presses) or do not address topics that are presently at the core of a discipline. In fact their research, which is often embedded in a deep awareness of the sociopolitical context, may challenge that core. (2) Because they are often at the cutting edge and/or they work in interdisciplinary fields, this work may be unfamiliar and more difficult to assess.  For example, there are fewer senior faculty from premier institutions to evaluate their work and because of this, those evaluations may have lesser weight. (3) There may be unconscious evaluative biases, leading to more negative assessments of their scholarship. Research suggests that these biases are compounded when the faculty member is both a member of an underrepresented group and a woman.

In addition to challenges related to how research is assessed, other dimensions of academic work may interfere with their ability to be productive.  While all faculty may struggle to manage student requests for mentorship and support, committee work, and community engagement, black and Latino faculty are often sought to engage in these activities with greater frequency.  Institutional leaders seeking diversity on committees may repeatedly tap the same faculty when there are few individuals from diverse backgrounds, ultimately leading to heavy service loads.  Students from underrepresented backgrounds often express a desire to work with faculty who share their identities, believing these professors have unique understandings of the unique challenges black, Latino, and women students face.  This leaves many faculty having to manage larger than average advising loads.  In addition, black and Latina women report students can expect relationships that go beyond academic advice, incorporating a deeper level of investment and personal care than they ask male faculty to provide. In addition to being physically and emotionally tiring, high levels of engagement in service can leave less time and energy for research and scholarly productivity.  Saying “no” and declining service requests may be offered as an alternative; however, this may be difficult when requests come from senior faculty and institutional leaders who will later make decisions about that faculty member’s professional future.  In addition, faculty may feel pulled into service through their strong commitments to addressing community concerns in their work, as well as to contribute to increasing diversity in higher education.

Finally, teaching may also present unique challenges for African American and Latino faculty. Institutions have increasingly urged faculty to improve their effectiveness in the classroom.  Faculty generally feel pressure to engage students in new ways to ensure high ratings on teaching evaluations and student satisfaction with their learning experiences, as well as new pressures to more effectively facilitate and assess student learning.  Research suggests multiple additional factors can confound how black, Latino, and women scholars are evaluated in the classroom.  They are faced with conflicting expectations.  On the one hand, some suggest there is an unconscious expectation that they will be good teachers. However these high expectations may lead to a devaluation of positive student evaluations and an amplification of negative ratings. In addition, others have documented how students, particularly some white male students, challenge the authority of African American and Latina women in the classroom, questioning their qualifications and expertise in their area of study or calling them by their first names while they refer to other faculty as “Professor” or “Doctor.” Moreover, there are extensive data on negative biases in student evaluations of women’s, as well as black and Latino men’s, teaching performance.

A growing body of research connects these phenomena and others to the lower and slower rates of career advancement for underrepresented populations in the academy.  As institutions are called to increase faculty diversity, it is important to consider how to promote better outcomes, remove some of these barriers, and support African American and Latino faculty as they navigate the academy.  Such steps should start when professors begin their careers the university.  This timeframe is ideal in mentoring, and offers early opportunities to identify and encourage consultation of scholars who specialize in interdisciplinary research. These experts might also be able to provide input to department evaluative reviews.

Using new strategies to determine the scope of the contributions scholars are making to the field is also important.  Impact factors and the number of publications in top tier journals allow one form of assessment and are excellent tools for evaluating traditional scholarship. However, it is also important to consider whether a scholar’s work is making a unique contribution because it has broken new ground in an area of study, has strong scholarly and practical significance, or is being used to guide community interventions. Units may need to broaden their evaluative perspectives to account for nontraditional scholarship and develop appropriate parameters for evaluation.

Finally, we must consider how teaching is assessed, particularly the emphasis placed on student evaluations.  The University of Maryland has taken positive steps in this direction by incorporating the evaluation of teaching portfolios, but it is important to consider whether other means of assessing teaching skill can be incorporated, as well as how much weight these measures will be given in the tenure and promotion process.  Finally, perspectives around service must also be reconsidered.  Detailed assessments of faculty members’ service loads that incorporate consideration of the time and energy certain activities require would provide a more comprehensive picture of faculty work.  Further, we may wish to consider whether faculty could apply for resources to support their engagement in service, particularly those often offered to support research, such as course releases, summer salary, and student assistants. Many of these suggestions are applicable to a broad range of faculty entering the academy and hopefully will foster their careers as well.


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