Towson University sophomore Joshua White wants to go into communications, but he's never had an African-American professor, making it difficult for the young black man to envision himself in the field.
"It's disheartening," said White, 20, of Seat Pleasant. "A professor actually told me how I might have a hard time in this field because it's dominated by white women."
While students of color are increasingly represented on college campuses, the proportion of black faculty members has barely budged in the past 20 years. At some institutions, including the University of Maryland's flagship campus at College Park, the percentage of black professors actually declined from 1996 to 2014, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Hispanic professors also are under-represented.
Many minority students say the scarcity of professors who look like them hinders their college experience, as they sometimes have trouble finding mentors and connecting with their white teachers. For their part, some minority professors say they believe their research is undervalued by peers and that they often feel overwhelmed mentoring the many students of color who seek them out.
The issue has come to the national forefront as college students hold sit-ins and demonstrations demanding racial equality and more tenured black professors.
When a group of about two dozen black Towson students held a sit-in at the president's office in November, hiring more black faculty members was one of their chief demands. A group of Johns Hopkins University students urged the same at a campus protest in November.
University administrators say they're trying to address the problem but are stymied by what they characterize as a pipeline problem — a smaller number of minorities seeking doctorates and entering academia.
Administrators are creating programs to interest more minority graduate students and doctoral candidates in faculty jobs, and launching training courses for faculty search committees so they can overcome "unconscious bias" in hiring.
Still, some professors say change isn't happening quickly enough.
"You still have that attitude where you see department after department bringing in people who look like themselves, and they're comfortable with that," said Lena Ampadu, a black professor in the English department at Towson. "The racism is so deeply entrenched that it's hard to break that mold."
At College Park, the percentage of black faculty declined from 5.5 percent in 1996 to 4.8 percent in 2014. At Towson, black faculty membership grew slightly from 4.9 percent to 5.2 percent during that period, while at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, black faculty members remained flat at 6 percent.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission tracked other minorities between 2009 and 2014 and found that Hispanic faculty remained at about 3 percent to 4 percent during that period at UMBC, College Park and Towson. Asian faculty made up 10 percent to 14 percent of the faculty at those universities in 2014.
Johns Hopkins officials said they are in the midst of compiling faculty diversity figures and had no data to release. Last year the university pledged to spend $25 million over the next five years to better recruit and retain minority faculty and on other efforts to increase campus diversity. Provost Rob Lieberman said that includes trying to interest minority students in academic careers early on.
"If we wait until the point of faculty hiring, it's a losing battle," he said. "Great universities will not continue to be great unless they embrace this agenda."
UMBC administrators have created two committees in recent years to address potential bias in the hiring process and to ensure that minority faculty members are recruited and retained. The university also created a two-day "emerging scholars" program to host minority scholars on campus to generate interest in UMBC.
"It's going to take time before the racial and gender composition of our faculty reflects society," said Tyson King-Meadows, an associate professor in UMBC's department of political science and co-chair of a committee that advises top administrators on the issue.
"We have to think more creatively about how we recruit minority faculty," said King-Meadows, who is black. "We're not unicorns. We're out there."
Tim Chandler, Towson's provost, said the university provides training in the prevention of unconscious bias and seeks to recruit minorities. Chandler, who was serving as interim president when students held the sit-in, said the moment "just confirmed for me that we have a lot more work to do in this area as an institution."
The University of Maryland, College Park has two dozen programs and initiatives to support under-represented students and faculty.
Kimberly Griffin, an associate professor at College Park who studies access and retention in higher education, said academia is viewed as a difficult career path by students of all backgrounds. But her studies show that white students are more likely to choose it anyway.
"I want to better understand why some students see that road as worth it," Griffin said. "And why women and people of color in particular don't see that road as worth it."
Griffin said she found that mentorship of minority students by minority faculty didn't always lead to those students choosing academic careers. More study is needed to determine what would draw more minority students to academia, Griffin said.
"It's hard to draw a line between wanting to see increased diversity ... but at the same time valuing whatever career choice they make," she said.
Ana Maria Schwartz Caballero, an associate professor of Spanish and second-language education at UMBC, said that while black students at UMBC proportionately outnumber the faculty, the proportion of Hispanic students and faculty was about the same. She said many Latino students are the first in their families to go to college, and that an undergraduate degree can be a major financial undertaking.
"It's difficult for my students to study at four-year universities. Most of them work, many of them work full time and try to go to school full time. It's not a wealthy community," Caballero said. "To become a college professor you need not only to have a master's but a Ph.D., and that is a very large investment."
For White and other students who went to predominantly black elementary schools with black teachers, attending a predominantly white institution like Towson can lead to culture shock.
White said he feels as if he's bothering professors.
"Like, 'Hey, stranger, can you do this for me?' 'Hey, stranger, I need this,'" he said. "And I don't want to do that. Why would you ask a stranger for something?"
Nesha Hampton, a Towson sophomore from Atlanta, had a similar experience.
"I'm used to being close to my teachers, I'm used to being able to depend on my teachers, I'm used to having that community environment," said Hampton, 19. "So then coming here is the complete opposite, and it's just ... what do I do? Can I be close to my teacher? Can I talk to my teacher?"
Benjamin D. Reese Jr., president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said minority faculty often feel overwhelmed by the need and desire to mentor students of color.
"I personally struggle to manage the numbers of people while wanting to be available to as many people as possible," said Reese, the vice president for institutional equity at Duke University and its health system. "There's an emotional, psychological level of wanting to be helpful to every student who requests mentoring or whom we sense might benefit from mentoring."
Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at College Park, said she aims to hire several minority faculty members at once, so that they can rely on each other for support.
"It's demographics, it's people, but it's also climate and a place where people feel like their work is valued and there's a community of scholars," Dill said.