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The ivory tower of academia: Higher education lacks racial, ethnic and economic diversity | COMMENTARY

While 45% of the University of Maryland, College Park's undergraduate students come from what they call “minority” backgrounds, only 24% of its faculty members do.
While 45% of the University of Maryland, College Park's undergraduate students come from what they call “minority” backgrounds, only 24% of its faculty members do. (Marvin Joseph)

Academia has long been ridiculed as an ivory tower filled with aloof professors who pursue niche academic interests while ignoring student needs and the “real world.” Given recent controversies over higher education’s racial biases, we must wonder whether such a critique is attributable to the ivory-skinned complexion of college professors and administrators. While the college student body population is rapidly diversifying, faculty ranks lag pathetically behind.

Even many impoverished and working-class white Americans — whose ivory skin grows tanned or calloused from work in fields, factories or fast-food restaurants — feel disconnected from higher education. The entire country suffers when our institutions of higher learning are unrepresentative of the country’s racial, ethnic and economic diversity.

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The disconnect between students and faculty members grows wider by the day. In March, two Georgetown University law professors came under fire when they voiced racially insensitive comments about Black students; one was later fired and the other resigned. Last year, George Washington University fired a white professor who had been pretending to be Afro-Latina. Students of all racial groups are unable to afford college, while professors at elite universities make six-figure salaries and teach one or two courses a semester, so they can work on their research instead of mentoring students.

Universities need to emphasize teaching, to be transparent about their lack of diversity, and to recruit, nurture and retain faculty members from diverse backgrounds — racially, ethnically and economically.

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The University of Maryland, College Park, publishes its numbers, and they are not stellar. While 45% of its undergraduate students come from what they call “minority” backgrounds, only 24% of its faculty members do. The University of Maryland, Global Campus’ statistics are just as bad. While 47% of its undergraduate are “minorities,” only 28% of its faculty members are. For a university without a physical footprint, there are few excuses about being unable to draw from a diverse faculty pool since instructors can, arguably, live anywhere in the world.

Colleges need to be transparent with their numbers to enable candid conversations about equity. Sharing numbers about the number of students who receive loans and Pell Grants should also be included in the conversation. Such numbers would inform potential students, faculty and donors about how successful institutions are in creating a campus that reflects America.

One area in which budget-conscious administrators, higher ed-phobic legislators and pedagogy-oriented professors might be able to agree on is the creation of tenure-track lines focused on teaching.

Everyone benefits if instructors know they will be granted tenure based on their ability to be a dynamic teacher, a thoughtful mentor and an innovative designer of new courses. Especially first-generation college students and those from underrepresented groups who need professors who double as mentors. As it stands, professors from underrepresented backgrounds — both racially and economically — are the ones who mentor students with similar backgrounds. Such “invisible labor” is difficult to quantify and leads to such professors being unfairly penalized when they are reviewed for promotion and tenure.

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Administrators, who are even less likely to be diverse than students and faculty, don’t have to reinvent the wheel to create equitable systems and solutions. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Bowie State University, Maryland’s first HBCU, have long thrived on finding brilliant scholars of all races to teach their students. The talent pool is out there. Universities must make a concerted effort to nurture, recruit and retain a diverse faculty body. Training faculty hiring committees how to be truly inclusive is an efficient and effective way to diversify academia.

Strengthening the Ph.D. pipeline is another essential component. If colleges are truly committed to equity, academia needs to nurture these students and provide those who are unable to afford higher education and graduate degrees with financial support. Given their lobbying power with state legislatures, flagship campuses such as the University of Maryland need to lead the way for the state by creating programs similar to Florida’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowships, which provides tuition and stipends for Black and Hispanic students pursuing their Ph.Ds. Similar programs, like the U.S. Department of Education’s McNair Scholars, should be expanded.

At the end of the day, professors exist to serve students’ intellectual needs and broaden the world’s philosophical, cultural, scientific and entrepreneurial horizons. Students need to see themselves reflected in the content they study and in the professors who help them grapple with that content. Whether it’s at University of Missouri or the University of Washington, students are demanding a more diverse faculty. Universities need to listen and take action or risk embarrassing themselves with reputation-tarnishing headlines and declining enrollment numbers.

Horacio Sierra (hsierra@bowiestate.edu) is an associate professor of English at Bowie State University.

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