In the Minority: Underrepresented Groups in Academia

November 23, 2015

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM ANYWAY?

 

There's a lot of talk out there about how to diversify the college faculty. I'm sure you already know the stats, but it can't hurt to restate that higher ed's diversity game is still weak as hell. While about 30 percent of undergraduates across the nation are minorities, just over 12 percent of full-time faculty are. Only 9 percent are full-time professors of color. This becomes even more problematic in the context of social events and movement (most recently protests and activism at the University of Missouri and Yale University related to institutional responses to race-related bias on campus).

 

An article from the Washington Post looks specifically at the dearth of black college faculty (read it here - it's short and good). They go a step further to say - "dude, the problem is EVEN worse (did you think it could be?!) than we thought!" As historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) struggle to stay afloat, they house 96 percent of black tenured faculty. To put this in context, 96 percent of the tenured black faculty that exists in the US are at HBCUs AND HBCUs only make up three percent of the nation's higher education institutions. I don't know if you're like me, but that made me feel like this:

 

 

 

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

 

So. What do we do besides search for emoticats to capture our feelings in the most adorable form possible?

 

This is where it gets tricky. I don't know if you've watched 'Master of None' yet -- that Aziz Ansari joint on Netflix -- but you should if you haven't. One of the cool things that Aziz talks about in an New York Times article he writes about MoN and the struggles he encountered when trying to create a racially-diverse cast. This rings true for academia, too if you tilt your mind just slightly.  He says: 

 

"I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old...But I still wonder if we are trying hard enough."

 

When a department is hiring a person of color, they often lament the lack of qualified options out there (on another day we will talk about pipelines and opportunities and funding and the chicken before egg issue of having role models in your field to increase the likelihood that you will attain a degree within it, but not today). Underrepresented groups are just that -- underrepresented. They are a much smaller pool and the search requires a commitment based in a belief that this is important and worth the additional effort. It can't just be a checkbox -- numerically and statistically, you've got to be searching harder and WANT to be searching harder.

 

 

 

So why bother?

 

"When we were looking for an Asian actor for “Master of None,” my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: “How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?” After a long hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on “The Walking Dead” and Daniel Dae Kim on “Lost”). It made me realize how important it was not to give up on our search..."

 

I'll tell you a little story that is the academia equivalent of this. You ready? I never had a black professor until graduate school -- in grad school, I had one. She co-taught a seminar on cultural diversity, and she rocks, but that is still just sad. I've been in school for 21 years and have had one professor who looks anything like me. No matter how good my imagination is, I never imagined myself as a professor. Why the heck would I? My first day teaching here at Agnes, a student said that she had to come to class to see for herself that there was a black professor. I mean, she promptly dropped the class after that first day -- so I really think she came to see that I was real. During convocation, I felt distinctly aware of my youth and race/ethnicity as I walked down the aisle, donning my brand new regalia. The majority of our student body here are minority students. This is not yet the case for the faculty.

 

"But I wouldn’t be in the position to do any of this, and neither would Alan, unless some straight white guy, in this case Mike Schur, had given us jobs on “Parks and Recreation.” Without that opportunity, we wouldn’t have developed the experience necessary to tell our stories. So if you’re a straight white guy, do the industry a solid and give minorities a second look."

 

I would not be in my position here in Georgia if Jennifer Hughes, the former chair of my department if: 1) the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring and the Compact for Faculty Diversity did not exist and 2) Jennifer Hughes had not gone out of her way to recruit there. Jenny, my former department chair, came to the Institute and I met her for the first time. She told me about the position, about Agnes, and asked for my CV. The rest is history. She would not have received my application otherwise and may have imagined that there were just NO QUALIFIED PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSORS OF COLOR OUT THERE, UGH! Instead, she took the recruitment to me and the rest is history. She gave me a second (and third and fourth look) and went to a place where she could do the looking effectively. For that, I'm grateful and hope to contribute in positive ways for decades to come.

 

Well. That's that for now. If you haven't seen Master of None yet, you're welcome. Enjoy a good Netflix binge!

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© 2019 by Dr. Janelle S. Peifer