Building the Case for Faculty Diversity

This blog post is part one of a three-part series that focuses on the state of racial and ethnic diversity in academia. These posts discuss the need for faculty diversity, barriers to faculty diversity, and steps universities can take to increase diversity.

In the nation’s colleges and universities, minorities are underrepresented in tenure track and tenured faculty positions. While Blacks and Latinos make up 13% and 12 % of the student population respectively, each group only accounts for 3% of full-time professors. Native Americans account for less than 1% of full-time professors. In this blog post, I will discuss several of the reasons why colleges and universities should consider increasing the diversity of their faculty: recent student demands, added benefits to students and faculty, and racial/ethnic minorities’ nuanced understanding of the communities they often study.

Students are asking for a more diverse faculty. According to an analysis of student protests at 51 colleges and universities, the most common student request was for more diverse faculty (38 colleges). In order to achieve this diversity, students suggested that faculty demographics be proportional to national racial and ethnic demographics, or that staff diversity be proportional to student diversity. Students also suggested that colleges and universities improve diversity on the tenure track and tenure level – meaning that they would consider it unacceptable for their schools to disproportionately hire adjunct faculty of color to increase diversity.

It is likely that minority students’ demand for more diverse faculty will increase as the population of minority individuals expands. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 50.3% of children under the age of five are racial and/or ethnic minorities. It is estimated that by 2060, the number of Americans who identify as Latino will increase by 111% percent, and this group will account for 17% of the total U.S. population. The African American population will increase by 42%, making them 14% of the total U.S. population. The Native American population is projected to increase to 5.6 million. The Asian American population is estimated to grow by 128%, increasing from 5.4% of the total U.S. population to 9.3%. It is also projectedthat between 2013 and 2024, enrollment in post-secondary institutions will increase 28% for Black students, 25% for Latino students, and 10% for Asian American students. But the benefits of diversity are not limited only to minority students. Studies have shown that students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds experience positive effects on their cognitive abilities, leadership skills, and intellectual engagement at institutions that have policies that foster diversity.

Improving diversity on campus can also help faculty members. Scholars often work in teams on research projects – in groups at their own universities or with colleagues at other institutions. In a controlled study, researchers found that ideas submitted by a racially diverse group were of higher quality than research from racially homogenous groups.  Research shows that not only can racially/ethnically diverse groups solve problems better than homogenous groups, but that individuals might be more receptive to conflicting ideas if they come from a person with a different racial or ethnic background.  Diversity in race and culture could bring together people with varied perceptions and experience using different problem solving tools that, when used together in a group, can provide more innovative solutions to societal challenges.

Through the combination of their academic backgrounds and lived experiences, minority researchers can help students understand how to conduct research with different cultures. I have often heard researchers jokingly refer to early career scholars’ work as “me-search,” meaning scholars often research issues and topics that pertain to communities from which they came. If a scholar is conducting research in a community with which they are familiar, they might better understand some of the nuances of this community that an outsider may not. For example, Native American professors recognize that successful research methods with this population must respect tribal/cultural protocol, which call for researchers to create relationships with people or groups from the tribe. Creating environments in which faculty from underrepresented backgrounds use and teach different research methodologies allows students to learn more about how to conduct research with different cultures.

In my next blog post, I will discuss the barriers institutions face internally when searching for and hiring faculty from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. In particular, I will focus on some of the misperceptions about the availability of faculty from minority backgrounds, the ways in which their scholarship is undervalued, and the negative effects of the various work-related demands these scholars experience.