"Someone Who Looks Like Me": Promoting the Success of Students of Color by Promoting the Success of Faculty of Color

In recent years, students have been making very public and impassioned demands for improvements in their educational experience, calling on college and university administrators to address issues ranging from financial aid to curricular content. Chief among these demands is an increase in the racial and ethnic diversity of the faculty.1 Yet, despite focused efforts by many colleges and universities, the racial and ethnic composition of college faculty has not increased significantly in more than twenty years.2 Factors affecting this outcome include the loss of underrepresented minority (URM) scholars along the academic pipeline and outdated recruitment and hiring practices.3 Less well known is the fact that URM faculty are retained at much lower rates than majority faculty.4 Thus, it behooves colleges and universities to invest more resources in retaining URM faculty members who are already committed to their institutions.

Students of color understand on the level of lived experience that the paucity of faculty of color diminishes their sense of belonging on predominantly white campuses, eroding their resilience and resolve over time. Academic motivation and persistence among URM students is often undermined by feelings of self-doubt, lack of belongingness, and stereotype threat in classrooms where they are significantly outnumbered by majority students. The presence of faculty of color mitigates against these effects by signaling to students that they need not represent their race in the classroom and that the professor is an embodied counterexample to negative stereotypes about their racial group. As a result, students perform better on tests of ability when a faculty member of color is present.5 Furthermore, faculty of color are more likely to include topics related to race and ethnicity in their courses, more likely to employ active and collaborative learning techniques in the classroom, and more likely to attend to peer interactions during class—all of which contribute positively to an inclusive climate for both minority and majority students.6 A positive correlation exists between the number of faculty of color and the persistence rate for students of color.7

To provide an educational environment that promotes the success of students of color, it is imperative to develop structures that promote the retention and success of faculty of color. Research demonstrates that the experiences of faculty of color differ significantly from those of majority faculty. Faculty of color more often encounter unwelcoming or isolating campus climates, carry a greater burden of service to the institution, and invest more time in mentoring URM students—all of which distract from activities more highly valued in promotion and tenure processes.8 Increasing the retention of URM faculty requires not only providing them with resources to cope with these challenges, but also developing structures and programs that alter these campus dynamics.

A consortial approach

In 2014, under the auspices of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, five liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest (Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, Whitman College, Willamette University, and the University of Puget Sound) formed a consortium to create opportunities for faculty and administrators to work across campuses on challenges of mutual interest. Along with other leaders from the five small, predominantly white colleges, we decided to work collectively to increase support for faculty of color, who made up from 10–15 percent of full-time faculty members on each of our campuses. We decided to invite faculty of color from the five campuses to a multiday workshop both to foster a sense of community and mutual support and to better understand and address the challenges they faced from their own perspectives.

We recognized that simply to bring faculty of color together and provide them with tools to individually navigate the existing cultures of their home institutions would be to provide a Band-Aid solution to a systemic problem in higher education. We therefore also invited chief diversity officers, administrators charged with faculty development, and faculty leaders to join the workshop to envision and promote more inclusive environments and more equitable faculty hiring and reward structures on each campus. Our annual workshops address not only how faculty of color might individually navigate isolated or systemic incidents of bias, but also how faculty and administrators in positions of influence (members of search, promotion, and tenure committees; department chairs; etc.) might work to change the structures that allow those forms of bias to thrive. The workshops have also served as forums for faculty, chief diversity officers, and faculty development professionals from the five campuses to compare approaches and learn new strategies that are working well on the other campuses.

Our first workshop, held in the summer of 2014, consisted principally of faculty of color from the five campuses and a few administrators. The focus was on understanding the challenges and barriers to success experienced by the faculty of color and what they felt they needed to thrive in their careers. This inaugural workshop was instrumental in the foundation and success of subsequent workshops, and we have since relied on the faculty voices and needs expressed there to guide the work of the consortium.

Designing the workshops

We recognize that “faculty of color” does not have a precise definition in academic circles or in general usage. One might choose to focus narrowly on members of domestic racial and ethnic groups persistently underrepresented in academia.9 Given that all consortium members have large majorities of white faculty, we chose to interpret “faculty of color” more broadly as representing a range of faculty members who share similar minoritizing and culturally marginalizing experiences, including African American, Latinx, Arab American, Asian American, and international faculty from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. We were also mindful that our goal was to build communities of solidarity on and among the member campuses, and employing a rigid definition that might alienate marginalized faculty would be counterproductive.

At the inaugural workshop, faculty of color made it clear that inviting white allies to future workshops was essential. Faculty of color often pay a “cultural tax,” serving on a disproportionate number of search and other committees, participating in a broad range of “diversity” work, and supporting students of color at higher rates than their white counterparts.10 Enabling informed and committed white colleagues to share in some of this work can alleviate the burden of this tax and cultivate a shared sense of ownership. Moreover, white faculty are often in positions of power or leadership and, thus, able to help effect cultural change. As we design each year’s workshop, we aim for a mix of about one-third (mostly tenured) white faculty and two-thirds faculty of color. We have found that the work of white allies can be beneficial in reducing the sense of isolation that many faculty members of color experience and in normalizing a culture in which all faculty can see themselves as partners in fostering equity and inclusion.

The number of participants in each workshop ranges from twenty-five to forty, and the location alternates among the member campuses. In addition to providing concrete skills for individuals and “next steps” for institutions, the workshops include time and space for informal networking and community building. Each workshop typically begins with a reception and dinner on the first day, which is followed by a full day of plenary and breakout sessions on topics such as

  • confronting microagressions;
  • the white ally in supporting faculty of color;
  • searching for excellence: faculty diversity in the tenure-track hiring process;
  • surviving and thriving throughout a career;
  • the politics of campus change around faculty diversity;
  • what every academic leader needs to know about equity and inclusion work;
  • navigating requests for campus service;
  • the role of department climate in retaining faculty of color.

Most sessions are designed and led by faculty from consortium campuses. The third day, a half day, is devoted to informal networking over breakfast and conversations about what the teams might bring back to their home campuses. We also distribute a comprehensive list of scholarly resources illustrating the urgency and value of diversifying our faculty and how that might be accomplished.

The consortium institutions cover the cost of travel and campus lodging for all participants and hotel accommodations for families. The total cost for the 2016 workshop for forty people (including compensation for five faculty facilitators) was about $13,000. The Mellon Foundation grant funded the first three workshops. Persuaded by the value of this work, the deans of all five consortium campuses committed internal funding for the 2017 workshop.

Assessing the impact and looking to the future

After each workshop, we email participants a survey asking them to rate the usefulness of each session, provide specific feedback for presenters, comment on the workshop as a whole, and indicate their interest in returning the following year. A sampling of participant comments clearly indicates the advantages of doing this work through a consortium or partnership among institutions:

  • “There was a sense that we were not simply laboring in the wilderness by ourselves, that there were others who were also struggling and working on the same issues.”
  • “Somehow I think that everyone is more open and receptive when participants come from many campuses. We’re less likely to get mired in the minutiae of our own campus politics and think on a slightly more strategic level.”
  • “It is powerful to hear the same experiences and issues are present across the campuses. This puts our issues into a broader perspective. For example, it is strangely comforting to see parallel issues and concerns echoed at a sister school. This shows that our own college is not uniquely troubled, but that all the schools are working toward a greater expression of justice despite setbacks.”

These comments testify to the effectiveness of the workshops in creating a sense of community among faculty of color and in increasing the institutional capacity to shift campus culture and better foster their success and well-being. Some of our faculty facilitators have subsequently been invited to speak at the other campuses or even nationally, which has enhanced their own professional development and, in some cases, helped clarify their career aspirations and commitments. Finally, the increased number of tenure-track hires of faculty of color at consortium campuses over the past year suggests an increased understanding among our colleagues of the critical role efforts to diversify the faculty can play in striving for inclusive excellence.

As we look to the future, we have questions and challenges to address. How can we continue momentum throughout the academic year when some of our campuses are geographically isolated? How might we do a better job of acknowledging our intersectional identities and the tensions that they can provoke in conversations? Given that the needs of tenured, pre-tenure, and non-tenure-track faculty are not always the same, how can the workshop sessions meet a broader range of needs? Is there a way to include staff or students without losing sight of the particularities of the work of faculty? And of course, those of us organizing the workshop and facilitating sessions do this on top of our already long list of job responsibilities, and collaboration across campuses can prove logistically challenging. How can we make this work sustainable to ensure that it endures?

Adapting our framework for your institution

We encourage other institutions of higher education to build consortia to promote the success of faculty of color. We believe our model would be appropriate for consortia of other predominantly white institutions in reasonably close geographic proximity with similar missions. The best way to begin is by identifying key faculty of color, white faculty allies, and administrators at your home institution who might join a planning group to organize the consortium. Then, have the planning group identify three of the most important challenges they hope the consortium will address. Examples might include

  • improving the recruitment and hiring of faculty of color;
  • providing appropriate formal and informal mentoring for junior faculty members of color;
  • improving the department climate for faculty, staff, and students of color;
  • training reviewers and tenure committees in the legitimacy of scholarship centered on diversity, inclusion, and groups historically marginalized or underrepresented in academic discourse;
  • broadening the curriculum to include subject matter, scholarship, and critical lenses by and about people of color;
  • disseminating best practices around inclusive pedagogical practices, especially as they relate to race and ethnicity.

Next, identify colleges (or units within universities) with similar missions and profiles that might become part of your consortium. Examples include several small colleges, several community colleges, similar schools across several universities (STEM fields, schools of education, health fields, etc.). Then identify key faculty and administrators at each institution who might help organize the consortium. (A single contact at another institution can get you started.) Enlist the cooperation of individuals at your institution who can help secure funding for an initial planning meeting. At the meeting, have representatives of each institution identify allies who could help them write grants for internal or external funding for the consortium.

Finally, plan an inaugural workshop of modest scale whose purpose is to identify the needs of faculty of color in your consortium through structured explorations around your chosen topics and opportunities for open-ended, firsthand testimonials from faculty of color. Build future workshops based on the ideas and needs expressed at the inaugural workshop.

Conclusion

Throughout our work on this project, we have remained mindful that recruiting faculty of color is a key component in diversifying the professoriate. As Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, made clear at the 2017 National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education conference, part of the institutional change necessary for inclusive excellence is the diversification of a professoriate that is currently 85 percent white. A professoriate that more accurately reflects America’s rich racial and ethnic diversity is needed to propel change in the culture of American higher education to reflect cultural shifts and representation in American society.11

Hiring a more diverse faculty is not enough, however. It is also crucial to create conditions under which faculty members, once recruited, will experience a sense of belonging and to foster intellectual communities and places of nurture that will enable them to thrive. To recruit but fail to retain faculty of color amounts to leaving a promise unfulfilled. It will be possible to serve our increasingly diverse student bodies well only if the composition of our faculty mirrors that diversity. The effort described here is one modest but effective tool that institutions can add to their growing “toolbox” of resources to promote the success of faculty of color.

Notes

1. See “Campus Demands,” The Demands, accessed January 20, 2017, http://www.thedemands.org.

2. See José F. Moreno, Daryl G. Smith, Alma R. Clayton-Pedersen, Sharon Parker, and Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi, The Revolving Door for Underrepresented Minority Faculty in Higher Education: An Analysis from the Campus Diversity Initiative (San Francisco: James Irving Foundation, 2006).

3. See Damon A. Williams and Katrina C. Wade-Golden, The Chief Diversity Officer: Strategy, Structure, and Change Management (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013).

4. Moreno et al., The Revolving Door, 11.

5. See David M. Marx and Phillip Atiba Goff, “Clearing the Air: The Effect of Experimenter Race on Target’s Test Performance and Subjective Experience,” British Journal of Social Psychology 44, no. 4 (2005): 645–57.

6. See Sylvia Hurtado, “Linking Diversity and Educational Purpose: How Diversity Affects the Classroom Environment and Student Development,” in Diversity Challenged: Evidence on the Impact of Affirmative Action, ed. Gary Orfield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2001): 187–203.

7. See Linda Serra Hagedorn, Winny YanFang Chi, Rita M. Cepeda, and Melissa McLain, “An Investigation of Critical Mass: The Role of Latino Representation in the Success of Urban Community College Students,” Research in Higher Education 48, no. 1 (2007): 73–91.

8. See Benjamin Baez, “Race-Related Service and Faculty of Color: Conceptualizing Critical Agency in Academe,” Higher Education 39, no. 3 (2000): 363–91; M. Kevin Eagan Jr. and Jason C. Garvey, “Stressing Out: Connecting Race, Gender, and Stress with Faculty Productivity,” Journal of Higher Education 86, no. 6 (2015): 923–54; Kerry Rockquemore and Tracey A. Laszloffy, The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure—Without Losing Your Soul (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008).

9. See, for example, JoAnn Moody, Faculty Diversity: Removing the Barriers (New York: Routledge, 2012), xvi–xviii. Moody argues for abandoning overly broad terms like “minorities” and “people of color” to focus more specifically on domestic nonimmigrant groups.

10. For the origin of the term “cultural tax,” see Amado M. Padilla, “Ethnic Minority Scholars, Research, and Mentoring: Current and Future Issues,” Educational Researcher 23, no. 4 (1994): 24–27.

11. See Jamaal Abdul-Alim, “Hrabowski: For Change, Diversifying Professoriate a Must,” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, March 14, 2017, http://diverseeducation.com/article/93755/.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Michael Benitez is dean of diversity and inclusion at the University of Puget Sound. Mary James is dean for institutional diversity and A. A. Knowlton Professor of Physics at Reed College. Kazi Joshua is vice president for diversity and inclusion, Lisa Perfetti is associate dean for faculty development, and S. Brooke Vick is associate professor of psychology—all at Whitman College. This article is adapted from a presentation given by the authors at the 2017 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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