Where Are All The Professors Of Color?


As protests over the campus climate for students of color spreads to more universities, students and faculty are also raising awareness of the dearth of professors of color.

Only a few of states’ flagship public universities have a percentage of teachers of color above 5 percent, according to an Associated Press analysis. These percentages generally aren’t matching the share of students of color on these campuses, the analysis shows.

The percentage of public school teachers of color is higher than professors of color, at 18 percent — but that still doesn’t come close to parity with increasing numbers of students of color, since only a little over half of students are white, according to a 2014 report by The Center for American Progress entitled “America’s Leaky Pipeline for Teachers of Color.”

Why universities need more teachers of color

That representation at universities and public schools is important for students of color, writes Jose Luis Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City.


“I didn’t understand it then, but all those times I called my students’ parents and spoke to them in Spanish, used my students’ home language to help them understand math, and followed them from class to class, my genuine connection to their backgrounds was enabling me to develop a positive relationship with them,” Vilson writes for the American Federation of Teachers publication, American Educator, in its Summer 2015 edition. “I had an instant leg up because I could see things through their eyes, and because I’d been where they’d been and still found success.”

The connection is important for students of color but it’s also important for white students, who could benefit from having their point of view challenged or being asked to step outside of their own experience.

What students and faculty are doing to raise awareness

The discussion of the number of teachers of color on campus has begun anew at Columbia University, after a student of color posted a question to her class Facebook page last week asking white students whose Contemporary Civilizations course is taught by a professor of color to consider letting her switch classes with them. She said the switch would be “important to my health and life.” Her comment provoked a flood of replies, some of which called her “entitled” for asking for a volunteer to switch seats. Those students may have unintentionally proven why she was eager to hear more voices from people of color on campus.

One example of a university fighting for a more diverse group of professors is the Virginia Commonwealth University, which unanimously passed a resolution in January to address the decline in black faculty over the past few years. In 2007, the percentage of black faculty was 6 percent but it is currently 4 percent.


On Wednesday, Virginia Commonwealth University held a forum to discuss strategies to make the faculty more diverse. Faculty members and students also advocated for things such as mandatory diversity training, and the university president, Michael Rao, said cultural competency needs to be a priority for the university.

The forum also discussed the issue of burnout, since many black professors may find themselves in a position where they’re expected to advise a larger pool of black students than they have time for.

A 2012 paper, “Racial Microaggressions: The Narratives of African American Faculty at a Predominantly White University,” explains how a small number of black professors leads to professors having a high number of black advisees, diversity-related committee work, and higher teaching loads in general. Research cited in the paper also shows that on teaching evaluations used for retention and promotion, students gave black faculty less favorable ratings than white faculty and rated black faculty as less intelligent than white faculty — perceptions that could significantly hurt black professors’ careers.

The fight for a more diverse faculty is part of a broader fight for racial equality on campus

The conversation about diversifying college faculty isn’t happening in a vacuum. Over the past several weeks, a growing number of student protests have asked universities to consider a myriad of ways that students of color feel isolated — and often attacked — on campuses.


Activists have been critical of “blackface” Halloween costumes, the vandalism of Black Lives Matters posters, the denial of admittance to social clubs, the drawing of swastikas on campus, and assault perpetrated by white students. These protests are resulting in real actions from administrators — as well as consequences for those who don’t act. Campus presidents and deans are being pressured to resign, and a few administrators have already stepped down.

At Princeton University, protests are just beginning. About 300 students staged a walkout this week and have asked that the university rename all of the buildings named after Woodrow Wilson, saying it’s inappropriate to keep his name on the buildings given his racist legacy. The university president, Chris Eisgruber met with students after the walkout and said that although he agreed that Wilson was racist, he couldn’t sign the document. Students who are part of the campus Black Justice League have requested cultural competency training and a cultural space on campus specifically for black students in addition to the removal of Wilson’s name from campus buildings.

Some administrators are trying to make changes. Yale University has laid out a plan to address the campus climate for students of color, which includes cultural competency training for administrators and mental health professionals, doubles the funding for four campus cultural center, and begin conferences on race, gender, inequality, and inclusion. And Georgetown University recently decided to rename two buildings previously owned by slaveowners who sold slaves to pay off the debts of the university.

This piece initially referred to the AFT publication as Professional Educator. Its name is actually American Educator.