Why We Need More Professors of Color

Updated: Jul 16

Having diverse faculty members is more important than ever, so why are there not more POC professors?

Photo by Karsten Moran

As a journalist for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Nikole Hannah-Jones would be someone every college wants on their campus. On July 5th, a months-long standoff between Hannah-Jones and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her alma mater, came to an end. Hannah-Jones had been a professor at UNC for years, and was eligible for tenure. In April 2021, UNC announced it would be offering Hannah-Jones a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with a five-year contract, making her the first Black person to hold the position. Seems like a good deal right? Until realizing that the Knight Chair position had been one with tenure dating back to the 1980s, making Hannah-Jones the only person to be appointed to the position without tenure.

The UNC Board of Trustees put off a vote on extending tenure to Hannah-Jones until early July. But by that time, it was too late for the university. In a statement, Hannah-Jones announced that she had declined the offer from UNC, and had instead joined the HBCU Howard University, where she will become the first Knight Chair in Race and Reporting, and establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy. Many have theorized that UNC’s initial decision to not extend tenure to Hannah-Jones, as well as the delayed vote by the Board of Trustees, was due to race. In 2019, Hannah-Jones founded The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States. The project faced criticism from many conservatives, and it’s likely UNC faced pressure from those same critics to deny Hannah-Jones tenure. This example is only one in a pattern across the country. Professors of color are not getting tenure nearly as much as their white colleagues. But why?

"Massachusetts, a state well renowned for its K-12 education system and institutions of higher education, sits below the national average with only 1.7% of tenured professors being Black women."

In recent years, both college faculty and student populations have become more diverse. But faculty populations still remain behind student populations. In Fall 2017, 76% of college faculty professors were white, 5% were Hispanic, and 6% were Black. Despite the overall percentage of nonwhite faculty members increasing from 14% to 24% between fall 1997 to fall 2017, the talk of tenure becomes a whole other story. In the fall of 2019, Black women made up slightly more than 2% of tenured professors at four-year nonprofit colleges in the United States. A shocking number by itself, but Massachusetts, a state well renowned for its K-12 education system and institutions of higher education, sits below the national average with only 1.7% of tenured professors being Black women. White men comprise 46% of the state’s tenured faculty. Yes, representation at colleges and universities have increased in recent years, but the same can’t be said for tenured faculty.

It’s fair to see why tenure is so sought after in academia. Tenure provides prestige, a higher salary, more freedom in research, and usually a job for life as well. But for faculty members of diverse backgrounds, tenure holds much more value than just a title and pay raise. Greater freedom in academic research means diverse professors can pursue more challenging research, and have the ability to speak freely about findings, even if the results may not be the most comfortable for some. In predominantly white settings, such as many college campuses, students from underrepresented backgrounds can often feel isolated, and feel as if they have no sense of belonging on their campus.