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. This feeling often leads to decreased academic performance and motivation. Having diverse faculty, especially tenured faculty, can reinforce the idea that students of color are also able to contribute valuable information and resources to a predominantly white environment--and our society as a whole. Research has shown that diverse students with educators of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds are more likely to see those educators as role models, leading to an increased effort in school and higher academic goals. In community colleges, a study found that the performance gap in terms of academic performance and dropout rates between white and nonwhite students closed between 20% to 50% when taught by an instructor of a diverse, underrepresented background. Thus, it’s imperative that diverse faculty members are present on college campuses, especially in esteemed titles or positions such as tenure or department heads.
"Having diverse faculty, especially tenured faculty, can reinforce the idea that students of color are also able to contribute valuable information and resources to a predominantly white environment--and our society as a whole."
However, faculty of color often encounter the same experiences as their student counterparts. These faculty members may also feel a sense of isolation on campus, and may even carry a greater burden of service to the school. Nonwhite faculty members may also have more responsibilities outside of teaching and research including mentoring students, legitimizing research, and dealing with ethno-racial microaggressions. These tasks, known as “invisible labor”, are often not considered in the tenure process. The work diverse faculty members do to help underrepresented students goes a long way in grooming the next generation of student leaders. While Hannah-Jones took her talents to an HBCU, other professors of color, like UNC’s Deborah Stroman, choose to stay at their current institutions, “For all of the Black and brown students who need to see, engage with and gain advisement from faculty who look like them.”
Colleges and universities continue to state that a diverse environment on their campuses is important. While we have seen progress in overall diversity within student populations, the racial and ethnic makeup of faculty members lags behind, especially in esteemed positions like tenured professors. The situation between The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Nikole Hannah-Jones highlights the divide between faculty of color and their white colleagues when it comes to positions of leadership and more academic power. However, the importance of having diverse faculty members in these positions is still important for students who need role models/mentors, or someone to help guide them through their college years in an environment that may be isolating. Having diverse faculty members is more important than ever, and Leadership Brainery will continue to advocate for this crucial culture shift in higher education institutions.
About Leadership Brainery
Leadership Brainery is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt pipeline organization closing opportunity and wealth gaps by increasing the number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and first-generation college students being accepted and enrolled in postgraduate education programs and recruited into high-wage careers. We believe that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underserved communities can leverage higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity, thus closing wealth and opportunity gaps. To learn more, visit www.LeadershipBrainery.org.