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Fixing faculty diversity: It’s time we do more than just talk about it

Dec 15, 2015

Since 1980, the number of black professors in America has risen from 4.1% to around 5%
Credit flickr user DryHundredFear / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The recent student protests at the University of Missouri drew the nation’s attention to the problems of racism and lack of diversity on college campuses.

Faculty diversity – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – is certainly a concern on campuses in Michigan, both public and private.

For example, at Michigan State University, 4.4% of faculty members are black. The University of Michigan’s main campus trails with only 3.3%.

Alford Young Jr. is a professor of sociology and African/Afro-American studies at U of M, and Django Paris is an associate professor of teaching education and core faculty in the African-American and African Studies Program at MSU.

Neither are surprised that those numbers are so low.

“It doesn’t surprise me because of a number of factors,” Young says. “One is that there is a lot of debate in higher education today about what constitutes excellence, and who represents excellence. And although many institutions put forth the notion that they’re going to search for the best and the brightest, and that will include diversity, I think at the end of the day there are hard choices to be made. And it’s not fully clear to me that those hard choices are made in favor of diversity.”

Young goes on to explain that when presented with limited resources, people tend to fall back on growing and developing in areas that they’re most familiar with.

Paris reminds us that while this is an issue on Michigan campuses, it extends to schools across the country, and that increasing black faculty is a key demand of students nationwide.

“Indeed, when you compile the demands from students, increases in faculty is No. 1, multicultural centers or spaces is No. 2, and the curriculum – that is, more courses centered on the experiences of people of color as well as required courses on racial diversity – is No. 3,” he says.

To really understand the issue, Paris tells us it's important to look at it in a historical context. In 1981, he says, 4.1% of professors in America were black. In 2015, that’s up to about 5%. He adds that predominantly white institutions were “designed to exclude our bodies and our knowledges as black people,” and that it wasn’t until the '60s that departments and colleges of black and ethnic studies were demanded and created.

“It’s a fairly intractable issue, and there hasn’t been a lot of movement,” Paris says.

"I think what is both exciting and challenging is that there are a lot of people that are trying to figure out how to have the conversation, because the bottom line is, in principle, everybody agrees," Young says. "It's not about just agreeing that diversity matters, it's about developing strategies that will achieve success in a world of limited resources. And I think we've got a long way to go to get it."

Alford Young Jr. and Django Paris talk more about the issue of faculty diversity, their experiences in academia and how we can take steps to ensure a more diverse college environment for all students in our conversation above.