The Truth About Faculty Diversity – Or Lack Thereof

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Photo Credit IG @mecha_calmecac

It’s no secret that diversity has always been an issue at higher education institutions, and while steps have been taken to increase diversity among the student body, and positive strides have been made, the makeup of the faculty at many US colleges seems to be falling behind. A 2017 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is proving what many students and faculty members know to be true — colleges may be getting more diverse, but imbalance is still prevalent for professors and other postsecondary faculty members.

Before we dive into the numbers, it’s important to note that over the past few decades, diversity has increased among both students and staff members. Faculty on US college campuses is more diverse than it used to be. Yes, that’s a very good thing. However, the concern is that where faculty members are concerned, the rate of this increased diversity is falling behind the diversity growth of the student body. Meaning the faculty does not accurately represent or reflect the diversity of the students attending those educational institutions. And the repercussions of that imbalance could be far more significant than people realize. 

Diversity is On The Rise, but the Faculty Numbers Don’t Lie

The NCES reports that the average student body at a postsecondary institution (which includes all educational institutions that take place after high school, including colleges, universities, community colleges and trade schools) is more diverse than it was ten years ago. According to their study from the fall of 2017, the share of nonwhite undergraduate students increased by 17 percentage points (from 28% to 45%) between fall 1997 and fall 2017. It seems like a no-brainer that schools would be increasingly diverse as a reflection of the country and the growing Latino population, and much of that increased diversity can, in fact, be attributed to the rising share of Hispanic students. The survey shows that the Hispanic share of undergraduates more than doubled during that 10-year timeframe, from 9% in 1997 to 20% in 2017. 

That’s the good news. While the rate of increasing diversity might not be fast enough for some people, and it certainly isn’t quite where it should be to accurately reflect the country’s population, we’re certainly crawling in the right direction. Remember that as of 2018 the U.S. Hispanics population reached a record high of 59.9 million people, making up about 18 percent of the U.S. population and accounting for 52 percent of the nation’s entire population growth since 2008. So it seems only fair and appropriate that college campuses would also be growing more diverse with every passing day. 

But what about the faculty?

That same study shows that while faculty diversity is also increasing, it’s doing so at a much slower pace. On average, the share of nonwhite, full-time faculty members grew by 10 percentage points over that same period, from 14% vs. 24%. So while the diverse student body increased by 17 percentage points, the faculty only grew by 10. 

To take a closer look, as of 2017 “about three-quarters of postsecondary faculty members in the U.S. were white (76%), compared with 55% of undergraduates,” according to the NCES report. Those numbers include all nonwhite professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors, and interim professors at those institutions. Clearly there is a discrepancy between the number of minority faculty members and minority undergraduates, and when you look at the numbers for Hispanic faculty in particular, the numbers are even more disheartening. Over the course of a decade the number of Latinx faculty jumped by only 2 percent, with the total number of Hispanic faculty making up only 5 percent compared to 20 percent of Hispanic undergraduates. 

Professor Diversity BELatina
The biggest problem for colleges looking to diversity is finding nonwhite faculty. Photo by Sam Edwards/Getty Images

And while these findings are somewhat consistent across the board, certain disciplines have significantly less diversity than others. A 2017 study analyzed data on over 4,000 tenure-track faculty members from 40 of the top public institutions based on U.S. News & World Report rankings. They collected data from the 2015-16 academic year, examining basic faculty information (demographics, qualifications, rank, research productivity and salaries) for faculty members within six academic departments: biology, chemistry, economics (referred to as STEM fields) and educational leadership/policy, English, and sociology (referred to as non-STEM fields). Not surprisingly, they found that minority faculty members are especially underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines in those top 40 public universities.

Why We Need a More Diverse Faculty 

Despite the fact that faculty diversity has been a topic of discussion and has been on people’s radar for decades, not nearly enough has changed over time to properly reflect the growing diversity of our country and the undergraduate student body at colleges across the country. While various local and national programs aim to advance faculty diversity, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and well, our pudding is leaving something to be desired. 

And this isn’t just a numbers game for the sake of picking apart statistics. There are real consequences for future generations if this diversity gap is not addressed. 

There are several obvious reasons that having a diverse faculty is so crucial to empowering and educating a diverse student body. For starters, a faculty should be indicative and representative of the undergraduates who matriculate there, and more than that, should be representative of the population and generations who are the future of our nation. It seems like a given that there should not be such disparity between faculty opportunities for minorities versus white counterparts. 

But then there are the less obvious issues.  

Experts agree that young learners, whether they are in elementary school, middle school or even university, learn better when they are exposed to role models who look like them. They are more motivated and set more ambitious goals when they feel they have leaders and role models paving the way or setting an example of success. A diverse faculty can do just that. Imagine how hard it would be to dream big and set lofty goals for a future when you don’t see anyone else like you actually living out those dreams. 

Considering that the mission of most (if not all) educational institutions is to expand students’ minds and set them up for success in life after their educational journey ends, it would make sense that colleges should take steps to empower students by diversifying their faculty with minority (and all) students in mind. 

There’s also the concern that if the faculty workforce is not diverse, particularly in STEM fields, it’s only perpetuating a vicious cycle in which minority students do not pursue educations or careers in that same field where they rarely see faculty role models who looked like them. Essentially, a non-diverse faculty is reinforcing diversity gaps at academic institutions, and potentially impacting the future of those professional fields for generations to come.  

And of course, there is the overarching, and arguably the most important argument in favor of a more diverse faculty: students will be “better educated and better prepared for leadership, citizenship, and professional competitiveness in multicultural America and the global community when they are exposed to diverse perspectives in their classrooms,” according to the Association of American Colleges & Universities. This viewpoint is one of the key foundations presented in support of affirmative action. 

A Push For a More Diversity Starts at The Top

It’s clear that more faculty diversity is necessary if we’re going to set up students for success both academically, personally and professionally. So why does this diversity gap even exist among faculty?  

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Angela Byars-Winston, a UW professor, speaks. PHOTO BY ANDY MANIS

According to Dr. Ebony O. McGee, associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University, it’s because departments aren’t actively looking to create change when they hire faculty. “They’ll support a diversity workshop or a diversity celebration week, but they really don’t want true intellectual thought from people of color,” she said. And Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association for Colleges and Universities, agrees, but also attributes this diversity gap to deeper cultural issues among Latinx students. Many Latinx students might “not think of themselves as Ph.D. material, even though they are,” he said. Perhaps they didn’t grow up with role models who have attained higher degrees, or they don’t have the funds and access to such high educational aspirations. 

In order to actually change the system and not only talk about needing a more diverse faculty, but instituting a more diverse faculty, it needs to start at the top with action taking precedence over talk. According to the Hechinger Report, the first step is that colleges need to stop attributing a lack of diversity to a lack of qualified candidates. Instead, they need to take a deep dive into their hiring policies and practices to change the way they seek new talent and pursue a more diverse faculty. They need to commit to make diversity not just a goal, but a reality, that starts at the top and trickles down to faculty and students as well. The goal is to create a faculty that is more inclusive, but not swayed by inherent bias in either direction. It might not be an easy task and it might take time, but it’s a crucial step in creating a future where there is no disparity between the diversity of their student bodies and their faculty.