As MU searches for diversity, faculty of color face systemic discrimination
Journalism professor Earnest Perry: “A person’s race and ethnicity is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account when you start talking about how to build an inclusive community."
Apr. 25, 2017
Most semesters, associate professor Richard Callahan’s African-American religions class consists of about 30 students, 25 of whom are usually black women. As a white man, he said, it’s clear as soon as he walks into the room that he has not had the same life experiences as his students. He said that ideally, the class would also be taught by a black woman — someone the students would be able to see themselves in.
But if the professor himself thinks his class should be taught by a black woman, why isn’t it? As Callahan explains on the first day of every semester, MU just does not have enough faculty members of color for that to happen.
In fall 2015, student activist collective Concerned Student 1950 released a list of demands to change the systemic discrimination the group saw on campus. One demand was for former UM System President Tim Wolfe to resign, which he did in a high-profile manner on Nov. 9. Another demand was for faculty diversity to be increased to 10 percent black faculty and staff. This has not yet been met.
In a November 2015 letter published in the Huffington Post, several former MU faculty members of color cited harassment from students, tokenizing marginalized communities, unrealistic service expectations for faculty of color and a campus climate that didn’t value diversity, among other concerns.
Increasing MU’s campus diversity is a multifaceted problem that starts with a lack of undergraduates and graduate students from underrepresented groups.
“Recruit from black and brown communities”
This theory is called the “pipeline problem.” Callahan said that in order to increase faculty diversity, MU first needs diversity within its graduate and doctorate programs.
“There are different factors that need to be accounted for, but generally speaking, I think universities don’t always intentionally recruit from brown and black communities and institutions,” assistant journalism professor Cristina Mislán said in an email. “For instance, I believe recruiting from [historically black colleges and universities] is important. It’s also important that recruiters illustrate to brown and black students how graduate school can benefit their careers.”
Professors can help by offering support to students who are interested in furthering their educations. Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the department of black studies and faculty fellow with the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, is currently mentoring two students through the transition from undergraduate to graduate school.
“We cannot have enough students, both students of color as well as white students, whose research in some way helps us think more about race and identity in the United States,” Shonekan said. “We could not have enough of those students going into graduate school. I think this generation is really poised to offer us a fresh way of thinking about American identity and global issues with relation to discrimination and oppression.”
However, Mislán said the stress of being a minority student is another factor that makes it harder to solve the pipeline problem.
“In addition, we also have to understand that students of color don’t always want to serve as the token ‘minority’ student, where they may consistently experience both microaggressions and institutional racism,” Mislán said in an email.
Qualifications of white colleagues are assumed
Once a graduate student from an underrepresented group becomes a faculty member, though, they may encounter discrimination from their students.
“I have heard first-hand from some faculty of color that white students themselves have disrespected them, not taking them very seriously and sometimes raising hell when some content was discussed and addressed in their courses,” said Flore Zéphir, a French professor and faculty fellow in the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity.
Earnest Perry, associate professor and associate dean for graduate studies in journalism, said this bias is to be expected for both women and faculty of color.
“You, as a faculty member, go in to teach understanding that there may be certain students in the room that question whether or not you should be there,” Perry said.
Emotional and social labor
Tenure provides job security and allows faculty to express controversial views without fear of repercussion, but faculty of color face more difficulties when securing it.
In order to receive tenure, faculty need to be publishing research. But faculty of color don't always have as much time for this, Callahan said — they are selected to serve on committees more often because of the need for diversity, and they spend more time with their students of color who confide in them.
“You can get an extension on your tenure clock for things like illness, or having a baby, things like that that take away from your time,” Callahan said. “But we don’t usually give extensions for the fact that you have been very active in service work, in committees, in working with students to make them comfortable, in social justice activism.”
White faculty members are also more likely to come from families with backgrounds in academia, especially given that MU did not admit African-American students until 1950. This gives some white faculty members more knowledge about how to navigate the system and how to access various resources.
“Several of us, we were the first generation of people in our families to go to college, and to attain such a high level of education,” said Zéphir, who is from Haiti. “So, therefore, we don’t have anybody to go to, a friend, an uncle, to go to and say, ‘Hey, you were in academia.’ To me that is a little of a disadvantage.”
Zéphir received her doctorate in 1990, and according to Perry, prospects for marginalized faculty have improved since then. In Perry’s department, one of the first things he discusses with new hires is how the tenure process works.
“At one time, faculty of color were not given the same access, the same tools and the same understanding of how the tenure process plays out,” Perry said. “Faculty now should know those things and if not then that may be a deficiency in the doctoral training that they’ve received. At least I know here, with the doctoral program that I’m in charge of, we talk about those things with all of our students.”
“A community in which people of color feel safe”
Zéphir, who has been at MU since 1988, said MU has been a “revolving door” when it comes to marginalized faculty. Some of the problems with retention tie back into other issues, such as campus climate and tenure.
“In order to retain someone, that person needs to feel that he or she belongs to the university,” Zéphir said. “The person needs to feel that he or she is making good progress, is supported and can be tenured.”
MU is in competition with other institutions that also want to increase faculty diversity. If a talented faculty member has a good job where they are, it can be difficult to convince them to leave and come to MU.
“When you consider that 2 percent or less of the minority populations hold a Ph.D., that means that the pool that you’re trying to attract from is very small,” Perry said. “And you have a lot of universities that have more resources, that are probably in more diverse places that are trying to get those same faculty, which makes it difficult for the university to attract those faculty here.”
Perry said faculty salaries at MU are “not where they need to be,” although salary is not the only factor taken into consideration. An offer is a package, which includes research and teaching support. Some faculty members aren’t searching for a job outside of MU, but are offered a position by another institution.
Another issue when trying to attract and retain faculty at MU is mid-Missouri itself. Southern and Midwestern states have a reputation for being conservative, and the racial inequalities in Missouri have been broadcast nationwide with the protests in Ferguson and on MU’s campus in fall 2015. Marginalized faculty members often prefer to live in progressive areas where there are larger marginalized communities, like urban areas or coasts, Zéphir said.
“I know I have talked to other black women who have said [Columbia] is a place where you are isolated; you meet nobody,” Zéphir said.
When it comes to racism and harassment, a diverse location can be a matter of safety.
“Being surrounded by locations that are known for being hostile and violent toward communities of color can be overwhelming (and not safe in many circumstances),” Mislán said in an email.
“You can’t get into the numbers game”
Following Concerned Student 1950’s demand for MU to increase its proportion of black faculty to 10 percent, at a press conference in September 2016, MU announced its plan to double the amount of faculty of color from what was then 6.7 percent to 13.4 percent over the next four years. As part of the diversity initiative program, the university devoted $1.3 million to the cause.
However, Perry said that diversity on paper doesn’t automatically equal a more inclusive campus climate.
“A person’s race and ethnicity is not the only factor that needs to be taken into account when you start talking about how to build an inclusive community,” Perry said. “You can’t get into the numbers game, and I think that’s one of the traps that we tend to fall into.”
According to Callahan, this is a circular problem. When a campus’ climate is not one of inclusivity, mistreatment of marginalized communities worsens. If a campus has a reputation for being a campus with problems of racism, marginalized faculty will not want to work there. He referenced the recent arrest of two MU students for anti-Semitic harassment as an example.
“If we don’t have enough faculty of color or of underrepresented people, and if we don’t have enough students of underrepresented people, then the dominant group feels OK continuing to marginalize people,” Callahan said. “If we had a campus climate where we feel like those are not marginalized people, but they are a part of the regular student body, I don’t think we’d see as much of that.”
MU is seeking to change the campus climate with the Citizenship@Mizzou initiative, which is new this school year. The two-hour session is mandatory for all new undergraduate students and focuses on identity globally, nationally and on campus.
However, changing the attitude and culture of an entire campus is no easy task.
“It’s not something that you can do overnight, and that’s part of some of the frustration that some people see, is that we had the protests back in the fall of 2015, what have we done since then,” Perry said. “That’s only been a year and a half. We didn’t get into this mess in a year and a half, and it’s going to take a lot longer than that to change that. These are issues that have plagued this university since the 1900s. It’s not something that’s going to change overnight.”
Shonekan said having a greater percentage of faculty of color at MU is beneficial to the success of all students at MU.
“I think it’s great for all our students to see good faculty representation on this campus,” Shonekan said. “I think it’s a plus for all of us to have a diverse group of faculty. I think our white students would gain a lot from learning from faculty who do work on race and who do work on aspects of education that critiques or interrogates American identity.”
“Stepping in the right direction”
MU’s problem with campus diversity is a circular problem, and as campus climate and ideals slowly begin to change, this may attract more diverse faculty to campus, Perry said.
“There are things that the university is doing on a daily basis to attract [faculty of color],” Perry said. “At least from my knowledge, I think our packages are competitive. I think that the changes we’re trying to make on campus have been helpful. I think that many of the young faculty that we’ve brought in over the last couple of years and that we plan to bring in will change the culture and will change the dynamic of campus, and that in and of itself will be attractive.”
Perry said the campus climate is already changing.
“There will be more faculty of color on this campus in the fall in one semester, or in one year, than we’ve probably had in a very long time,” Perry said. “It’s difficult to say that we have a problem and then see where we’ve gone in the last year and where we’re going to be in the fall.”
While faculty diversity numbers may be rising, some of the numbers are concentrated in certain departments while others remain largely white.
“I’m not satisfied,” Perry said. “There’s no such thing as being satisfied, because there’s always other opportunities out there to strengthen our numbers in various areas.”
Shonekan, who helped design Citizenship@Mizzou, isn’t satisfied yet either.
“I’m satisfied with the steps taken so far, not satisfied with that we haven’t reached our goal, but we are stepping in the right direction,” Shonekan said. “I don’t think any of us should be satisfied yet.”
Edited by Kyle LaHucik and Jared Kaufman | firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com