Posted on June 25, 2021

Black Professors Push a Major University to Diversify and Confront Racism

Nick Anderson, Washington Post, June 16, 2021

When Gary King came to Pennsylvania State University in 1998, records show, fewer than 3 of every 100 full-time faculty members identified, like him, as Black. A medical sociologist with expertise in race and tobacco smoking, King rose on the academic ladder. He gained tenure and promotion to professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies.

Yet during King’s time at Penn State, the Black share of full-time faculty members on the flagship campus here has barely budged. It was 3.2 percent in 2019. That echoes the pattern at many prominent public universities, but not all. Federal data shows the share of Black faculty members that year was 4.1 percent at Ohio State University, 4.7 percent at Michigan State University and 6.2 percent at the University of Maryland.

One day some years ago, King said, he urged an administrator, who was White, to help recruit more Black professors and other faculty members of color.

“He looked at me and said, point blank, ‘Yes — if they’re qualified,’” King recalled.

King said he was stunned at the not-subtle suggestion that many job candidates from underrepresented minority groups are not qualified. He was stunned, too, that an administrator would dare say that to him.

The episode spurred King to join colleagues for a pair of recent reports about Penn State. The first, in 2020, detailed the stagnation of efforts to increase the number of Black professors at the flagship campus and the burdens on those who are here.

The second, in March, revealed through a survey the slights, indignities, microaggressions, systemic obstacles and overt racism that many Black professors say they have endured in State College and on affiliated campuses throughout the state.


At Penn State, the reports from King and his colleagues and Washington Post interviews with more than a dozen professors here and elsewhere illuminate how Black faculty members are demanding action against racism and for diversity and equity in academia.

Penn State President Eric J. Barron, who is White, acknowledged the legitimacy of those demands. {snip}

Asked about the comment on job-candidate qualifications that had outraged King, Barron said he is “saddened” but “not surprised” to hear of such incidents. Too often, he said, bias seeps into recruiting conversations even among those who believe they are free from it. Pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity, he insisted, does not conflict with pursuit of academic excellence. “Definitely not.”

The introspection at Penn State reflects another chapter of the racial reckoning sweeping higher education in the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Many schools have renamed buildings associated with Confederates, eugenicists and other white supremacists. They are also scrutinizing campus policing and admissions practices in places where Black students remain deeply underrepresented.

Black faculty members are saying that is not enough. They want the respect and dignity due to those who have earned advanced degrees, contributed to their fields and taught in college classrooms. They want universities to value all the extra work they routinely do to advise and mentor students of color, a burden White faculty members do not share in equal proportion. Many have taken to social media to talk about race and racism in the ivory tower of academia, using the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory.

“I think we’re seeing a door opening,” said Shardé M. Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut who helped launch the hashtag. Frustrations and laments once kept private within the peer group Davis terms “blackademics” are now much more public. {snip}

Many still fear speaking out. Younger faculty members are often loath to alienate older White colleagues who might be reviewing their bids for promotion. They don’t want to be perceived as troublemakers.

“At the end of the day, when you submit your dossier, you know it’s human beings sitting around a room who make those decisions,” one Black female professor at Penn State told The Post. Like several others interviewed for this report, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because of career concerns. But, she said, “we all have scars.”

This professor’s wounds include the time she read through a student evaluation of her work and discovered that the anonymous student had called her the n-word, using the racist epithet to question why she was teaching the class.

The professor reported the incident to a superior. The response, she recalled, was unsympathetic: “Well, students have the right to say what they want to say.” At that point, the professor said, she stopped reading student evaluations. “I shut down.”

Another female professor told The Post of a litany of microaggressions. There were times when no one seemed to respect her PhD, or when she would feel isolated at a social event with mostly White people and someone would try to make small talk with her about basketball. Some people have made odd comments on her hairstyles, she said, or wondered why she would recoil if others wanted to touch her hair. {snip}

To learn more about such incidents, King and his colleagues sent electronic questionnaires to 134 faculty members on Penn State campuses who identified as Black or African American. They heard back from 95.

Slightly more than 80 percent reported personal experience with racism at Penn State. About two-thirds said they had encountered it sometimes or often from students within the past three years. Slightly more than half, 53 percent, said the same of their interactions with administrators or supervisors.

Fifty-nine percent said they sometimes or often felt uncomfortable in meetings with colleagues discussing racial issues. “A white male faculty member once asked me why the Black students don’t do as well in his graduate class,” one wrote. “I honestly didn’t know what he was hoping to hear from me.”

Seventy percent said they sometimes or often doubted that the academic culture of the university would become an equitable environment for Black Americans in the next decade.

Beyond sobering data points, what leaped out from the survey were the written responses detailing the toll and trauma of what report authors called “academic racism.” King was struck by the breadth and intensity of the feedback as he went through the anecdotal submissions.

“It was very difficult to read that,” he said. “Could not do it in one sitting.”


Penn State’s own data also shows concerns. Last year it reported results from the first university-wide climate survey on diversity and inclusion. Fifty-four percent of Black faculty members who responded said they had often or very often felt discrimination or harassment because of their racial or ethnic identity. Fifty-three percent said they were generally or very dissatisfied with the extent to which they experience a sense of belonging on campus.


Last year, as a social justice movement arose nationwide after the killing of Floyd, Barron named Lang to co-chair a commission on racism, bias and safety at Penn State. The university made public several recommendations from the commission in December, including a “truth and reconciliation” process to examine Penn State’s racial history and the creation of an academic center for anti-racist scholarship. The commission also pushed for efforts to eliminate racial bias in the evaluation of teaching and stronger mentoring to support faculty members of color.

Barron said he wants fast progress and aims to hire a new chief diversity officer to report to him. “I have no intention, at least while I’m president, of slowing down,” he said. “I’ve got so many people working on this from so many different angles.” There are plans afoot for anti-bias training for employees. There are discussions with deans and chancellors about affirmative action in hiring. There are efforts to change how faculty committees conduct job searches.

But Barron said there are limits to what he can do in recruiting: He can pressure, but he can’t dictate. {snip}

Among the country’s 50 flagship state universities, federal and university data shows that Penn State ranks in about the middle — 24th — for the share of faculty members who are Black. The main campus here, known as University Park, had 2,939 full-time faculty members in 2019. Of them, 94 identified as Black, or 3.2 percent. The same proportion was found overall at other Penn State campuses.

Raising that share by one or two percentage points would count, for many, as major progress. Doubling it would be huge.

But the racial gulfs in academia, at all levels, are daunting. That includes significant Black underrepresentation in PhD programs. Census estimates show about 12 percent of Pennsylvanians and a little more than 13 percent of Americans identify as Black or African American. It is hard to see how Black faculty representation will reach those levels soon at any state’s flagship university. The University of Mississippi in 2019 had the highest share of Black full-time faculty members among flagships: 7.3 percent.