Posted on September 22, 2021

Universities Say They Want More Diverse Faculties. So Why Is Academia Still so White?

J. Nathan Matias et al., FiveThirtyEight, September 7, 2021


{snip} Academia is a place where, to use the language of sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, there is racism without racists. By that, we mean that although most people prefer to think that they or their colleagues are good people who would not intentionally discriminate, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that racism plays an important role in the structure and function of academic institutions. It affects what gets researched and taught in courses, the methods that are used to conduct that research and the topic we will primarily focus on today: The people who are included — or excluded — from academic institutions in the first place.

Let’s start by first looking at the demographics of academic institutions. The National Center for Education Statistics keeps detailed records of this in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). That database provides demographic breakdowns of students and faculty who work at colleges and universities in the U.S., which can be compared to the demographic makeup of the overall U.S. population.

One of the things you can see when looking at that database is that Black, Hispanic, American Indian and mutiracial faculty members are underrepresented in the faculty ranks, compared to not only their share of the U.S. population but also to the student bodies of colleges and universities.

But those statistics, though troubling in their own right, actually mask a bigger issue, given how the American academic system is set up. The word “faculty” is an umbrella term that obscures some important hierarchical divisions, including the difference between tenure-track and tenured professors versus untenured professors. It’s a pretty important distinction, too. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 21 percent of faculty are tenured.


Over the past decade, colleges and universities have been discussing the need to diversify their faculty: In particular, they’ve tried to increase the share of Black, Hispanic and Indigenous faculty members, all of whom have historically been underrepresented in the faculty ranks. Faculty diversity initiatives can be seen at universities around the country, including Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago. But despite all of the talk about increasing diversity, it does not seem like universities have made much progress — at least when it comes to the diversity of the tenure-track and tenured faculty.

According to the IPEDS database, underrepresented minority faculty (URM) comprised roughly 11 percent of tenure-track or tenured faculty in 2013 and increased to just 12 percent of tenure-track or tenured faculty in 2019. The numbers weren’t much better for universities looking to increase the gender diversity of their tenure-track or tenured faculty either. Over that same period of time, the share of tenure-track or tenured faculty who were women increased from roughly 41 percent to 43 percent.


For example, at Cornell University, where two of us work, a recent task-force report on the university’s faculty diversity efforts noted that the university had hired 37 professors from URM backgrounds and 97 female professors from 2011 to 2018. But despite those hiring gains, the university also failed to retain 19 URM and 64 female professors during that same time period. These retention struggles help explain why Cornell, despite being the “any person, any study” university, still has so few Black women who are tenured faculty. {snip}

There are, of course, many reasons that faculty leave institutions. Sometimes they get better offers at other institutions. Other times they move for family or other personal reasons. But there is a third set of reasons that tie back to the examples we opened with: While many academic institutions claim to want to have a diverse faculty, many of them engage in practices that ultimately push those faculty out.

First, consider who gets to make the rules. Tenured scholars who, as we’ve noted, are mostly white and male, largely make the rules that determine who else can join the tenured ranks. This involves what sociologists call “boundary work,” or the practice of a group setting rules to determine who is good enough to join. And as such, many of the rules established around tenure over the years work really well for white scholars, but don’t adequately capture the contributions of scholars of color. For instance, getting tenure often requires some combination of demonstrating excellence in research (measured by publication metrics and funding) and teaching (measured by teaching evaluations). It turns out though, that the topics that scholars of color often research are less likely to receive research funding and, at least in some fields, are less likely to be included in the very journals that are valued for promotion. Scholars of color are also less likely than white scholars to be cited when their work is published. And on the teaching front, women and people of color are often evaluated more poorly than white men, even when they are teaching identical content.