Want to Retain Faculty of Color? Support Them as Faculty of Color

By Larissa Mercado-Lopez

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Recently, a report published by the educational research non-profit Campaign for College Opportunity confirmed what many of us already knew — there just aren’t enough faculty and leaders of color. Focused on the California State University (CSU), University of California (UC), and California Community College systems (CCC), the recent study, Left Out: How Exclusion in California’s Colleges and Universities Hurts Our Values, Our Students, and Our Economy, found that the ratios of students of color to faculty of color are remarkably disproportionate:

  • In the CSU system, 75% of Cal State students are students of color and 62% of tenured faculty are white;
  • In the UC system, 74% of students are students of color and 70% of tenured faculty are white; and
  • In the CCC system, 73% of student are students of color and 61% of tenured faculty are white.

While the report was not shocking to most, it gave further quantitative evidence that there remains work to be done to better recruit, support, and promote faculty of color

In A Report Card on Latina/o Leadership in California’s Public Universities: A Trend Analysis of Faculty, Students, and Executives in the CSU and UC Systems, educational researchers José L. Santos and Nancy Acevedo-Gil review the literature on the student success implications of a diverse faculty, noting the vast evidence that Latinx students, in particular, benefit from Latinx professors’ mentorship, innovative pedagogies and scholarship, and commitment to social justice. Personally, having professors of color helped me envision possibilities I had never imagined for myself before. As members of institutions of higher learning, we want our students to imagine themselves as knowledge producers, particularly those students whose communities have struggled to access higher education or whose knowledge-ways have been erased through racist policies and curriculum. Yet, while we wish for students to see the possibilities that exist for them as educators, researchers, and policymakers in higher education, we are not successful at showing students those possibilities in our faculty.

In my observations as a lecturer, assistant professor, and associate professor, most of the conversation has focused on diversification through recruitment or retention through promotion. For example, we may ask ourselves, Are we posting job ads in the right places? Is our commitment to diversity on our promotional materials? How do we make it understood that we want faculty of color without using that language? Do we have institutional structures in place that explicitly support faculty of color? Responses to most, if not all, of these questions, have been pursued through indirect efforts, such as crafting vague language on the value of diversity, incentivizing cultural competence training across campus, and providing general support for identity-based faculty and staff organizations.

However, unless a university has been lucky enough to procure a private donation, resources, institutional spaces, and leadership development opportunities specifically for faculty of color most likely do not exist. For faculty who are recruited using the language of diversity and inclusion, the lack of infrastructure to actually support their work, particularly work with or about marginalized identities, can be frustrating. In his piece in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, doctoral student Daniel Blake emphasizes the need to move from rhetoric to practice, explaining, “Institutions could market positions in ways that resonate with individuals interested in helping their communities…yet, they must not simply espouse this rhetoric — they must be intentional in ensuring that their practices truly support and encourage such work.” It is the move from words to action that more clearly reveals “commitment to diversity.”

Thus, I’d like to propose that universities support and invest in faculty of color as faculty of color. This is not a novel nor particularly radical idea; after all, we readily invest in serving individual student identities to promote a more “representative” demographic composition. Yet, there is a timidness to initiate programming and resources for faculty that name and appeal to their specific racial and ethnic identities. Universities, instead, tend to take on a catch-all “All Faculty Matter” approach to supporting faculty: we support ALL faculty, therefore we support faculty of color. The loose use of “diverse faculty” in institutional language thereby becomes an expansive umbrella under which any faculty can claim membership. While I recognize that white faculty can experience oppression on the basis of sexuality, gender, disability, etc., disparities on the basis of race and ethnicity are more historically embedded in and reproduced by institutions and their hiring and promotion processes.

Often, faculty of color in search of identity-specific support are pointed to existing structures or asked to create their own spaces. These can look like faculty learning communities, faculty and staff organizations, or centers for cross-cultural student services that can offer resources and collaboration space to faculty. The university, then, will claim those projects as part of their diversity retention efforts. The irony is that faculty of color are leading the very efforts that are intended to retain them; hence, the support that these faculty receive from the university is dependent on their own abilities to sustain those efforts.

Another diversity misstep that universities will take is nurturing leadership among faculty of color who espouse the ideals of the status quo, thereby obscuring the whiteness of the university. In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed writes that even institutions that are “diversity-led” can obscure institutional racism: Being diverse, she argues, is not the same as doing diversity work. She further posits that diversity has become a comfortable word “that becomes detached from scary words, such as power and inequality,” and that it has lost its “edge of critique” — an edge that prompts us to critique diversity, its representation, and the processes through which it is constructed.

Most faculty of color will readily assert that race and ethnicity, and the many ways in which those identities intersect with their other identities, do create experiences of the academy that differ from those of their white colleagues. Importantly, they often bring lived experiences whose visibility they need to negotiate to avoid amplifying their otherness. In an interview, Dr. David Hernández, professor of Latinx studies at Mount Holyoke College, discusses the otherness he experienced and negotiated when among his UCLA colleagues as an assistant professor. He insightfully insists that “[his] PhD didn’t level the playing field.” Even when the experiences of faculty of color prove otherwise, an “All Faculty Matter” approach to diversity and faculty support perpetuates the neoliberalist notion that a PhD is a great equalizer. Ahmed supports this when she disputes the false expectation that “when people of color become professors then the whiteness of the world recedes.” Indeed, the professoriate is far from the bastion of racial progressiveness that some may believe it to be.

As a first generation Chicana associate professor at a Hispanic-Serving Institution, I was hired to meet a need for underrepresented faculty and to provide expertise in mentorship, curriculum design, and programming that would serve the Chicanx student population. Yet, I sometimes find myself fumbling as I walk the precarious line between being an expert and being connected to the struggles of my first-generation Latinx students. In our meetings, it is clear that I am in search of the very things they search for: empathetic mentors, spaces for speaking my truths, ways to hold the institution accountable for unmet needs, and the recognition that people like us still have to fight to belong in the academy.

Thus, I would like to issue a call to action for universities: Recognize, endorse, and invest in your faculty of color as faculty of color. Say our names and name our struggles. Integrate our perspectives. Be open to critique. Create opportunities for growth. Importantly, avoid what professor Eugenia Zuroski calls the “value added” approach to racial difference. In her piece “Holding Patterns: On Academic Knowledge and Lab,” Zuroski describes this approach as “a way of disavowing racial difference as a site of critical knowledge” that “celebrate[s] the presence of nonwhite people until the moment those people share what they understand about how the institution operates.” Valuing faculty of color means changing the language about them from “having diverse perspectives” to “embodying critical knowledges,” and being open to the ways that these faculty might unsettle current power structures. It means taking the risk of being critiqued by white faculty for being exclusionary. Importantly, it means responding to these critiques with the insistence that supporting faculty of color is a form of social and educational justice.

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Dr. Larissa M. Mercado-Lopez, a native Tejana, is an associate professor of women’s studies at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches and researches Chicana feminism, Latina health, feminist fitness, and experiences of student parents. Dr. Mercado-López has co-edited multiple collections of scholarship on Latinx literature and the theories of Gloria E. Anzaldúa and is a contributing writer and speaker for the women’s fitness organization, Girls Gone Strong. Dr. Mercado-López is also a published children’s book author and mother of four. Recently, she was named a 2018 Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education Magazine. She is also a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

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