The Difficult Pathway to Faculty Diversity, by the Numbers
No one becomes a professor overnight, especially a tenured one. Having a doctorate or a professional degree is a prerequisite to become a postsecondary teacher, so few even reach the starting line until about eight and a half years after earning their undergraduate degrees — or longer for Black and Latino students, who take 12 and nine years, on average, respectively, to complete a Ph.D. That’s a long time for anyone who wants to enter the professoriate and for those, like me, who are working to change the face of the U.S. professoriate and boost faculty diversity. I’m paying close attention not only to academic recruitment and hiring practices, but also to the broader graduate education ecosystem. I’m looking at graduates at the point of hiring, but also at the circumstances and environments they encounter throughout their educational and career journeys.
There is an urgency to act. The U.S. population is rapidly diversifying, and so too is the student population, which will one day fuel our economy. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the undergraduate college student population will soon be “majority-minority.” Recent studies show the benefits of academic faculty diversity for all students. Yet, the professoriate is still mostly White and bears little resemblance to the student population it serves. Today, only 11.3% of the U.S. full-time faculty are Black and Latino — and they are disproportionately on the non-tenure track.
That’s not new. But academia isn’t doing nearly enough to close the representation gap. In fact, at the rate things are going, it’ll be “mathematically impossible” to eliminate the gap in the next 50 years. To see what I mean, let’s do some math.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were approximately 1.7 million postsecondary teachers working in the U.S. in 2021. Also in that same year, about 2,500 Black students, 2,900 Latino students, and 100 Native American students earned doctorates from U.S. degree-granting institutions, according to the National Science Foundation. If every one of them becomes a faculty member at a postsecondary institution and replaces a White faculty member, racial/ethnic diversity in the faculty ranks would rise by just 0.3%. Given that there’s currently a 20 percentage point gap, however, it would take 67 years or more, by my estimate, to erase that gap.
To put this another way: We would need to add a whopping 440,000 new Black and Latino faculty members over the next decade to rectify the imbalance between the diversity of the postsecondary teaching force — which is projected to be about 1.88 million strong by 2032 — and the diversity of the undergraduate student population — which, by 2031, is expected to be 40.2% Black and Latino. In 2031, Black students are expected to account for 14.6% of the undergraduate college student body, while Latino students are expected to account for 24.9%. Yet just 5.8% of full-time faculty are Black and 5.5% are Latino. So, if any current faculty members of color leave the professoriate between now and 2031, we’ll need to add even more than 440,000 new faculty of color, which already seems like a daunting task.
To complicate matters further, not all doctoral graduates of color will opt to pursue a faculty career for whatever reason. And colleges and universities tend to hire doctoral grads only from certain institutions. According to a study published in Nature this year, 80% of faculty come from 20% of universities. Lest this fuel the fallacy that there aren’t enough qualified candidates of color for faculty positions, let me be clear that the bigger underlying problem is the academic climate, which is not very welcoming. The morale of many higher education staff and faculty is at an all-time low. People are leaving academia in droves, thanks to a variety of factors — including a bleak academic job market in some fields, the “adjunctification” of the faculty, the constant pressure to publish or perish, the lack of student engagement post-Covid-19, and the growing politicization of higher ed and corresponding assault on academic freedom. Morale is even worse among faculty of color, who were already isolated and taxed with invisible labor long before the pandemic. Needless to say, this “Great Resignation” is very much on the minds of college presidents. But the aforementioned factors are making it hard to diversify the professoriate and recruit and retain faculty of color.
I don’t want to sound too pessimistic or hopeless, however, because I know that there are some successful efforts that are helping to diversify the faculty ranks at some colleges. When I started working at a higher education association, for example, the first project I worked on was the Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion (DIMAC) at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). This project was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a longstanding program that aims to broaden participation in graduate education and the faculty ranks. This project is near and dear to my heart, and as the project evolved and my portfolio grew at CGS, I had more opportunities to work with folks on the ground to advance diversity and make a difference in lives of many doctoral students and faculty of color.
This blog is not a call to abandon those efforts. We need campus-level efforts and initiatives like those outlined here, and we also need state and federal policy environments that will make it easier for proven campus-level strategies to be adopted at scale. But those efforts are just the tip of the spear. If we are going to move the needle, we’ll need a new paradigm, system, and process. The impossible math I outlined in this blog suggests that the system itself is too skewed. I think it’s time for a hard reset.
Hironao Okahana, Ph.D., is the assistant vice president and executive director, Education Futures Lab at the American Council on Education (ACE)