Inclusion 101: The whiteness of higher education

Faculty of color are not represented in institutions of higher learning at the rate that reflects the changing demographics in the U.S.

In many cities across the country, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and multiracial people make up a majority of American schoolchildren. While 45 percent of all undergraduates are people of color, the percentage of faculty of color who will greet them in college is less than 24 percent. Even fewer people of color are found nationally in tenured, full professor positions since white professors hold 81 percent of these.

The recent denial of tenure of Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and History and Literature at Harvard University, is the latest example of the preservation of the white professorate despite an outstanding profile.

García Peña, the author of, “The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction, and other cutting-edge texts, has built groundbreaking comparative, interdisciplinary work that bridges black, Latino and Caribbean studies. 

Her tenure denial shocked many in the ethnic studies communities due to her stellar record in research, teaching and service, numerous national and international prizes for her research, as well as mentoring and teaching awards at Harvard. 

The tenure denial has sparked outrage and galvanized students and faculty at Harvard and beyond. Over 5,000 students and faculty from across the country have signed a letter protesting the decision. 

The leadership of a growing number of ethnic studies associations, including  Latino Studies Association, American Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, and Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social have each written protest letters to Harvard’s president, urging him to reconsider this decision. 

It is perhaps not surprising that Harvard and other elite universities, bastions of white male privilege, continually fail to tenure faculty of color. But this problem extends beyond the ivy league, across all of higher education and is historic.

At DePaul University, where I have been teaching courses in Latino studies for 20 years, invariably, every year, one or two Latinx students approach me to tell me how thrilled they are to take a class with a Latinx professor finally and to have the opportunity to explore their heritage finally. 

Given that only 2 percent of full-time faculty in the U.S. are Latina and Latinas account for less than 1 percent of tenured, full professors, it is no wonder that they comment. Most students have never encountered a university class taught by a Latina and few have taken courses in Latinx studies. 

Increasingly, I also hear from white students that they too are grateful to have access to perspectives and realities different than what they have been exposed to throughout their entire educational journey.

Given long-standing patterns of discrimination, historically faculty of color often have a hard time achieving tenure; women of color are uniquely challenged by the tenure process. 

While starting just 50 years ago, after a protest by students at San Francisco State University, ethnic studies programs have been proliferating across universities and high schools around the country, but are now being downsized and consolidated at those very institutions. 

For instance, concurrent with the tenure denial of  García Peña, Harvard is engaged in a much publicized effort to build its expertise in Ethnic Studies

Harvard’s dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay writes, “Ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration provide a valuable lens for understanding contemporary American society. It is no wonder that there is a strong student and faculty interest in having this area more fully represented in our scholarly community, including in our curriculum.”

What accounts for the paradoxes? 

Universities are eager to provide lip service concerning the need for diversity but their hiring and tenuring patterns tell another story.  While many universities consistently publicize their commitment to diversity, quite often, this term seems overused and empty of meaning.

It’s as if repeating the word makes it a reality, except that universities primarily tend to focus on rhetoric and cosmetic changes. These responses fail to focus on equity and meaningful, systemic inclusion in a sustained way.

This pattern is dangerous and shortsighted. Academic institutions that disregard the current demographics of the U.S. and ignore the questions and concerns students of color bring to our institutions fail to serve this population as well as all students. All students need to understand the changing dynamics of the U.S.

One strategy to shift this tendency is to hire and retain more faculty of color. Another strategy is to place ethnic studies courses and programs at the center of the curriculum.  

This means universities must ensure that the lives, histories, struggles, theories, and knowledge of subjugated populations whose contributions and impact have been erased or whitewashed in much of the mainstream curriculum are included across the curriculum. Perhaps meaningful exposure to the long history of black, Latinx and Asian contributions to the building of this country would minimize the polarization we are currently facing in the U.S.

The recent media uproar about the misrepresentation of Mexican immigrants in the novel, American Dirt, by white author Jeanine Cummins, is only a recent example of a historic, systemic and widespread problem. 

This shift in perspective is essential not only for students of color but for all students so that they will all be better equipped to challenge the distorted, inaccurate, partial versions of history and culture they have been taught. All students are better served by exposure to an understanding of the world through multiple lenses. 

The task of dismantling the white supremacist foundations of the education system will require much more work.  

As Camilla Z. Charles, a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic in 2016, “Prejudice and discrimination is in our cultural DNA… it’s in our understanding of American history and culture, and this reinforces the superiority of Anglo-American or white American history and experience. We all suffer the consequences of that.” 

Lourdes Torres is a professor of Latin American and Latino studies at DePaul University, editor of the journal, Latino studies. 

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