When the 2016 Academy Award nominations were announced recently, it turned out that every single acting nominee was white — for the second straight year. That prompted a rebellion of sorts in Hollywood, with some actors saying they would boycott the ceremony, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President, declared in a statement that she was “heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion” and promised to change the composition of the academy to ensure more diversity in nominations.
So what does this have to do with education? In this post, Warren Waren, an instructional assistant professor at Texas A&M University, explains a shared problem between the Oscars and higher education. His research focuses on racial residential segregation, gender differences in higher education, labor discrimination against Latino day laborers, and labor issues affecting same-sex couples. You can see his research work here. This post appeared on the Racism Review blog, and Waren gave me permission to publish it.
By Warren Waren
Punxsutawney Phil must have seen his shadow last year at the Oscars and decided institutional racism was going to be around for another year. For the second year in a row no people of color were nominated for the top honors in America’s entertainment industry. In a country that is 37 percent people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where 46 percent of moviegoers are people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where we have recognized superstars giving top notch performances, we have no nominees. We hate to have expected it. But like Phil, we probably could have seen it coming.
The problem in this instance is not who is starring or who is watching. The problem is who is voting. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the voting body of the Oscars, is 94 percent white. This glaring example of institutional racism is the legacy of an antiquated system that is not yet ready for the 21st Century. The voting body is not representative of the audience nor the performers. The decisions of that institution reproduce the biased racial composition of the leadership itself. What did we expect? That entrenched institutional racism would go away unchallenged?
As much as we love movies, and as much as they are a part of our culture and identity, there is another more important institution that is facing a similar problem of leadership: higher education. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 15 percent of the enrolled student population at America’s colleges, but only 5.5 percent of all full-time faculty are black. Back in 2007, when the black faculty rate was 5.4 percent, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education predicted black faculty rates would reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the United States in about 140 years. Long time coming. Unfortunately, between 2009 and 2011, black faculty rates actually slipped back a little. So, that original prediction might be off by a generation or two.
An educated reader might guess that black faculty are not evenly distributed across America’s university system. Black faculty are concentrated within the small (and shrinking) portion of higher education called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Washington Post blog The Answer Sheet had a post in November 2015 that said:
Remarkably, 96 percent of black tenured faculty are at HBCUs (even though HBCUs comprise only 3 percent of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities). If HBCUs disappeared, so would most of the nation’s black academics.
Yet most college students and most African American college students do not attend HBCUs, they attend what we’ll call traditionally white institutions (TWIs). And those institutions need black faculty now. Badly. As mentioned above, at the student level, integration has reached parity nationally. The percent of students of color is close to their percent in the general population. This is indeed a cause for celebration. But now we face a new challenge of integrating the faculty.
Why do we have this problem? Why have we had in increase in black students and not an increase in black faculty? Compare 15 percent of students to 5.5 percent of faculty. Why are we expecting faculty to catch up in 140 years? Do we not have great scholars ready to step into the classroom? We had a 43 percent increase in the number of black PhDs between 2000 and 2010, but during that time black faculty appointments at TWIs increased only 1.3 percent. This is not a crisis of supply.
Like with the Oscars, the problem is not with who is starring (professors of color) or who is watching (students of color)—the problem is who is voting. Leadership at universities look a lot like leadership at the Oscars. Both institutions are 90 to 95 percent white. Both are largely invitation-only affairs (make no mistake, social networks matter for every faculty appointment). Both bask in the glory of their own conceit. Both are prone to recreating their own biases. Both are self-regulating and quite insulated from external challenges. Do we expect either of these institutions to change without a challenge?
That challenge is not lost on students of color at traditionally white institutions. In 2015, students held anti-racism protests at scores of universities and colleges across the country. At over 50 campuses, students issued formal demands of their school’s leadership. Coupled with increased intensity of activism off-campus, the student movements began to get traction for their demands. Multiple university presidents have resigned, chancellors and deans have been removed. This is a student movement with power. But what is the main thing these student protesters want?
The website fivethirtyeight.com quantified the demands of 51 campus protest movements (those demands can be found here). There were, of course, many demands—requiring diversity training, renaming mascots, expanding mental health resources—but the modal response was some version of “we need more professors of color.” However, the most common demand was to increase the diversity of professors at TWIs.
We still face a graduation gap—in 2012, African Americans were 14 percent of students but only 9 percent of graduates. Also, the number of black students at top-tier, research one universities has apparently dropped. And we have a Supreme Court Justice who is openly considering a two-tiered racial system of higher education. So we face multiple issues. But correcting the proportion of black faculty in higher education might help solve these other problems. More faculty of color could reasonably help with the graduation gap in a number of ways. More faculty of color might help open pathways for our students of color into elite universities. And more faculty of color would help blunt the tired theory that African Americans should only attend “slower-track” schools.
Ultimately, both the Oscars and the academy will have to look a lot more like the people they serve or they will be replaced by institutions that do. But that is a long view. How do we get there from here? What if higher education used the Rooney Rule? This is the rule adopted by the National Football League (NFL) in 2003 to ensure that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every senior position. In 2002, before the rule went into effect, minority players made up 70 percent of the players in the NFL, but only 6 percent of the coaches. In 2015, minority coaches made up almost 19 percent of the total (six out of 32) down from a full 25 percent in 2011.
At my own institution, a public university serving over 55,000 students in Texas, one department had the opportunity to hire six new positions last year. This is very rare, even at large institutions. For each position, the faculty in the department selected three candidates to come for a campus interview. Out of 18 candidates, how many were people of color? None. That was a missed opportunity, completely lost on faculty whose percent black resembles the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. If we had a policy that resembled the Rooney Rule, we would have had at least six people of color visit our campus in hopes of impressing the mostly white faculty who make the decision to hire.
Surely, there is delicious irony in asking higher education to learn from football. But the principle of ensuring interviews for candidates of color is so direct and efficient that Facebook just announced it would be adopting the Rooney Rule to increase its diversity. In light of the reasonable success of integration at the top level in the NFL, and the serious effort to integrate at Facebook, and the clear demands of students of color across the country, it is time for us to finally integrate the faculty in higher education. And the Oscars might look into it, too.