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Felecia Commodore
Felecia Commodore

Felecia Commodore came into her job search armed with a University of Pennsylvania doctorate in higher education and published research papers. But after a year of looking, she still didn’t have a job.

Commodore, who is black, couldn’t help but wonder whether race played a part as she was rejected from one college teaching job after another. She finally toned down racial references in her cover letter — using the term “cultural communities” rather than “African-American communities,” for instance, to refer to one of her areas of study — and things took a turn for the better.

The experience left her conflicted.

“I wondered whether I wanted to be in a field, academia, where you have to whitewash yourself,” said Commodore, who is starting this fall as an assistant professor of education, a tenure track position, at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. “In hindsight, you need a job and you do what you need to do to get a job.”

For all of their assurances that they’ll add more nonwhite faculty in response to last year’s student protests demanding more diversity on campuses, colleges and universities largely haven’t been doing that over the last few years.

Even if they wanted to live up to their promises to hire more nonwhite professors over the next few years, the small number of nonwhites in the doctoral pipeline will make that difficult.

Only 6.4 percent of U.S. citizen or permanent resident research doctoral recipients in 2014 were black and 6.5 percent were Hispanic, according to the National Science Foundation. That’s the most recent year for which the doctoral recipient figures are available, and a much smaller proportion of both groups than their shares of the American population, which were 13.3 percent and 17.6 percent, respectively.

Although 13.3 percent of education doctorates are awarded to blacks, they receive just 3.5 percent of doctorates in the physical sciences. Hispanic or Latino students, meanwhile receive 7.2 percent of doctorates in both the humanities and social sciences, but just 5.4 percent in the physical sciences.

And even those minorities completing their doctorates aren’t getting hired by some top colleges and universities as easily as their white counterparts.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, added 539 instructional staff members in 2014, more than any other higher-education institution. But only seven of those hires, or 1.3 percent, were black, according to federal Department of Education data. Sixteen — or 2.9 percent of the total — were Hispanic.

At the University of Michigan, just 3.3 percent of its 478 new instructional hires were black, and 3.5 percent Hispanic. And at the University of California at Berkeley, new hires were 1.3 percent black and 2.4 percent Hispanic.

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“I don’t think people are serious about recruiting faculty of color,” said Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania higher-education professor who studies institutions with high minority enrollment. “People like to hire people like themselves. I’ve heard faculty members say that.”

Only 6.4 percent of research doctoral recipients are black and 6.5 percent Hispanic, a much smaller proportion of both groups than their shares of the American population.

Some schools have done better. At Texas A&M International, just a few miles from the Mexican border, about 38 percent of 2014 instructional hires were Hispanic. And nearly 70 percent of new instructors were black at Florida A&M University, a historically black institution in Tallahassee.

But the hiring problem in general is self-perpetuating, Gasman said. Nonwhite students who see few or no nonwhite faculty may feel unsupported on their way to even associate or bachelor’s degrees, never mind decide to go into university teaching.

“If you’re white, you’ve had white role models all around you,” Gasman said. “Imagine if you did not see people who looked like you held up as examples. You could be Latino and not be taught by anyone Latino.”

Commodore, for example, had never come across a black tenure-track professor in her discipline until she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Maryland.

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“That was the first time I thought I could be a professor,” she said. “It’s important to find that connection, to find that mentorship in your field. It’s one thing to navigate your field, but it’s another thing to learn to navigate it in your own body.”

A few universities have added diversity offices in doctoral programs, recruit from historically black colleges, and offer special summer sessions and mentoring groups to minority students. Duke, for instance, does this in biomedicine. The University of California, Berkeley, aggressively recruits nonwhite graduate students in math, science, and engineering. So does the University of Maryland system.

In response to campus protests, Yale has promised to spend $50 million over the next five years to try to eliminate bias in faculty searches, bolster the number of minorities headed into university teaching, and recruit scholars who “would enrich diversity.”

But a study of 21 major university science, engineering, and math doctoral programs by the Council of Graduate Schools found that only 45 percent actively recruited nonwhites, barely a third offered peer mentoring, and fewer than one in 10 had clubs for minority students.

Without such support, among other reasons, minority men end up 40 percent less likely and minority women 54 percent less likely to be interested in teaching at research universities than their white classmates, according to another survey of 1,500 students.

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Among those who do begin doctoral programs, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to ultimately earn degrees than whites, the Council of Graduate Schools reports.

“I don’t think people are serious about recruiting faculty of color.”

Those minorities who ultimately beat these odds and end up employed on college campuses face still other problems. Although a handful of schools have tried to help new professors feel comfortable by hiring clusters of minority instructors, faculty who are the first nonwhites in their departments can nonetheless feel alone, said University of Illinois professor James Anderson, who is black and talks frequently with other nonwhite professors around the country.

Nationally, 6 percent of university faculty are black and 5 percent Hispanic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those figures have barely changed since 2009, federal data shows.

The same data shows that tenure-track hiring has slowed dramatically since 2009 as colleges have grappled with budget challenges, with most schools relying on part-time and adjunct faculty to take up the slack.

Anderson said he was lucky to have supportive white colleagues when he was hired as one of the first minority faculty members at the University of Indiana 40 years ago.

Although schools have improved hiring practices somewhat, Anderson said many academic departments still seem confused about how to make nonwhite instructors feel comfortable, and he said he is troubled by how quickly minority professors change jobs because of dissatisfaction.

The majority of young nonwhite professors seem unhappy, he said.

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“When I talk to young faculty across the country, I’m surprised by the number of people who say it’s not going well,” said Anderson, who now heads his university’s department of education policy, organization, and leadership. “It reminds us that we’re still in a place where underrepresented minority faculty feel isolated.”

That isolation is made worse when schools treat minority professors as token hires. A black math professor, for example, can become a de facto diversity officer — a sounding board for anything on campus that’s race-related — Anderson said.

A big reason for the shortage of nonwhite professors is that colleges are not preparing doctoral students of any race for careers in academia, said Ansley Abraham, who directs a Southern Regional Education Board initiative to produce more minority doctorates. Some with high minority enrollment don’t do enough to steer students toward post-doctoral programs that could bolster their candidacies for faculty jobs, Abraham said.

In many cases, nonwhite, female, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered doctoral students have to make an extra effort to prepare for the job market, said James Alvarez-Mourey, a Hispanic business professor at Chicago’s DePaul University, who said he was lucky to have a professor who took time to talk to him about Ph.D. programs when he was an undergraduate.

Too many universities are still more focused on research than graduates’ jobs, he said.

“I don’t know if we do good service for students in terms of laying out the career path in front of them,” said Alvarez-Mourey, who was supported during his own doctoral work at the University of Michigan by a national program for minority students. “I think we should incentivize professors for taking an active interest in students’ career success.”

Colleges and universities need to try harder, said the University of Pennsylvania’s Gasman.

Job searches often eliminate minority candidates because they didn’t attend top-ranked schools, she said, and hiring committees are too often devoid of minority professors. Yet the nation’s demographics are changing rapidly: In 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nonwhites made up more than half of U.S. children under 5 for the first time.

“People don’t understand what they’re losing by not having faculty of color,” Gasman said. “And our institutions aren’t remotely prepared for the influx of students of color they’re going to see.”

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