Robert Palmer felt lucky. He got a job right out of grad school at Binghamton University in upstate New York, one of the largest schools in the State University of New York system.
“I was ecstatic,” he says. “But I knew it would probably be a cultural adjustment.”
He had just finished his Ph.D. in higher education administration at Morgan State University, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Baltimore where more than 60 percent of faculty are black. Now he was going to work at a university where, as of 2016, only four percent of professors were African American like him. Within the college of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton, where Palmer would be teaching, there was only one black tenured professor.
Faculty of color are underrepresented on most college campuses, especially African American faculty. According to federal data analyzed by our partners at The Hechinger Report, fewer than seven percent of tenure-track professors at college campuses nationwide are African American. It can be isolating for those professors who end up working at predominantly white institutions. They become one of just a handful of non-white people in authority on campus.
Despite promises by university presidents across the country to increase hiring of diverse faculty, the needle has barely moved. In fact, the number of African American faculty on college campuses didn’t rise between 2006 and 2016 – it fell slightly – by about a half percent.
Ansley Abraham works with diverse doctoral students at the Southern Regional Education Board State Doctoral Scholars Program. He says colleges need to expand their own networks, of where they look for faculty, and they need to start recruiting black Ph.D. students while they’re still finishing their doctorates.
“There’s not a president in the United States of a college or university who doesn’t have a diversity element in their speech,” he says. “But you know, having a diversity element in a stump speech does not necessarily convert into actions on campuses to really do something about those issues.”
Abraham says hiring diverse faculty is the first part of a greater process.
“The challenge at that point,” he says, “is one of keeping the faculty there. Making sure that the person is having the kind of experience that is going to make them want to stay at your institution for the long haul.”
For Palmer, that’s where the experience at Binghamton fell short. He taught there for seven years, got tenure, but left to go teach at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington D.C.
He says he didn’t feel valued by white faculty at Binghamton until he started to get published in bigger journals. He describes the experience of white professors walking past his office, looking in and not saying a thing.
“I felt lonely,” he says. “I felt isolated. I felt largely invisible.”
He says if it hadn’t been for two other professors, one African American, the other Filipina, who became close friends, he wouldn’t have made it through even seven years at Binghamton.
“They were my rock,” he says. “We were able to relate to the issues and struggles and frustrations of being a teacher while being a minority at a white institution. They allowed me to vent, and they helped to normalize my experience. I mean, thank God they reached out.”