Hands Up: Racial and Economic Inequality in Higher Education

Hands Up: Racial and Economic Inequality in Higher Education

Hands Up: Racial and Economic Inequality in Higher Education

Gather round class, it's time to talk about how racial and economic inequality are interconnected social problems and how they're working in higher ed to perpetuate those inequalities in society at large. Social problems are just that, social, they are embedded in the social structure which shapes our society and our individual experiences. As such, these problems cannot be fixed or blamed on individuals and impact large numbers of people in a negative way. Social problems are circular and both the solutions—and causes—are the obligation of society. Racial and economic inequalities are social problems; as such they require a structural solution. There is a lot of agitation going on in the social world right now with both issues of racial injustice and economic inequality taking the forefront. We are seeing videos of Black people being murdered by police with no consequences, a Muslim woman was set on fire in NYC recently, and 64 million people are living on wages below $15 an hour. We need change at the institutional level now in the form of policies at both local and federal levels.

College students have long been a powerful force for social change. Sadly, this hasn't translated into colleges being safe havens for students and faculty of color. As higher education leaders in organizing, we must face these problems head-on and work to find meaningful structural solutions.

Racial tensions began growing at the University of Missouri following protests of Michael Brown's shooting death. Students were unhappy with the university president's response to several students reporting they felt unsafe in light of several racial attacks. This culminated in many protests from students including shutting down the homecoming parade, a seven-day hunger strike from a graduate student, and threats by the football team of refusing to play. The university president stepped down after legislators said he was no longer able to lead effectively and faculty threatened a walkout. While this is probably the best-known and most recent explosion of racial tension on a campus, nooses have been found hanging from trees at California State UniversityFullerton, Austin Peay State University, and Duke University. Students at the University of Mississippi pleaded guilty to draping a noose around a statue of the first black student to attend the university. In the time since I first drafted this blog post, I learned that Black women at American University were being targeted by a group of white men who have been throwing rotten bananas at them; students at the University of North Dakota locked out their roommate and posted a snapchat with her phone with the caption “Locked the black bitch out,” and two other snapchats were sent at different schools with women in black face with captions such as, “Black lives matter.” These events are only just a sampling when examining racially motivated attacks at colleges and universities. I'm only touching on those attacks towards blacks. I haven't even discussed what happens with students in other racial/ethnic categories. The situation isn't much better for faculty of color.

A Columbia professor found a noose hanging on her office door in 2007 and there are countless accounts on the internet and in research of the microaggressions and surveillance that professors of color (especially women) face on a daily basis from their colleagues. This along with the overt and covert racism that professors of color face from their colleagues and in the classroom, such as stereotyping and discrediting of their research (notably this most often occurs when their work covers issues experienced by people of color). Many have reported they are expected to mentor students who are the same race. This is not viewed as component of the time and service requirement for tenure, and changing this could greatly help professors who are not white earn tenure. They feel like tokens, know that some colleagues see them as affirmative action hires, and feel like they must be stellar examples of their race—often meaning they must work twice as hard as their peers.

Colleges and universities need to do better—building a multicultural center, or having a diversity week (or month) aren't enough. These are Band-Aid solutions, they won't fix the underlying issues of inequality that we face in academe. We should be discussing how race, class, and gender intersect to create unique experiences and opportunities for our students and faculty every chance we get with the goal of creating solutions together as a community. Some solutions should include recruiting diverse students, diversifying faculty, and compensating both student workers and faculty of color fairly.

The NCES reports that 79 percent of full-time faculty are white, 6 percent Black, 5 percent Latino, and 10 percent Asian/PI. The numbers don't look much better for part-time faculty with the proportion of African Americans in non-tenure track positions more than 50 percent greater than that of whites. This is largely due to tenure politics such as collegiality, narrow definitions of merit, and expectations of mentoring as well as other time and service commitments. Addressing this becomes even more important when we consider that both minority (96 percent) and non-minority (83 percent) students report that having minority professors has a positive effect on their education.

When looking at these stats, it becomes clear that some major changes need to occur in schools across the country to increase the numbers of professors of color. Changes also need to be made to ensure that they don't have to work harder than their colleagues to earn tenure. Some best practices recommended by the American Association of University Professors include: creating a process that stresses the importance of accountability and is under constant review, starting with leadership from the top down, working at all levels to interrupt routine, ensuring the diversity is cyclical and global which will attract both more students and faculty of color, and working to eliminate myths. Such myths include the idea there are no candidates of color available to fill the positions or that faculty of color can get jobs easily due to affirmative action.

While there have been increases in the amount of students of color in the United States since 1976, these gains have been too slow. White students (59 percent) still make up the majority of college students nationwide, with the other groups sharing the remaining percentage (Latino 16 percent, Black 15 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander 6 percent, Native 0.8 percent, unreported 3 percent). Things don't look much better when we break the country down into regions either, USNews reports that schools in the West do the best with racial diversity with a Diversity Index of .78 (“The closer a school's number is to 1, the more diverse the student population.”), the North category is in a close second at .75, with the Midwest and South tying at .68. Looking at these numbers shows there is clearly room for improvement. Many schools across the country have begun implementing various programs to improve their recruitment and retention of students of color but the change is not widespread.

National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA) analyzed nearly 1,000 college websites and noticed some best practices for the recruitment and retention of students of color. In line with the recommendations we see for diversifying faculty, change must start from the top down with administration supporting recruitment and retention goals along with the accountability mechanisms to achieve them. These goals must be included in annual reports and strategic planning. Schools should meet students where they reside and attend churches, community centers, and other nontraditional settings to recruit a more diverse student population. School visits by recruiters should start earlier than high school in an effort to attract more students of color and raise awareness about college opportunities earlier. Recruiters should begin to identify those with exceptional talent in STEM or other fields and should engage the families of students. Other academic efforts might include disciplined based and general summer bridge programs, and support programs to help students of color become familiar with campus culture and dealing with the stress of their programs. Some schools have found success using programs to engage students of color with the larger community, which can include multicultural and diversity awareness and sensitivity programs which seek to understand and concentrate on the needs of students of color. It is important that current students of color along with alumni are involved in these programs and the larger recruitment effort.

While we do see more students and faculty in higher education than we have in the past, we can see a pay gap when it comes to part time faculty of color. According to New Faculty Majority, the median pay for part time faculty is $2,700 per three-hour course. When we compare for race/ethnicity, Black faculty have a median pay of $2,083 per three-hour course; Latinos along with those who report they are multiracial see a median pay of $2,500. Student workers fare even worse than part time faculty and most make minimum wage, though some student workers have begun to organize with Fight for $15. Part-time faculty and student workers could benefit greatly from being paid a livable wage.

The major narrative regarding success in the United States teaches young Americans that attending college equals success. As an adjunct organizer, I know this is not necessarily true. I've met too many adjuncts, graduate students, workers in other industries with college degrees who haven't seen success because of the corporatization of higher education and the wide adoption of McDonald's and Wal-Mart business practices. We owe it to our students to address economic and racial inequality outside of higher education as well. They are facing finding employment in an economy where the fastest-growing sector of the job market (service) bears the lowest wages. As Fight for $15 reports, there are 64 million people in the United States who are paid less than $15/hour. And the National Employment Law Project reports: More than half of African American workers and close to 60% of Latino workers are making less than $15/hour. As the Rev. William J. Barber II said at the Fight for $15 convention this summer, “It took 400 years from slavery to now to get from zero to $7.25. We can’t wait another 400 years.” The tie between longstanding institutional racism in the United States and economic inequality couldn't be more clear. The University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education states that poverty-level wages cost taxpayers $152.8 billion each year. It is in all of our interest to work toward a solution for economic and racial inequality.

What can we do as adjunct and graduate student leaders in organizing around issues in higher education? We have to bring up the tough conversations. We must encourage our leaders to embrace these ideas and make changes to hiring and student recruitment processes; we must encourage them to put the best practices discussed above into practice. We must educate ourselves on the issues our colleagues of color face in academia and the issues that effect people of color in our larger society. This includes listening to their experiences and amplifying the ideas of faculty of color in meetings. We must also talk with our students about how race, class, gender and even religion intersect, and use examples that include issues facing marginalized peoples in class lectures and assignments. We must make the issues facing faculty of color part of our fight and contract negotiations. Perhaps one of the biggest things we can do is stand in solidarity with the efforts of groups that are addressing systematic racism and racial inequality. Go to a Black Lives Matter protest or a protest in solidarity for #NoDAPL. I can tell you first hand the effect this has on students who are marginalized is amazing. When they see you there with your fist held high they realize their professor cares about issues that impact them, and most importantly, they realize they matter.

Cheryl DeFlavis is an adjunct professor in sociology at Hillsborough Community College and Pasco-Hernando State College in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. 


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