AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week: A greeting from Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough

AJC Sepia HBCU of the Week is an occasional series that looks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Atlanta native Walter M. Kimbrough is a graduate of Mays High School, the University of Georgia and Georgia State. He has worked at Emory, Georgia State and Albany State. He is now president of Dillard University in New Orleans. His piece addresses student demands for faculty diversity and originally ran as a Get Schooled column on Dec. 21, 2015. (Read another recent piece by Kimbrough on the death of Rev. David H. Nunnally of Athens.)

In recent weeks, America’s campuses have been on the front page. Instances of racial insensitivity and acts have caused black students primarily to protest campus climates that sometimes are hostile. The epicenter was Columbia, Missouri, but demonstrations have sprouted from coast to coast.

Among the byproducts of the protests are lists of demands by the students. They identify a number of issues they would like addressed and remedied for their overall experiences on those campuses to be not only free of harassment, but supportive of their educational pursuits. Some of the demands have called for changes in leadership, both administrators and student leaders. Some have asked for mandatory diversity training for all members of the campus community. Still others have asked for counseling and academic support targeted toward underrepresented groups on campus.

They all ask for one thing: More black faculty. There is unanimity in the belief more faculty who look like them will go a long way in solving these issues.

There is an old saying that you can’t get blood from a turnip. In the same regard, you cannot hire black faculty that do not exist.

Over the years studies have consistently presented data which indicate the number of black doctorates awarded, the standard credential required for most faculty appointments, fails to keep pace with the number of black students attending predominantly white universities. According to the 2013 report of the National Science Foundation, for all doctorates awarded, blacks, 12 percent of the population, received only 6.4 percent of Ph.Ds. Of those roughly 2,100 doctorates awarded to blacks, 515 or a quarter of them were in education.

That means, outside of education, there is approximately one new black Ph.D. per every three college campuses nationwide. Digging deeper, students will understand they are demanding the impossible. In 2013, blacks earned 252 doctorates in the biological sciences, 206 in psychology, and 172 in engineering. There were 61 in chemistry, 49 in history, and 26 in math. In foreign language and literature? Nine.

Four years ago the numbers were about the same. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted, particularly for about 20 fields where no Blacks earned doctorates, “fewer and fewer African-Americans are seeking doctoral degrees in these areas means that there will be fewer black scientists and professors in the classroom and the various fields.”

This is not a quick fix. In fact, it will take generations, and those best in position to change this sad state are those black students protesting the dearth of black faculty. They should make pacts with each other to continue their studies in their fields, earn terminal degrees, and come back to teach on those campuses so the next generation has a greater diversity of faculty.

Institutions must develop long-range programs to invest in growing a diverse faculty. It means incentivizing current faculty to mentor students of color from undergraduate through graduate school. It means establishing funds to recruit and financially support students of color to earn doctorates. It also means convincing recent doctorate holders, particularly in the sciences, to choose a career in academia, as they will be pursued heavily by business and industry.

I feel for the students. I did not have a black faculty member until I began my doctoral studies. But I had no expectation I would. Attending the University of Georgia for undergraduate studies only two decades after it was integrated by court order and being in the college of agriculture, I knew the deal. Less than 6 percent of the faculty there is black today; I am sure it was less then.

Diversifying the faculty is not a quick fix. No demand of an arbitrary percentage of black faculty by an arbitrary date will change the fact there simply are not enough potential black faculty for comparable ratios of black students on every campus.

Hopefully, students will dedicate their careers to help solve this problem. If having black faculty is a high priority, students need to make different choices about where they attend. But asking places with few black faculty to dramatically increase their numbers in short order is both unrealistic and unfair.