Faculty members matter not just for what they teach students, but for what students see in them. In addition to academic excellence, this is why faculty diversity matters. Students need role models and mentors who look like them, and underrepresented minority faculty representation is associated with underrepresented minority student persistence.
Faculty diversity has been a priority within academia for years, but it took on new urgency during the racial reckoning of 2020. Unfortunately, even following special faculty diversity initiatives on many campuses, progress has been slow, particularly at research universities. Faculty diversity growth has also been concentrated in untenured ranks, according to one study. This means that the professoriate is still much less diverse than the student population and the U.S. population overall. A Pew Research Center analysis of federal data found that 76 percent of all college and university faculty members were white, compared to 55 percent of undergraduates. Just 5 percent of faculty members were Hispanic, compared to 20 percent of students. Six percent of professors were Black, compared to 14 percent of their students. Asians were the exception, making up 11 percent of professors and 7 percent of students.
This is a generational issue, but only to a degree. In the fall of 2018, for instance, according to federal data, 53 percent of full professors were white men, 27 percent were white women, 8 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander men, and 3 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander women. Black men, Black women, and Hispanic men each accounted for 2 percent of full-time professors. Other demographic groups made up 1 percent or fewer of the full professors.
Among assistant professors, who are generally much younger than full professors, 34 percent were white men, 39 percent were white women, 7 percent each were Asian or Pacific Islander men and women, and 5 percent were Black women. Black men, Hispanic men and Hispanic women each accounted for 3 percent of assistant professors. American Indian and Alaska Native men and women and those of two or more races each made up 1 percent or fewer of assistant professors.
Experts say that if academia wants to diversify, institutions need to do more than throw money at recruitment efforts, and meaningfully invest in fostering the institutional climates that will keep professors of color on campus for years to come. They must not expect faculty members to shoulder most of the diversity, equity and inclusion work. They must also continue to develop the pipeline of doctoral students interested in and prepared for careers in academe.
Women are also underrepresented within academia at certain faculty ranks and within certain fields. Women of color may be especially underrepresented and face both racism and sexism — what’s referred to in the literature as a double-bind. According to the most recent federal data from 2019, 53 percent of full professors are white men; 27 percent are white women; 8 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander men, and 3 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander women. Black men, Black women and Hispanic men each accounted for 2 percent of full professors. Every other demographic group made up 1 percent or fewer of the full professor ranks.
Things do appear to be changing, albeit slowly, as women and people of color are slightly more highly represented at the assistant professors ranks. But academia still risks losing these professors before they become tenured professors due to issues including climate. The childcare crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the so-called “mom penalty” or “baby penalty” that many women faced in academe well before the pandemic.
Updated June 2021.