VCU Students Want a More Diverse Faculty

Dec 21, 2015

Christopher Brooks in his office on VCU’s campus.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne

Virginia Commonwealth University is one of the state’s most diverse four-year colleges. But if you’re a student there you may not see that diversity in who’s teaching you. While 15% of VCU students are African-American, only 5% of full-time faculty are.
Students are demanding that VCU fix that problem-- and fast.

Christopher Brooks welcomes me to his office on VCU’s campus in the heart of downtown Richmond.

Brooks has written several books, taught in Africa, and is an expert on HIV among African-American men. But I didn’t visit him to talk about his work...instead it was to talk about the color of his skin.

“I stress to several of my students, particularly in my larger lectures that I am likely to be the only african-american professor that they are likely to have. That shouldn’t necessarily be the case in 2015.”

When Brooks started teaching here in the early nineties, a greater percentage of the faculty was black then it is today. Now, he’s one of only 2 black full-time teachers in the School of World Studies, out of 47.

“I have seen instances when we had the opportunity to hire others, and those opportunities weren’t always taken.”

The lack of African-American faculty on campus hasn’t gone unnoticed by students.
(fade in audio) “The state of black faculty and black students here at VCU should be treated for what it is -- it is a crisis.”

This fall a student group staged a sit-in at the president’s office. The school responded by holding a forum on diversity, drawing an overflowing crowd.  Angelique Scott spoke on behalf of the group “Black VCU Speaks.”

“The black student to black teacher ratio here at VCU is 45 black students to a black teacher, all students to a black professor is 300:1, while all students to a white professor are 17:1. We need VCU to end its search for cosmetic diversity and work towards real diversity.”

To do that, students have demanded that VCU double the percentage of black faculty, to 10-percent--  within the next couple of years.  

And they’re not alone -- students at the University of Missouri have done the same thing. That school has been ground zero for a nationwide push for more black faculty in higher ed.

“As somebody who really cares and really is invested in wanting to see jumps like that, I just know that it’s difficult for a couple of reasons.”

Kimberly Griffin is a professor at the University of Maryland and has studied diversity in college faculty. The first reason she says student demands aren’t likely to be met, is that change in higher ed is slow, colleges are  huge bureaucracies.

The second is that we don’t fully understand why black faculty rates are as low as they are.

Students say it’s the hiring process, that predominantly white search committees are unintentionally going to gravitate towards white hires. While faculty say it’s a pipeline issue --
 

Students at VCU's campus.
Credit Heaton Johnson/Flickr Creative Commons

  “There’s such a small pool and everybody is competing over the same people and that’s why we haven’t seen any change.”

Griffin says both play a role -- but perhaps even more important is that there are fewer university jobs open across the board, and that qualified minority candidates aren’t as interested in teaching after they earn their phd.

“So there are some questions we have to start asking about training and whether or not something different is happening for scholars of color generally, but african-american scholars maybe in particular to get a better  understanding of well, why do they not want to be faculty members at the end of their degree program?”

Griffin hasn’t found that answer in her research yet, but back at VCU... Christopher Brooks’ twenty-five years as a black professor in a predominantly white institution might give us a hint.

Well, we can speak about issues of micro-aggression. In a classroom, where a student feels that it’s easier to challenge a so-called diverse professor where they’re not likely to do that to another professor.

And those little aggressions aren’t just from students in the classroom. Brooks says sometimes it’s in the eye-roll of a colleague -- like when he brings up race while working on a hiring committee.

“I will raise it, sometimes it has been met with “Oh, here he goes again.” Or, something along those lines. But, that… that… you still stay in game, stay in the fight. So you continue to raise your voice.”

For their part, VCU is taking a close and critical look at all these issues: from the hiring process, to what kind of curriculum changes might attract and retain more diverse professors. VCU hopes to have an action plan in place, by the end of the school year.