Isolation is a thorn for minority faculty

UT president says diverse recruiting is priority

By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Tuesday, October 29, 2002

At the University of Texas, students interested in Latina feminism rely on Lisa Sánchez González.

Sánchez, an assistant professor of English, teaches "Latina Narrative," an advanced alternative course whose readings include progressive Hispanic authors such as Ana Lydia Vega and Angie Cruz instead of Chaucer, Homer or Shakespeare.

Mostly Hispanic women take the class, and many come to Sánchez seeking their own sense of identity.

"I grew up in the Southwest," she said. "I share a lot of interests and concerns with them."

But at UT and on campuses across the nation, Sánchez and professors like her still are vastly outnumbered by white faculty. The number of ethnic minorities teaching in higher education is growing, but it's moving at a glacial pace.

Administrators at UT say they know minority faculty members can feel isolated and that they're working on ways to increase the supply of qualified minority faculty candidates, improve retention rates and help minority faculty to be more comfortable on campus.

"It would be difficult to present hard and fast evidence, but at many institutions (minorities) don't find the institutions to be welcoming or inviting of them," said William B. Harvey, vice president with the American Council on Education and author of the Minorities in Higher Education annual status report, released last month.

"The nature of that experience plays itself out in a negative way, and that, consequently, makes it more difficult for new people to be recruited," Harvey said.

The national scene

Nationally, the proportion of minority faculty members has been steadily increasing since 1991, according to the education council report.

The 82,393 minority faculty in U.S. institutions totalled 14 percent of all instructors in 1999, the most recent year available. The figures include all professor-level faculty as well as instructors, lecturers and others.

At UT, minorities made up about 15 percent of the university's 2,653 faculty in 2001. That is consistent with figures at similar institutions such as the University of North Carolina, which has about 13 percent minority faculty, and the University of Michigan, with 18 percent.

But among full professors at UT -- a savored position because it comes with tenure -- the minority rate is 10 percent. To retain minority recruits and see them advance, universities must create more hospitable environments, critics say.

UT administrators had to deal with a race-discrimination lawsuit in August and will face another discrimination-related grievance hearing in November.

Last week, the Texas Faculty Association called for an independent commission to study racial and gender discrimination in Texas public colleges and universities. The nonprofit faculty rights group singled out UT for its firing of staff member Patsy Julius, saying the university's procedure revealed a double standard involving minorities and women.

Julius, who is African American, is appealing her termination. UT officials said they followed the proper guidelines in her case.

In August, journalism professor Paula Poindexter filed a lawsuit against the university, saying she was denied a promotion because she is African American. That case eventually will go to required mediation.

Sánchez, the assistant English professor, filed a similar internal grievance against UT last September. Both said the university does not do enough to support minorities.

"Climate is very important," said Sánchez, who said she has dealt with racism and sexism from colleagues in her department since she was hired in 1995. "This place is notoriously toxic."

UT President Larry Faulkner disputed that assessment.

"I actually don't think the climate is poor," he said. "I just do believe that people in relatively weakly represented groups are going to feel, to some degree, isolated. They may even feel unsupported. I don't think they are unsupported."

However, UT is trying to do more for minority faculty, he said. University officials are focusing on increasing the number of minority students who pursue a graduate education in hopes of increasing the pool of minority faculty applicants.

Administrators are also planning to invite more minority scholars to campus to expose them to students and faculty.

"I appreciate the situation that they are in," Faulkner said. "I think we try to keep working at it. We want to make a reality of faculty here that connects well to our students first and foremost, and to the people we serve, the people of Texas."

Hopwood's effect

Another factor has been the Hopwood case, the 1996 U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that led to the elimination of affirmative action policies at public institutions throughout Texas.

The ruling seems to have had a chilling effect on the university's recruiting efforts, said Edmund T. Gordon, director of the UT Center for African and African American Studies.

"The university has to very publicly make it clear that it is interested in having a diverse faculty, that despite Hopwood, it remains a priority," Gordon said.

Other minority recruits remain attracted to Austin, thanks to its proximity to urban centers and a large Hispanic population. UT's national stature also is a big draw, said UT executive vice president and provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson.

"I personally find that people who come and visit the campus and see what we're doing, see the libraries, the labs and what's going in engineering, they're pretty attracted to the place," he said.

In a healthier economy, more positions might open up as baby-boomer generation faculty start to retire, but older faculty members, concerned about their finances, are instead delaying retirement, Ekland-Olson said.

Statistics, meanwhile, suggest that if minority faculty are having problems, few are taking it to top administrators or taking legal action.

Since 2000, there have been four equal employment opportunity grievances filed by faculty members against the university. In the same time period, there have been three complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Federal officials would not comment on the cases, and university administrators could not say Monday how many of the internal grievance cases still were pending.

Elsewhere in Texas

In Texas, the problems are not limited to UT. Officials at the state faculty association pointed to Texas Tech University and Texas A&M-Kingsville as institutions that have suffered from racial discrimination.

"I see the situation more as one of pockets, if you will, problems in specific departments or units," association director Charles Zucker said.

To address the national supply problem, one group has focused exclusively on increasing the number of doctoral students in U.S. business schools.

Administrators with the New Jersey-based PhD Project say their outreach program, which encourages successful minority business executives to earn doctoral degrees and become professors, has been a factor in doubling the number of doctoral-qualified minority professors at business schools.

The education council, meanwhile, plans to publish a paper in November exploring the environment for faculty of color in U.S. institutions, including responses by university presidents. The goal is to encourage universities to find new and creative ways to bring more minorities into the classrooms, Harvey said.

"What we're trying to do is provide an educational experience that provides a variety of perspectives and backgrounds and outlooks, and you can't get that if your faculty is monocultural," he said.

erodriguez@statesman.com; 445-3673