Black Faculty Women in the Academy: History, Status and Future

Article excerpt

Black women have participated in American higher education for over a century. Despite formidable professional and personal barriers, they have made significant advances. Many have reaped the benefits of their contributions. This article discusses the history and status of Black faculty women, describing strategies they have used to overcome internal and external challenges. It addresses critical issues such as managing career and family, establishing support systems, and negotiating tenure and promotion. It also offers suggestions for restructuring their career development to help them develop strategic professional and personal skills that can ensure their survival and achievement in the academy.

The history of Black women in the United States can best be described as a struggle for survival and identity coupled with the need and desire to protect and support the family. Black women of today have emerged from what Hudson-Weems (1989) terms a tripartite or threefold shroud of oppression consisting of racism, classism, and sexism. Notwithstanding these barriers, which typically have been coupled with limited resources and low socioeconomic status, Black women as a whole have shown great resilience, and many have achieved great strides.

The African proverb, "She who learns must also teach," echoes the importance that historically has been attached to Black faculty women's efforts to share their knowledge with others regardless of any opposition or challenges they may have faced. Black women, though the most numerous of faculty women of color in institutions of higher education in the United States, accounted for only 6.43% of all full-time faculty among the ranks of assistant, associate, and full professors in 1996, barely up from 6.23% in 1986 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2000). Roughly half these women are employed in the nation's historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and most of the remainder teach in community colleges. Only 1% of Black faculty women teach full-time in four-year majority institutions across the country (American Council on Education [ACE], 1993). The decade from 1981 to 1991 saw this group losing ground in their efforts to gain tenure on college and university campuses, dropping from 58% to 56% of those achieving this goal (ACE, 1993). Traditionally, over half of all Black women doctorate recipients choose academic employment, but the numbers are declining. Today, fewer Black women doctoral recipients nationwide are choosing academic employment, and many of those who do enter the academy eventually leave to pursue careers in business, industry, and the professions (Gregory, 1999). Teevan, Pepper, and Pellizzari (1992) have argued that many faculty women leave academe because of family responsibilities; they further contend that those who remain often produce less scholarly work. My own earlier study (Gregory, 1999) and a study by White (1999) confirm that Black women too often reject positions in higher education because of family and community responsibilities.

Despite these reservations and reversals, Black women have a rich tradition of employment in U.S. education at all levels. Many have sought careers in the teaching profession because of a desire to make a difference in the lives of others. Compelling evidence suggests that Black faculty women can have a profound impact on the lives and perceptions of students. Numerous studies by Black scholars such as Blackwell (1983), Brown (1988), and Gardiner, Enomoto, and Grogan (2000) have cited lack of mentoring as one major reason why colleges and universities have had difficulty recruiting and retaining Black and other non-Asian American minority students. Their work has shown that many Black students perceive the absence of Black faculty members as paralleling their current low status and future outlook on campus. Blackwell (1983) has found that the number of Black faculty members at a college or university is the most important predictor of enrollment and retention rates for first-year Black students and of the total number of Black student graduates. …