The Black Academic: Faculty Status among African Americans in U.S. Higher Education

By Allen, Walter R.; Epps, Edgar G. et al. | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Black Academic: Faculty Status among African Americans in U.S. Higher Education


Allen, Walter R., Epps, Edgar G., Guillory, Elizabeth A., Suh, Susan A., Bonous-Hammarth, Marguerite, The Journal of Negro Education


Research reveals a persistent problem of underrepresentation and low academic status of African American faculty members at most U.S. colleges and universities. Using univariate and bivariate statistics, this study examined the status of African Americans in the U.S. professorate and its relationship to this group's access and success. It compared the characteristics, experiences, and achievements of African American professors on six predominantly White midwestern campuses to those of their White peers, focusing on the opportunity structure, resources, and academic and nonacademic demands as related to entrance and advancement. As expected, African American faculty members were found to be systematically and significantly disadvantaged on all measures relative to Whites, presenting serious, persistent obstacles to their recruitment, retention, and success.

The underrepresentation and low academic status of African American faculty members is a persistent problem in U.S. higher education. Research reveals their continued underrepresentation at most of the nation's colleges and universities. The limited numbers of African Americans within the U.S. professorate are also concentrated at the lower levels of the academic prestige system. Recent data show that African Americans represent only 4% of professors and associate professors in higher education compared to White Americans, who comprise 87% of tenured faculty members. African Americans comprise a slightly larger share of the instructor and lecturer pool at 7%, but this pales in comparison to their White American peers, who comprise 82% of the pool (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2000).

Racial inequities have been implicated in the persistent problem of underrepresentation and low academic status among African American members of the U.S. higher education faculty. The academic hierarchy, which favors Whites over non-Whites, typically penalizes African American professors, who are less likely to be tenured, spend more time on teaching and administrative tasks than on research, work at less prestigious institutions, and have lower academic ranks compared to their White counterparts (Astin, Antonio, Cress, & Astin, 1997; Nettles & Perna, 1995).

Higher education institutions are greatly influenced by, and cannot be analyzed apart from, the larger social, historical and cultural context. Attempts to improve the status of African American faculty members must therefore consider how higher education is organized and how it functions. Higher education is characterized by an academic hierarchy, which assigns schools to various prestige levels based on numerous criteria (e.g., average student test scores, faculty/student ratio, and selectivity of admissions). The opportunities available to different racial/ethnic groups in U.S. society are linked to their degree of access to higher prestige colleges and universities (Epps, 1998). For reasons of historical and ongoing discrimination, the operation of the academic prestige hierarchy contributes to the maintenance of substantial educational inequality.

The positions of different racial/ethnic groups within the academic hierarchy are consistent with their differential status, wealth, and power in U.S. society (Blackwell, 1981; Bowen & Bok, 1998). African American faculty members face barriers due to the historical, cultural, and social factors that frequently have shaped their relations with Whites generally. Pervasive attitudes of racism as well as differential access and power continue to limit educational opportunities for African Americans in the United States. Such inequities produce the achievement discrepancies in contemporary U.S. education that explain the relative scarcity of African Americans as members of the nation's higher education faculty (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1998).

This study examines the status of African American higher education faculty members and its relationship to access and success in the national professorate. …

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