A narrative of diversity has changed in recent years from being largely focused on access for minorities and the poor, and now includes globalized views of enrollment management, discontent about racial attitudes on campus, and a referendum on economics and politics in higher education.

By Jarrett Carter

Education Dive | August 31, 2016 —

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The national conversation on race surrounding a number of campus protests during the 2015-2016 school year has led to a number of changes in course requirements and sensitivity training, as well as a persistent conversation about how to best serve students, faculty and administrators of color on campus.

Recent data shows schools grouped in the Big Ten athletic conference are national leaders in the recruitment of international students. The quality of research and the tradition of excellence allows these schools, collectively, to outpace the national average of students coming into the United States for graduate education and research.

Their arrival is a part of a growing narrative of diversity throughout higher education, a conversation that has changed in recent years from being largely focused on access for minorities and the poor, and now includes globalized views of enrollment management, discontent about racial attitudes on campus, and a referendum on economics and politics in higher education.

Defining student diversity

One of these institutions, Northwestern University, posted a 6.7% enrollment of black and Hispanic undergraduate students out of an enrollment of near 21,000 students during the 2015-16 academic year.

NU President Morton Schapiro made headlines in January with a Washington Post editorial on the need for ‘safe spaces’ at college campuses, saying black students were not unlike other students who valued eating together, living together or studying together in the same ways that athletes, fraternity and sorority members of different ethnic or religious groups enjoyed.

“The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe,” he wrote.

His words would be a stark contrast months later, to University of Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison’s challenge to notion of safe spaces in a letter to incoming freshmen. He wrote that the call for protection from uncomfortable conversation would not be heeded at the expense of personal freedoms of speech and perspective.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” Ellison wrote in his letter addressed to the Class of 2020.

The dueling perspectives from two Illinois institutions showcase just how divided campuses and executives can be on the defining principles of diversity. These principles, longstanding in American higher education since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, and more recently with the Supreme Court’s ruling on admission policies, which allow the consideration of race among other factors, have played out in heated campus protests and in courtroom battles throughout the country over the last 10 years.

In Maryland, students and alumni of the state’s four historically black colleges and universities have been locked in more than 10 years of litigation against the state for what a federal judge ruled as an illegal, ‘separate but equal’ system of higher education maintained over generations.

Currently in mediation, the lawsuit may yield the elimination or merger of several unlawfully established programs at predominantly white institutions, which duplicated similar programs at black institutions in violation of the constitution, and several civil rights agreements established between the state and the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Black students at the University of Missouri served as a catalyst for student protests on predominantly white campuses across the country, asking for institutional intervention against student and faculty microaggressions made against black students, the creation and support of more safe space for black students, and proportionate representation for black faculty on campuses. Their demands, and the resulting national movements, have created new gains for campuses in policies on diversity and inclusion.

Hamilton College in upstate New York now requires all students to fulfill a diversity course requirement, and the University of California — Davis School of Law now claims racial and ethnic minorities as the majority of its faculty body. But the numbers still reflect a disparity of access and achievement among racial lines, extending from smartboard to desk in college classrooms throughout the country.

According to recent data, 62% of white students who entered college as full-time learners in 2005 earned a degree within six years, compared to 51% of Hispanic students and just 40% of black students. And for diversity among faculty ranks, the gains and gaps reflect similar themes.

Growth in racial diversity for faculty, but disparities persist

A recent study of faculty diversity suggests modest growth in the diversity of American faculty, but vastly different outcomes for women and racial minorities, particularly in high research institutions.

Researchers discussed findings from the ‘Taking the measure of faculty diversity’ report last Friday during a conference call held with reporters. Funded by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America Institute (TIAA), the report breaks down a 64% increase in total full and part-time faculty at colleges and universities between 1993 and 2013, with specific focus upon tenure and promotion trends for women, black and Hispanic faculty over the same period.

According to the research, white faculty increased by more than 40% over the surveyed period, while Asian-American and a combination of black and Hispanic faculty grew by 170% and 143%.

Nontenure-track full-time appointment percentages increased by 143% and part-time appointments by 230% over the measured period for the same underrepresented groups.

But tenure and promotion among the ethnic groups differed, with Asian-American faculty doubling in the number of tenure and tenure-track appointments over 20 years, while underrepresented minorities (black and Hispanic) grew by 70% and 30%, respectively.

Only 10% of the nation’s total number of tenure positions are held by racial and ethnic minorities, according to the report.

Tenure for minority faculty remains as a point of concern for the ongoing ‘Black on Campus’ student movement, which began at predominantly white institutions throughout the 2015-16 academic year, following student protests at the University of Missouri over racial tensions and mistreatment towards students of color.

In February, Rutgers University made headlines following the denial of tenure to communications assistant professor Jennifer Warren, who says that prohibitions on publishing, student reviews and perspectives on her teaching style made her one example of several black faculty members at the institution being denied promotion, despite largely positive committee reviews.

“People want to jump to the race card and I’m skeptical about that because it’s really hard to prove that,” Warren said in an interview with the Daily Targum. “(But) I’m no different from all the other black (faculty members) that were denied tenure, (and) when you have a pattern of doing that, it suggests to me that there’s an issue with race.”

Report authors, Martin J. Finkelstein, Seton Hall University Education Professor Martin J. Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Dean of Education Valerie Martin Conley, and Claremont Graduate University Senior Research Fellow Jack H. Schuster cited affirmative action decision as a key element of increasing diversity, and how colleges which historically have tried to avoid racial considerations in hiring and promotion, may have played a role in shaping the diversity narrative of today’s faculty snapshot.

“Diversification among faculty is a function of many complex forces, as is true for other key higher education populations (e.g., students, staff at varying levels, governing board members and so on),”. “There are the obvious nuanced issues of motivation, commitment and prioritization; these fluctuate in part with the environing society, sometimes intensifying, sometimes receding. More pointedly, beyond the prevailing societal mood, efforts devoted to diversification are a function of formal policy at multiple governmental and organizational levels. Indeed, for much of the postwar era, stretching for decades prior to the two-decade span we have scrutinized here (that is, 1993–2013), such diversity policies have pivoted around efforts to pursue, or circumvent, affirmative action.”

Progress for women, with context

The total number of women holding faculty positions of any rank has increased by more than 375,000 over the last 20 years, outpacing men by more than 175,000. The same trend held for tenure promotions for women, with more than 46,000 full-time tenured positions being filled by women, who now account for 49% of the total number of faculty at all colleges and universities.

But access for women in teaching positions remains disparate among full-time and part-time appointments.

Full-time tenured positions held by women has declined over the surveyed period from 20% to 16% and tenure-track appointment has dropped by 5%, while part-time appointments for women have jumped from 48% to 56%.

According to the authors, institutional types also factor in full-time and tenure opportunities presented to women, with research institutions lagging behind smaller public and private four-year institutions and community college in erasing the gender gap.

Growth and limitations on access to academe for women come with other challenges, as several institutions are working to eliminate pay disparities among male and female faculty members, and to chart new paths for family leave and childbirth policies which can impact tenure and promotion.

At Harvey Mudd College, efforts to increase female representation at faculty and academic executive levels has helped in tripling the the number of female graduates in computer science over the last decade.

“For me in high school, if I got something wrong, I felt it would be more of a reflection on women in the class,” said Jean Sung, a recent Harvey Mudd graduate who spoke with Quartz about the value of female representation among faculty. “When I got to Mudd, it was nice to see not just women, but women at the top of the class, women in the middle, and women at the bottom. At Mudd, I felt average, and Mudd gives you space to feel average.”

It is a sentiment echoed by the authors in the report’s summary, who called the faculty the conscience of the academic enterprise.

“After all, we submit that the faculty comprise the essential core of a college or university, its epicenter. In many ways the faculty epitomize the values of their institutions. They serve, too, in important ways as role models for their students; for that to occur for all students, diversity in the faculty ranks is crucial. Further intensification of efforts to diversify the faculty remains, in our view, an imperative for American higher education.”