The uphill battle to hire more black professors at La Salle UniversityBy Anthony Fleet and Nicole Paynter
La Salle University economics professor Richard Mshomba, a native of Tanzania, remembers the day well.
He was standing in the hallway outside his classroom on the first day of the semester. An African-American student approached him with a question: “Are you my professor for this class?” When Mshomba said yes, the student jumped with excitement and gave him a hug. “Finally!” the student exclaimed. “Finally I’m going to have a black professor!”
Mshomba, the winner of a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, did his undergraduate work at La Salle. After earning his PhD elsewhere, he returned to the university as a professor in 1991.
Since then, La Salle has made some progress in hiring more black professors, but there are currently just eight blacks, including Mshomba, among the university’s 245 full-time faculty or 3.3 percent. By contrast, about 18 percent of La Salle’s 4,300 undergraduates are African American. Most have never taken a class from a professor who looks like them or who shares important aspects of their life experiences.
Food services, not teaching
“Most of the black people (at La Salle) are in food services,” observed junior Latisha Martin, one of more than 700 African-American students on La Salle’s campus in a predominantly black neighborhood at 20th Street and Olney Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia.
Martin and other black students at La Salle, like those on many other campuses across the country, say more black professors are needed to serve as role models and mentors; to offer first-hand experience and understanding in classes such as black history; and to break the homogeneity of the faculty demographics.
“A lot of teachers here are monotone,” complained senior accounting major John Duley, an African American student who has never had a black professor. “Same dress, same ideas, same everything.” He said a more diverse faculty would expand learning opportunities for all students. “I think it brings different perspectives and adds to what you’re learning,” he said.
A national issue
The dearth of black faculty at La Salle mirrors the shortfall at other colleges and universities across the country. Most are struggling to diversify their faculties at a time when there aren’t that many blacks coming through the PhD pipeline and entering academia. In 2014, for instance, just 6.4 percent of the doctorates awarded in the United States went to African Americans
Experts point out that most of the newly-minted black PhDs are opting for jobs in government, corporations and foundations instead of academia where starting salaries are relatively low. “Black talent is prized,” explained Greer Richardson, an African-American education professor at La Salle. “(Black) people are going to other places where they can make money, where their voices are put on a national stage, where they can move their careers forward.”
Currently, about half of all black faculty teach at historically black colleges and universities. Those who are looking for positions at universities outside the black-college circuit are often in such high demand that they can command starting salaries beyond the reach of schools like La Salle, which is struggling to make up a multi-million-dollar deficit.
A call for stepped-up recruiting
“Almost every institution of higher education should, must and has to do a better job in recruiting diverse faculty members. Period. End of story,” said Brian Goldstein, La Salle’s provost who oversees the faculty. “Our faculty and staff representation needs to be reflective of the students we have here.”
Nationally, blacks constitute 9 percent of the country’s professors, while they make up 17 percent of all undergraduates, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Locally, just 4.5 percent of the faculty at Temple University is black, while the student body is 12.5 percent black. At Penn State University, 1.6 percent of the faculty is black, while the student body is 4.1 percent black.
Though only about three percent of La Salle’s faculty is black, the university was able to add another black professor to its ranks last fall when it hired Baba Jallow, a native of Gambia, as a full-time professor in the school’s history department. The department hired its first African-American professor in 1967, ahead of many other schools. He rose to become department chair and retired several years ago.
“I do think that African-American and African professors are under-represented on many college campuses, with the obvious exception of the historically-black colleges,” said Jallow. “I do not know all the reasons why this is so, but I think many black students would like to see more of their own on college campuses.”
Goldstein, who was named just last year as La Salle’s provost, hopes to use three strategies to hire more black professors. One strategy, he said, is to make sure that faculty search committees, which look for prospective faculty members, are themselves diverse. Another approach is to set aside special “opportunity” funds that could be used to bring a minority faculty member to campus if an opportunity arises regardless of whether there is a faculty search underway, he said. In addition, Goldstein said that ads for new faculty members should encourage candidates from under-represented groups to apply.
Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, called for similar strategies. “Make sure they seek out minority candidates and include current minority faculty on search committees,” he said. Creating pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships for minority graduate students can also help expand the pool of blacks moving into academia, he noted.
Number one student demand
The lack of black professors became a national conversation last year when the University of Missouri was the first of many schools across the country where black students demonstrated about racial issues on campus. Images of students lining the streets, locking arms and camping in the quad were splashed across the news media. Other schools, including Yale University and Ithaca College, joined in on the protests. In a poll conducted by FiveThirtyEight, a non-partisan polling aggregation website, the number one demand of the protestors at 38 of 51 schools was the diversification of the faculty.
“It says that the students want their institutions to do more to attract black faculty,” said Slater. “Some like Brown, Johns Hopkins and Yale have recently initiated multi-million efforts aimed at increasing faculty diversity,” he said. “Students want to see a real effort being made and not just talk.”
At La Salle, where a major reorganization of academic programs is expected as the school works to get its financial house in order, it’s not clear how much faculty hiring will occur in the immediate future. But for many African-American students, the hiring of more black professors can’t come soon enough.
Offering “a unique experience”
“I think La Salle should get more black professors,” said senior Bianca Desamour, an African-American who is majoring in art history and communication major. “They offer a unique experience and I feel like they’re able to offer more insight on cultural norms.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen one (a black professor),” said Isaac Perry, a senior who has spent eight years at La Salle working on his undergraduate degree.
Senior Amir Tucker, who is also black, said he felt lucky to have had one black professor during his nearly four years at La Salle.
“I will never forget him”
“I will never forget him,” Tucker said. “I felt like the teacher really cared,” he recalled. “He sat down and talked to me about being late and you could tell that he related to me solely because I was African American and doing something good (attending college) that most people my age don’t do.”
Tucker said that someday, he’d like to be a teacher. “That’s one of the things I want to do when I get older,” he said. “I want to go back to school and teach other kids who are in my situation.”
Getting more black students into the graduate school pipeline and out into college teaching positions is music to the ears to La Salle religion professor Anthony Paul Smith, who is white. Last fall, he offered a new course called “Black Religion in America.” The class, which Smith said he organized as a way to teach about the black church as a force against racism and white supremacy, drew some 30 students, both black and white.
“A symptom of the problem”
Early on, Smith told his students that having a white man teach a course on black religion was “a symptom of the problem” of too few black professors at colleges and universities. “It’s wrong and it kind of goes against the principles of La Salle that we have such a diverse population and that’s not reflected to them in the figures who stand before them in class,” he said during a recent interview.
Smith’s students, who give him high marks as a teacher, had different reactions to the issue he posed.
“It didn’t even cross my mind having a black professor [for this class] because I never had one,” said Taylor Cammon, an African American student. “I was like, ‘it’s my senior year, I’m not getting a black professor now.”
Suzanne Ramsahai, a biracial student in the class, said a black professor should have taught the class. “He or she can effectively teach black history/studies because of his or her direct connection to the stories and issues that have occurred,” she said.
“We come to college to have our preconceived notions challenged,” said Alex Palma, a white student who took the black religion course. “Taking this class was a way for me to understand a part of life I didn’t know much about.”