African American Women Among Professors

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Updated: Dec 02, 2022
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Tenure is an important, but overlooked, aspect of education that faces challenges related to racial imbalance. It has been defined as a “freedom of teaching and research, as well as financial security to make the profession more attractive to people looking to enter it” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 27% of full professors are white women, as opposed to just 2% of women who are African-American. It was also reported that 35% of Associate professors were white women, as opposed to just 4% that are African-American.

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It is important to have more tenured African-American women professors because universities can promote a “culture of diversity with a more diverse staff, provide multiracial learning experiences, be a mentor and role model to marginalized students, and shed light on cultural norms and values” (Agathangelou & Ling, 2002; Perry, Moore, Edwards, Acosta, & Frey, 2009). This research paper aims to understand and address the underrepresentation of African American women faculty at the Pennsylvania State University Main Campus.


Historically, African American women have had struggled to elevate their status among tenured professors in higher education. This demographic often receives a lower salary, teaches fewer classes, and tends to be underrepresented in administrative positions, such as university presidents (Gregory, 2001). In addition, about half of African American female university presidents preside over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and schools with low enrollments (Gregory, 2001). The historical causes of this struggle can be traced back to the Civil War era, during which very few African Americans received an education. This issue snowballed during the Jim Crow era, particularly in the Southern United States. The Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling permitted school segregation by race, a ruling which many school districts took advantage of. In areas with segregated schools, the schools for African American children generally had far fewer resources available to them than their white counterparts. This put African American students at a disadvantage in college admissions.
Prior to the establishment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), African Americans struggled to earn admission to most major American universities. In fact, until the mid-20th century, most universities located in the Southern United States which had majority white student populations discriminated by race (Gregory, 2001). The HBCUs were a necessary addition to provide opportunities for African-American students, especially those who had previously been discriminated against based on race.

Literature Review

While African American women have held positions in higher education for more than a century, they remain underrepresented among college and university tenure professors. In recent years, there has been growing research motivated by the need to increase the pipeline for tenured African American women faculty. The American professoriate has failed to become as racially and ethnically diverse as the general public (Ferguson, 2013; Turner & Myers, 2000). As many observers of demographic trends in the United States have noted, the non-White population is growing faster than the White population (Turner & Myers, 2000). According to the 2018 U.S Census Newsroom Report, “The non-Hispanic White-alone population is projected to shrink over the coming decades — even as the U.S. population continues to grow.” It would ideal if the population of tenured professors was reflective of the overall population.

“According to the 2010 Almanac of Higher Education (published by the Chronicle of Higher Education), in Fall 2007 there were 703,463 faculty members of all ranks, both tenured/tenure earning and non-tenure-earning. Of that number only 37,930 (5.4%) were black. Among senior tenured faculty (Associate Professor and Professor) the numbers are even bleaker only 13,694 (4.3%) were black. Without exception, men outnumber women in every racial category in the senior ranks; minoritized women account for only 15,347 senior, tenured faculty, which equals only 4.8% of the senior faculty and an abysmal 2.18% of the professoriate” (Boyd, T., et al., 2010, pg. 1). Although this data does not have a black women category, it shows us that black women make up less than 5.4% of faculty members of all ranks, less than 4.3% of associate professors, less than 4.8% of senior faculty and less than 2.18% of the entire professoriate. This data highlights the racial imbalance in the professoriate. While both women and minoritized communities have historically been excluded from the academy, over the last half-century or so there have been numerous, intensive policy and structural interventions, such as the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, and Affirmative Action. (Boyd, T., et al., 2010). Even with these interventions, the intersection of black women has still been neglected by the academy.

Tenure track faculty positions in higher education tend to be measured by ranks of assistant, associate and full professor. The lower academic ranks tend to be overpopulated by minorized women in academia (Boyd, T., et. al, 2010). “In Research I institutions, promotion and tenure are based upon research, writing, and service. For African American women in White institutions, service is a large component of their activities. Yet, it is held against them when they are reviewed for promotion” (Holmes, S. L. 1999, pg. 199).

Penn State

Penn State allows assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors to be tenure tracked as defined by Policy AC21 Definition of Academic Ranks. There is a set criteria outlined in Policy AC23 for promotion and tenure, highlighting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Scholarship of Research and Creative Accomplishments, and Service and Scholarship of Service to the University, Society, and the Profession (Penn State Academic Policies, September 6, 2018). If an assistant, associate, or full professor exceeds standards in each of these categories, as evaluated at the Department, the College, and the University level, they will be awarded a promotion.

The history of black faculty, students, and organizations at Penn State dates back to 1899, when the first colored student and graduate, Calvin H. Waller, was admitted into Penn State studying Agriculture. Over the 20th century, Penn State had many historical landmarks that advanced and supported the achievement of African American students, faculty and communities. These initiatives included setting the standard for racial integration and knowledge through athletics, activism, campus events and speakers, curriculum, organizations, and research. Mary Godfrey was Penn State’s first black full-time faculty member, beginning as art education in 1956. In 1963, Charles T. Davis was the first black full tenured professor of English . In 1981, there were only 19 Black full-time faculty members. By 2010, 30 years later, that number had only risen to 171, or 2.85%, of faculty were African American (African American Chronicles, 2014). Out of the 3,474 full-time faculty at Penn State in Fall 2018, only 103 of them are African American. This is 2.96% (African American Chronicles, 2014). The number has decreased but the percentage has slightly gone up, reflecting an overall decrease in number of faculty. It’s shocking that even in the last decade, the overall number of black professors have decreased. According to the University Budget Office Fact Book for Fall 2018, 44.2% of faculty at University Park are tenured or on track to be tenured (Penn State University Budget Office, 2018). 39.7% of the total full-time faculty are women (Penn State University Budget Office, 2018). There is no information available on the intersections of being a professor that has tenure or is on tenure track, black, and a woman. If we use the data that is available, we can reasonably assume that there are 18 black, tenure or tenure track, women professors at Penn State. Penn State claims to have diversity as a “core value of the academic mission” and willing to take “considerable strides towards building a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable institution” (Penn State Educational Equity, 2018). These data bring up questions of why the number of African American faculty are so low, and what the University can do to to improve.


Three potent themes through critical analysis about this phenomenon are the following: dominant narratives of the professorship, navigating expectations and racialized and gendered macroaggressions. Moreover, articles sought to explore faculty narratives and research on Black women in the academy, prioritized their intersections of race and sexism. Both of these identities create a unique set of experiences for Black faculty seeking tenure in institutions of higher learning. Additionally, by focusing on intersectionality as a core source of oppression, these studies highlighted findings that vary depending on backgrounds.

For example, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, data displays an alarming pattern of how populated professorship is by White women and men in higher education. According to this source, the faculty who are voting professors into tenured positions are ones who already have that credential. Consequently, if White women and men represented 25% and 60% of these tenured positions, they are the ones who get to decide if Black women will get into these tenured positions. This may be a group of people White faculty have never been exposed to, or worse, carry racist or sexist attitudes towards this particular group. Moreover, this is critical for the research question because it gauges systematic barriers for Black women who are faculty, to get through. These policies and practices that continue to create inequitable outcomes for Black women who are faculty can be seen in the statistical data showing White faculty provided by this source (NCES, 2012).

Along those same lines, in the article “What have You done for Me Lately? Black Female Faculty and ‘Talking Back’ to the Tenure Process at PWIs” by Sharnine Herbert, she identifies proactive ways to address the core theme of racialized and gendered microaggressions (Herbert, 2012). This source suggests proactive ways for Black women who are faculty to trace and document their unique experiences, as they can be used later on to highlight disparities in tenure advancement. Additionally, this source highlights the multitude of roles Black faculty are asked to serve at their respective institutions. While the author states that while most do not find this work unfulfilling, it still creates a heavy load on top of navigating other parts of the institutions that create oppression. As a solution, this author offers “redefinition” of what it means to be a Black woman who is a faculty member at a predominately White institution. This action of redefinition, for the author, consists of moving away from “nurturing:” roles and demanding more as it pertains to interpretations of different roles within the university. This is important for the research question because it calls for Black women who are faculty to begin documenting these experiences rather than just living with them, and offering self-definition and redefinition as key words to guide this transition. Additionally, it calls for Black women who are faculty to know they are valued in these positions as mentors and educators, but to also encourage them to demand and call for more in order to get the tenured they deserve.

The second theme of navigating expectations was potent through the research as well. For example, Kimberly Griffin highlights faculty narratives and research on Black women in the academy, prioritizing their intersections of race and sexism (Griffin, 2013). Both of these identities create a unique set of experiences for Black faculty seeking tenure in institutions of higher learning. Additionally, by focusing on intersectionality as a core source of oppression, this study highlights findings that vary depending on backgrounds. As a result, some Black women identified teaching evaluations as playing a huge part in their tenure advancement process. Consequently, contributing factors to tenure advancement as described in this article were teaching evaluations and research topics concerning race and ethnicity. This is critical to answering the research question by providing qualitative experiences presented by Black women who are currently trying to become tenured professors at a predominately White institution (Griffin, 2013).


As a team, we have come up with three core solutions to this phenomenon. The first is distinguishing which departments at a given institution (Penn State in this example) has the lowest amount of Black women faculty and aim to recruit these women in these fields because they do exist. However, we understand that the current Fact Book does not include intersections of both Black and woman in its data. This makes it increasingly difficult to identify where the Black women faculty lack representation and create efficient change. As a consequence, this solution has two parts: a) update the Penn State Fact Book to truly reflect intersections of identity and b) hire more Black women faculty in the departments that need their diligence and honorable scholarship.

The second solution, and arguably the most important, is to fix the campus climate for Black women faculty. Alone, recruitment and retention will not solve any and all issues of racial or sexist practices by the institution. As a result, institutional and systematic changes to sustain equitable advancement for Black women who are faculty are critical. If individual departments are doing the work, the institution must follow suit. This means hidden agendas in hiring practices, evaluation of research for tenure track faculty, etc. must be adjusted to truly reflect working as a social change agent.

Lastly, the earlier findings assert that Black women had to encounter multiple stressors of being tenure track such as publishing, teaching, serving as diversity chairs, unofficially mentoring other minoritized students, etc. However, the “norm” in most institutions is an individualistic work ethic as opposed to a collaborative or collective effort to obtain tenure. As a consequence, it is not valued as much to act as a mentor and to have a multitude of roles because the priority is to work as an individual. Consequently, the last solution is to incorporate a more collective and collaborate work ethic to make the normal lives of Black women faculty a practice to obtaining tenure.

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African American Women Among Professors. (2021, Apr 10). Retrieved from