UT-Austin Remains Short of Black Faculty Members
By Destinee Harrison
Cherrelle Thomas knew Austin would be “weird” when she decided to move here from Washington, D.C. But she had not bargained for “depressing.”
Thomas joined the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin as a doctoral student three years ago, and was shocked to see that her chemical engineering department did not have a single full-time black professor. “It doesn’t affect my education,” Thomas said. “But it does hinder my experience.”
The 25-year-old African American student had finished her undergraduate degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of the country’s 99 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) established to serve the black community. The change was therefore quite dramatic for her.
“I know that one day I want to be a professor,” Thomas said, “but looking in my department … it makes me wonder, ‘Is it possible, or am I setting my goals too high?’ ”
According to UT-Austin’s 2015 faculty data, there are only four black professors at the Cockrell School, or 1.1 percent of the faculty. Across the campus, only 3.6 percent of professors are black. The presence of black students is marginally better at 5 percent.
Texas’ black population is about 12.5 percent of the total, according to Census estimates, and Austin is about 8 percent black.
In contrast, 77.3 percent of UT-Austin faculty members are white – a figure that is high even by Texas standards. Of the state’s seven other tier-one research universities, only the private Rice University in Houston has a higher proportion of white faculty – 79 percent.
Richard Reddick is one of the few black professors on the UT-Austin campus. Growing up in the city’s east side, Reddick knew UT-Austin was where he wanted to study and teach. Both his parents attended the university, and Reddick received his undergraduate degree in African American Studies from UT in 1995. He started teaching there in 2007.
At the College of Education, where Reddick teaches, there are 14 black professors, or 7.9 percent of the total.
“I sometimes tell students this is not an HBCU or an MSI (Minority Serving Institution),” Reddick said. “It’s a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) with a capital P. I look at the campus and I see the lack of diversity. And I see a desire and a need to have more diversity.”
Eric Tang, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin, said he finds the lack of diversity among his teaching colleagues can curtail educational opportunities – and not just for minority students.
“A lack of diversity among the faculty contributes to a lower quality of education,” Tang said. “The experiences of faculty members, both intellectually [and] culturally, enrich the university’s education.”
Nationwide, 75 percent of faculty members at four-year colleges are white while 9 percent are black, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education report released in February.
The U.S. population is 77.4 percent white and 13.2 percent black, according to U.S. Census figures. Hispanics account for 17.4 percent, Asians for 5.4 percent and American Indian and Alaska Indian for 1.2 percent, in addition to persons of mixed races. (Census numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because some people are included in multiple categories.)
The 135-year-old UT-Austin has a troubling history of racism. It didn’t admit black students until a U.S. Supreme Court order in 1950. A statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis stood overlooking the campus’s Main Mall for 82 years; it was removed from public display last August following an advisory panel’s recommendation and a student government resolution.
The effort to create greater faculty diversity is by no means only a black and white issue. Last year, the university created a council for racial and ethnic equality and diversity, or CREED. Its responsibilities include advising the provost on enhancing racial and ethnic diversity among faculty members across a broad front.
Gregory J. Vincent has served as the vice president of the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement since 2006. Less than 1 percent of professors at the School of Law, where he teaches, are minorities. Vincent said faculty diversity is a high priority for him.
During his tenure, the university has hired professors who went on to create the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies. Hispanic professors make up 7.3 percent of the UT-Austin faculty.
“In order to begin changing society, we have to make sure the next generations of leaders have the tools to succeed,” Vincent said. “So far, we have hired over 60 [minority] faculty members that have gone on to bring opportunities that were not offered before.”
Reddick appreciates the university’s efforts to become more inclusive, but believes there is more to be done.
“You never want to get complacent,” he said. “Faculty searches is where it all happens. If you don’t have diverse people on your search committee, you won’t have diverse people in your pool. And that’s where the change needs to start.”