The other day I saw a number of anti-racist people tweeting that “nearly 90% of full-time professors are White.” As I have previously complained when 90% of the full professors at my then-school (UNC) were White, I was interested to follow up. Unfortunately, that popular tweet turns out to be a stretched description of a simple error.
The facts are in this Education Department report from May, which was reported at the time by The Ed Advocate, and suddenly started going around the other day for unknown reasons. The “nearly 90%” is the Ed Advocate’s description of 84%, which is the percentage White among full-time full professors, which the original report in one place accidentally describes as just full-time professors. Among all full-time instructional faculty, in fact, 79% are White. So the headline, “Study: Nearly 90 Percent of Full-time Professors Are White,” was a conflation of two errors. It presumably became popular because it put a number to a real problem lots of people are aware of and looking for ways to highlight.
Here is the original chart:
The problem of White over-representation among college faculty is not that apparent in this national 79% statistic. Consider, for example, that among all full-time, full-year workers age 40 and older (my made-up benchmark), 71% are non-Hispanic White. Among those with a Masters degree or higher, 77% are White. So faculty, nationally and at all levels, don’t look that different from the pool from which they’re drawn.
The 84% full professor statistic reflects the greater White representation as you move up the academic hierarchy. And that’s not just a question of waiting for younger cohorts with more non-White faculty to age into the professoriate. Because the pipeline isn’t working that well, especially for Black faculty. Which brings me back to my old UNC complaint, which focused mostly on Back under-representation. In 2010 I noted that the North Carolina population was 22% Black, while the UNC faculty was 4.7% Black. But full professors at UNC were just 2.4% Black, while the assistant professors were 7.5% Black. Is that the pipeline working? Well, only 4.5% of the recent faculty hires were Black.
I went back to check on things. As of the 2014 report (they’re all here), the update is that UNC has stopped reporting the numbers by rank, so now all they say is that 5.2% of all faculty are Black, and they don’t report the makeup of recent hires. So take from that what you will.
And what about further up the pipeline? I previously shared numbers showing a drop in Black representation among entering freshmen at the University of Michigan, from 10% to 5% over the 2000s. The trend at UNC is in the same direction:
Of course we always need to be cautious about numbers that support what we already know or believe. Some people will respond to this by saying, “but the point remains.” Right, but if the number is irrelevant to the point, there’s no need to use the number. Plenty of people can say, “In all my undergraduate years, I never had a Black professor,” or some other highly relevant observation.*
On the other hand, others of us need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that progress on under-representation is just happening out there because everyone thinks it should and it’s just a matter of time. That common assumption allows defensive administrators to do write thinks like this caption (from UNC’s 2011-2012 report):
This is misleading: There was a big increase in Hispanic students (North Carolina has a growing Hispanic population) and Asian students, and marked drops in Black and American Indian students. But “overall, steady increase” is an easy narrative to sell.
If they scaled that chart from 0 to 12 and dropped Whites, “overall, steady increase” would look like this: