Good intentions and a well-considered plan have not gotten the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where it wants to go for improving its faculty diversity. Not yet.
Those charged with increasing minority representation on UL Lafayette’s faculty say the needle has slowed or stuck when it comes to progress, victim to a pandemic or a short candidate pool or a community too small to lure — and keep — diverse professors here. Sometimes, it’s a matter of more than one thing that keeps the number of minority professors too low.
“Our faculty diversity leaves a lot to be desired,” said Taniecea Mallery, director of the Office of Diversity. Under her direction, UL Lafayette has developed campuswide committees, launched conversations and encouraged a comprehensive plan that seeks not only to increase the number of minority faculty, but to also retain those faculty members already on campus. That three-year plan was launched but midway ran headlong into COVID-19, which has hampered some efforts.
Mallery said that because of nationwide concern in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, conversations about race have gained new energy at UL Lafayette and in the community. Campus organizations want to take action and show their solidarity with that objective. Recruiting and retaining minority faculty seems to be one cause around which people of goodwill can coalesce.
“Our student body is very diverse,” Mallery said. The faculty? That’s another matter.
DataUSA says UL Lafayette’s student body — full- and part-time students — is 65.3% White, 19.4% Black or African American; 5.32%, Hispanic or Latino; 2.32%, Asian.
But Paul Thomas, UL’s chief human resources officer, said of 652 faculty members, about 74% are White; 10%, Asian; 5%, Black; 3% Hispanic or Latino. The numbers don’t add up to 100% because some faculty members identify with more than one race or their race is unknown. Those demographics, Thomas said, have been consistent over the years. He said the prevailing wisdom suggests UL's faculty and staff make-up should be roughly the same as that of the student enrollment.
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Provost Jaimie Hebert said there’s a clear desire at UL Lafayette to increase hiring of minority faculty and an appreciation of why it matters. Recruiting minority faculty, he said, is not solely about matching demographics. It’s about “doing what we need to engage students, retain students and make them successful.”
A diverse faculty, he said, brings new perspectives to the academic table. It provides a “real world” landscape for students who will someday leave campus for the workforce.
It raises new possibilities in students’ minds, too. Nathan Roberts, dean of the College of Education, said, “It’s beneficial for students to see people like themselves (on faculty). If a woman never sees a woman firefighter, she never thinks of becoming a firefighter. Just seeing people in those positions, you think, ‘I can do that, too.’”
There’s this, as well: Some students of under-represented minority groups might take comfort in seeking out academic advice or other guidance from faculty members who hold similar backgrounds. “I would appreciate it if there were more Black faculty members, just so I know I had people to talk to,” said Christopher Ntambi, a freshman from New Orleans who is studying biology.
Ntambi, who is Black, said he was surprised when he arrived at UL Lafayette and found so few Black faculty members on campus (there are 37) among the 652 faculty members. He said he sees few Black women on the faculty, “females of color to whom we could look up.”
“I didn’t realize that until I got here,” said Ntambi, who went to a majority White high school Belle Chasse.
Jasmine Goodly, a freshman from Lake Charles who is studying nursing, said she sees Black faculty in her college, but perceives there are fewer Black administrators at UL. Initially, she had intended to go to an historically Black campus, such as Southern University in Baton Rouge or Texas Southern in Houston, but she found that UL Lafayette provided the same or similar opportunities to join organizations like the NAACP on campus. She said she’d recommend UL Lafayette to Black friends.
Aasritha Kotha, a graduate student in computer science from India, said she sees and appreciates the diverse faculty in her school at UL. She said students and faculty come from Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, India, China and the United States.
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“It’s helpful to have a diverse faculty because you encounter different study perspectives,” she said. In India, for example, faculty had a very practical approach to computer science. She’s found broader perspectives here.
In fact, whether students encounter Black faculty may depend upon their course of study. Roberts said the College of Education is overwhelmingly White and female. He said he’s pursuing grant money to help diversify the faculty and student enrollment, but he said the real work for that might come through K-12 education, where more minority students must be recruited to teach. About 10 percent of his faculty is from underrepresented minorities, he said, from Black, Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.
Theo Foster, who teaches African American history at UL, said UL faces numerous challenges in attracting Black faculty. He said he was fortunate to land a job in Lafayette; he’d graduated from prestigious Northwestern University in Chicago, but there were few jobs available for African American studies scholars at graduation. He said he applied to about 50 colleges and universities for positions and was pleased to land at a university with a representative Black student enrollment.
“It’s attractive for a Black professor to know students will share an experience with the content,” he said.
He said hiring Black professors and retaining them are separate issues, though, and UL is “behind in investing resources in retaining and recruiting Black faculty members.” He said the salary is what he expected in Louisiana — it is low — and that the Legislature must address investing in higher education: “We need raises and salaries here.”
Black faculty members also need the time and resources for research and writing if they’re going to move up. Heavier teaching loads at UL, he said, leave faculty at a disadvantage for both.
“It’s a structural issue, and I’m not speaking ill of my employer,” he said. But teaching with heavy loads and trying to advance professionally becomes “a hamster-and-wheel thing.”
The University of Louisiana System hopes to make headway on faculty salary during the legislative session that opens April 12. The system, which represents its nine member institutions, wants to reach the Southern regional average for faculty pay.
That would help one part of a wider topic of concern — retention — in Mallery’s office and elsewhere: Are minority faculty members getting the support they need to be successful at UL?
“We are having conversations around the country about retention,” she said, that include re-thinking the tenure process. She said the few Black faculty members are called upon to do substantial amounts of committee and community work — a “whole lot of service.” Is that valued enough in considering professional advancement?
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Foster participated in a community discussion on voting rights this spring that turned political when board members of the sponsor, the local library, suggested the discussion guides were too liberal and would not represent opposing views. The UL Lafayette library sponsored the program instead, but Foster said he’d been targeted by “right-wing politicos.” Nonetheless, he added, the UL administration showed him strong support.
A second consideration: With so few minority faculty members, are new faculty members getting the camaraderie and shared experiences that will keep them here? Mallery and Hebert both suggested that shared experiences might develop from work on broad, interdisciplinary challenges, which invites “cluster hires” — teams of scholars who might share efforts in multidisciplinary fashion on big topics such as sustained energy or the coronavirus. Matching those big topics to scholars who can work within portions of them might develop opportunities to hire minority faculty, drawing them together within a wider community of scholars.
Camaraderie and shared experiences often matter to young faculty members who are moving to a smaller metropolitan community, where they not only build a career but a life. Thomas suggested that UL would do well to focus on providing mentors for new faculty members and particularly for minority faculty members who might not have “natural support” in a mostly White community.
“Smaller communities present unique challenges for young faculty,” Thomas said. “You’re bringing them into a small community for fewer opportunities for socialization and to meet people." Smaller communities have less appeal.
“Folks may spend a lot of time at work, but time outside of work counts as much,” he said.
Success in recruiting and retaining minority faculty members would serve a goal wider than that at UL Lafayette. The UL System Board of Supervisors has declared more representative faculties as part of the system’s priorities. Diversity, the board said, is “essential to operational effectiveness and mission fulfillment.”
“We want to reflect the population we serve,” Mallery said. “We want to be reflective of the student body. Five percent is not cutting it.”