Between 2015 and 2020, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro nearly doubled its number of Black faculty members.
Dear Commons Community,
Most predominantly white colleges have struggled for decades to increase the racial diversity of their faculty members. Overall, people of color make up just over one-fifth of the professoriate, compared with nearly half of undergraduates.
But the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is on its way to becoming a success story. From 2015 to 2020, the number of Black faculty members there nearly doubled, the number of Hispanic faculty members rose about 50 percent, and the number of Asian faculty members increased by about 25 percent. As a whole, the share of white professors declined to 72 percent from 81 percent. Sarah Brown in The Chronicle of Higher Education writes how UNC Greensboro diversified its faculty by “years of hard work by faculty members advocating for change in their departments and leadership that makes a real commitment.” Here is an excerpt from her article.
“There’s no flashy multimillion-dollar campus initiative. No declaration of an ambitious faculty-diversity goal. There’s no chief diversity officer. There’s not even a standalone diversity office. So how did the campus do it?
UNC-Greensboro is in some ways better situated than other colleges for increasing its faculty diversity. Enrollment has been growing, so there have been more opportunities to hire professors. The local population is racially diverse, and so is the student body. But UNC-Greensboro is also a non-flagship public university without lots of money or a huge national brand.
UNC-Greensboro’s success so far proves that diversifying the faculty doesn’t stem from pomp and circumstance. It results from years of hard work by faculty members advocating for change in their departments and leadership that makes a real commitment.
Much of the progress comes down to resource allocation and messaging, says Frank Gilliam, the university’s first Black chancellor, whose tenure began in 2015. If departments want to secure additional funding and resources from the chancellor and the provost, they must, for instance, ensure that their candidate pools are diverse.
“The bus is leaving the station,” Gilliam tells the campus community. “And either you’re on it or you’re not.”
Gilliam’s leadership set a strong tone, but it took many other people to get UNC-Greensboro to where it is now. Like Andrea G. Hunter, a professor of human development and family studies. Hunter is a chancellor’s fellow for campus climate and serves in Gilliam’s cabinet. She spends about half her time working on campus diversity efforts — promoting self-awareness and engagement with anti-racism through workshops and training, determining which campus policies and procedures undermine equity, and ensuring there’s assessment and accountability.
Hunter has seen 20 years of evolution in her department. Progress required curricular reform, training, and a lot of deep, reflective conversations to make sure professors understood the experiences of students and faculty members who didn’t look like them, Hunter says. And it required disrupting the informal practices, such as promoting job openings only within narrow professional networks, that tended to replicate the professors who were already there.
Her department’s faculty is now about one-third people of color, and a Black woman just became the chair. Diversity has made the department better, Hunter says. The quality of the faculty-applicant pool has improved. UNC-Greensboro’s program in human development and family studies is now among the top five nationwide, she says.
Hunter is now trying to promote that kind of change across the campus. She had been in the Faculty Senate leadership for several years, and planned to take a step back from service in 2020. But then Gilliam asked her to serve in this new role right after George Floyd’s death. “I felt the weight of the historical moment,” Hunter says.
Other departments are still lagging behind on racial diversity, but Hunter is optimistic. She wouldn’t have stayed so long, she says, “if I didn’t believe in what was possible here.” Her sense is that people believe in the university’s commitment to racial equity.
That commitment won over Sherine O. Obare, who is the first woman of color ever hired as a dean at UNC-Greensboro. Obare leads the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, which is a partnership with North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution in Greensboro. She had gone on campus visits elsewhere, and sometimes felt a wave of tension when she, a Black woman, entered a space. “You can just read the room, and you’re like, Oh, people are just not very comfortable here,” she says.
At UNC-Greensboro, in non-pandemic times, people from different backgrounds sit with one another, having lunch, catching up, talking, laughing, Obare says. There are places for people of different faiths to pray on campus. The university’s Black faculty and staff group frequently hosts brown-bag lunches with no particular agenda — just to create a hangout space. “You just feel like the culture is really inviting and accepting,” she says.
That environment reflects what Gilliam calls “threshold” effects. At a certain point, he says, an institution finally has enough diverse voices that decision-making and culture start to change.
Gilliam draws a distinction between descriptive representation and substantive representation. Descriptive representation, he says, happens when there’s one person of color here, and another one over there. One of them might end up on a committee, on a board, or in the president’s cabinet. In such situations, the best they can typically do is prevent something from happening. They can’t advance any new ideas. Substantive representation, meanwhile, looks more like UNC-Greensboro, he says.
Once that kind of threshold is reached, someone might still be the only Black person in one particular room, whether it’s a classroom or a boardroom. But when that person leaves the room, he or she can see many other Black people elsewhere on campus. That kind of progress, Gilliam says, brings “a tremendous psychic benefit for students and for faculty.”
Excellent example of what can be done when administrators and faculty put their minds to it!