by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University
Last week, the American Council on Education issued a report on the state of black males in the higher education system. The report reveals some interesting and disturbing trends. It turns out that black men are graduating from college at a rate which lags significantly behind other ethnic groups. When determining graduation probabilities over a six-year period, black males were found to have a graduation rate of 35 percent. This compares with rates of 59 percent, 46 percent and 45 percent for white males, hispanic males and black women, respectively. In other words, black men are a little more than half as likely to finish college when compared to their white male counterparts.
I have been a black man for my entire life now, and I’ve taught at the college level for the past 17 years. So, perhaps I can shed some light on the nature of these problems and how we might work to solve them. Some of the factors are institutional and some are cultural, so prepare to be offended by at least one of the things I have to say:
1) Most American universities refuse to hire or retain African American professors, including many HBCUs: If your professors look like you, you are more likely to relate to that individual and enjoy the class. When I went to The University of Kentucky, Indiana University and The Ohio State University (where I earned my PhD), I didn’t see one single professor who looked like me (and I took A LOT of classes). This made for an incredibly awkward and damn near traumatic educational experience. When I first noticed institutions like Morehouse College presenting images of black males in the front of the classroom, I was envious after realizing what I’d been missing. Rather than finding excuses for firing or not hiring black professors, most universities would be well-advised to stop lying to themselves and become serious about diversity. Yes, black professors are out there to hire if you are looking for them, but many academic departments find a reason to believe that they are not qualified. Just look at the experiences of myself, Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson as cases in point. Each of us has received significant resistance in our careers because our work is connected to the black community. Our stories are just the tip of the iceberg, since there are thousands of black professors who’ve gone through the exact same experience when dealing with the entrenched racism of academia. Many HBCUs are not immune to this trend, as most of them don’t have very many African American professors (Don’t believe me? Go to the Computer Science Department or Business School at any random HBCU and count the number of African American professors).