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Shades of Gray: The Architects: Pedagogy and race at Brandeis

Part three in a comprehensive examination of race at Brandeis

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: News


Professor Mingus Mapps (AAAS, POL) has been teaching race and politics at Brandeis for the past four years. As one out of the handful of African-American professors at Brandeis, Mapps points out, “I’m really lucky in a lot of ways because I teach at the intersection of race and politics, so I get a lot of student who are already interested in the subject. One of the great things about Brandeis is going into my class, and to see the exchanges that happen between people of very different backgrounds, people who have probably never been exposed to gangs before to people who have literally grown up in projects; to see them respectfully, but passionately explore some of the most important issues in American society today, and through those discussions develop some real friendships. So that’s when I feel best about what I’m doing here, in the classroom.”

He recognizes that his path here was a lucky, yet unusual one filled with chance connections and having known professors who had worked here. But Mapps also worries about why Brandeis was not known to him before.

“If you were a young African-American or Hispanic PhD. candidate, Brandeis isn’t just necessarily as well-known as the other places. I know when you’re looking for job opportunities, Brandeis is just the first school that comes up.” he said.

The question of Brandeis as a home to minority professors and students is one that remains better answered now than it was a decade ago, yet yields many more questions.

“The role that race studies play at Brandeis is less settled than the role that Biology or Political Science plays,” Mapps said. “We kind of need to press forward with that.”

Status of the faculty

There are eight African-American undergraduate faculty members at Brandeis. These few comprise only 1.5 percent of the university’s total undergraduate faculty, with 2.6 percent of the total undergraduate faculty being Hispanic.

As of this academic year African-Americans comprise 1.6 percent of Brandeis’ full-time faculty, with 3 percent being Hispanic and 78 percent being white, according to a study by the university department for institutional research. African-American percentages are further stratified in regards to part-time faculty, who often include recent doctorates and graduate students, with 72 percent being white non-Hispanic professors, 1.1 percent being African-American and 1.7 percent being Hispanic. These numbers mark a decrease in African-American full-time faculty members since 2009, when 2 percent were African-American and 2 percent were Hispanic.

The low percentage of African-American and Hispanic professors is an issue Brandeis has been grappling with for many years. The decreasing percentage trend in faculty was brought up as a concern as early as 2005 during a university re-accreditation meeting.

“An issue of concern is the diversity of faculty,” the minutes of the Oct. 20 meeting read. “This is being addressed, but progress will be slow.”

Interestingly, an evaluation of faculty appointments from 2000 to 2007 showed progress in the gender diversity of faculty, something many other schools grapple with, but not in racial diversity. In the 2007-2008 academic year, 60 percent of the faculty was men and 40 percent was woman—with increased gender diversity from the 2003-2004 academic year, when 64 percent of faculty was male and 36 percent was female.

Yet while improvements have been made during the years in respect to gender diversity, racial diversity has remained stagnant at best. Between 2000 and 2007, 73 percent of the tenure-track faculty hires were white, with the remaining 27 percent of hires being classified as faculty of color. The individual percentages of Hispanic, African-American and Asian professors with tenure, however, are unknown because all races other than Caucasian were classified as “people of color.”

“We are in the process of trying to make at least one new hire and hopefully two, so I hope to see that program grow,” Mapps said in an interview with The Hoot this week.

One or two professors, however, will not provide the significant growth Brandeis requires to reach national standards.

Nationwide statistics show that Brandeis is behind the curve when it comes to having a racially diverse faculty. In fall 1998, the total percentage of black, non-Hispanic faculty for private, not-for profit, liberal arts universities was at 10.7 percent, while Hispanic faculty was at 4.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education 1999 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty.

Ultimately, professors of color (including Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans) comprised 40.5 percent of the full-time faculty nationwide.

Hiring practices behind percentages

Whenever the university begins a search for a new faculty member, a committee is formed that includes a “diversity representative” (DR). This representative is a non-voting member of the committee, who is present “to ensure that minority and female candidates are given due consideration in hiring procedures for tenured and tenure-track faculty,” according to the provost’s website.

While all members of the search committee are charged with ensuring the candidates match the search criteria, the DR “pays particular attention to the diversity of the applicant pool,” and is responsible for monitoring the applicant pool and for “alert[ing] the search committee chair if it lacks diversity so that reasons for the deficiency can be identified and further outreach incentives implemented, if necessary.”

DRs do most of their work in the early stages of a search and are responsible for maximizing outreach to minority professors. As part of this, all advertisements for faculty positions publicized by the university read, “Brandeis University is an equal opportunity employer, committed to building a culturally diverse intellectual community, and strongly encourages applications from women and minorities.”

The provost’s website also suggests DRs “ask female and minority faculty … in departments with overlapping research areas, for advice on networking contacts. They may even have acquaintances at other institutions who might make ideal hires for Brandeis.”

The identity of the DR changes in each search and is kept anonymous from the other members of the committee. At the end of the search, the DR is required to sign a Fair Search Report in approval of the chosen hire.

Krauss described these practices as “an all-point press to try and build as diverse a pool as possible.”

Since the identity of the DR is varied and kept anonymous, it is difficult to understand the experience of agency in that position. Tenured Professor Jane Hale (EDU) has previously served as a DR on a search committee, however, and was able to give insight into the difficulty of disagreeing with your colleagues on this particular issue of the lack of minority professors.

“The attitude that people have is ‘everything’s fine, everything’s fine. What are you upset about?’ I can’t tell you the number of times that I have gotten upset in a meeting, and it’s ‘there goes Jane again,’ But I criticize us because I want us to better, I don’t criticize us to break us down,” she said. “I have been here 25 years and I really love my career, I love my students, but I think the faculty is really the next place to look at. I think it’s very, very, very important.”

Hale’s anecdote depicts the difficulty of being a single representative for diversity on an entire hiring committee of one’s colleagues.

Minority faculty members are not only sought after when there is an open position. Professors are encouraged to keep an eye out for qualified minority PhD candidates both at Brandeis and when they participate in conferences.

Another mechanism that has been successful in obtaining minority candidates for hire is the “target opportunity hires program” that is used “where if someone who presents an unusual way of diversifying … becomes known to us, the department can petition the administration to hire a person even when there wasn’t a spot allocated to that department that they were trying to fill,” Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe said in an interview last month.

“It is an example of how even in this chilly hiring environment, we are still on the lookout [for minority professors].”

Clogs in the pipeline

The most recent obstacle the university has faced in finding minority faculty members is the university’s financial strife, which last year was described by one of the members of the board of trustees as a “$25 million budget shortfall in the typical year.” These financial troubles limit the number of new faculty hires the university can afford.

“We don’t have a lot of faculty hiring going on now,” Krauss said. “If you are not searching, you are not finding.”

But problems in faculty racial diversity predate the current university financial crisis.

Jaffe attributed the historically low percentage of professors of color at Brandeis to a combination of a “seemingly small number of qualified [minority] candidates” and “competition that is intense.”

Because of a lack of access to higher education among minority populations in the United States, Jaffe said the pipeline of PhD students of color “is not very robust.”

This national socioeconomic reality often forces the university to choose between quality and quantity.

“At the end of the day we are not going to choose someone who we think is less qualified because they will diversify the faculty,” Jaffe said.

This dearth in qualified candidates also means the university faces stiff competition in attracting racial minority professors to Brandeis. There have been numerous instances where minority candidates have been offered positions at Brandeis only to receive better offers from other universities, Jaffe said, citing one case that occurred a few years ago involving a Hispanic science professor.

Krauss reiterated the point.

“The truth is that when there is a really solid candidate who is a minority, that person can pretty much write their own ticket,” she said.

In recent years, the university has seen growth in the number of East Asian and Asian faculty hires across multiple disciplines. Jaffe, who served as chair of the economics department before becoming dean, said, that in the last 10 years, the economics department—usually dominated by white males—“has hired several south Asian women.

“On the one hand that means something to all of the people in the department who are not white males,” Jaffe said, “But on the other hand … you need to have different kinds of faculty of color.”

The number of African-American and Hispanic professors on campus is not only smaller than that of Asian faculty members, but these professors are also concentrated in specific disciplines, something Jaffe said is no coincidence.

The pipeline is particularly thin when it comes to the sciences, and currently the university does not have any African-American or Hispanic math or science professors. Because of this, the university sometimes relies on departments with ethnic focuses—like the Afro and African-American Studies (AAAS) department—to draw minority professors. This practice is one the university tries not to rely on.

“It would not be sufficient to just say we are going to have a big AAAS department and most of those professors will be African-American and thus we will have a good cadre of African-American faculty,” Jaffe said. “If that happens, then someone majoring in biochemistry will not see any non-white faculty. But given how hard it is [to attract minority professors], it is a worthwhile component of your hiring strategy to think about the areas where you are most likely to get [minority applicants].”

Though having most minority faculty members in ethnic disciplines is not ideal, for now, Jaffe said, it is better than nothing.

“To a certain extent, it just matters who’s on campus,” he said. “African-American professors are sought out by non-majors as mentors.”

Though this cross-discipline mentoring can be positive, Krauss worries it strains minority faculty due to the growing proportion of minority students that may go to them for mentoring.

“Minority faculty here get tapped for a lot of extra-curricular activities,” she said.

Retention problems

Not only does the university face obstacles in attracting minority faculty to Brandeis, it also has trouble keeping them here.

Within the last eight years the university has also lost a number of African-American professors for various reasons, Jaffe said.

“We are talking about three or four people over eight years and in each case there were specific circumstances … But we have had much more difficulty hiring and retaining African-American faculty than other kinds of faculty who are diverse in other ways.”

And when the total number of African-American faculty members is just eight people (or 1.5 percent of all faculty), a loss of 3 to 4 professors over eight years is significant.

While the numbers may be unsettling, Krauss said faculty leaving the university is just a natural part of academia.

“The truth is we have lost a number of minority faculty either because they did not meet the standards of tenure or got recruited away. Those things happen,” she said. “In fact, in any university you don’t want to see people not get tenure, but the fact that some of your stars get recruited away is a fact of life.”

University executive summaries, however, suggest the reasoning is not that simple. In 1993 an executive summary study of minority and non-minority faculty and staff reports that not only did discrimination against black faculty and staff occur, it also “may have been a factor in blacks being denied promotions and tenure.”

The study also stated that minority and non-minority faculty felt black faculty and administrators had a more difficult time being accepted at Brandeis than other minorities. Black staff reported being repeatedly challenged by their supervisors, colleagues and those they serve in the university to prove themselves after they are hired or promoted; and “minority and non-minority faculty reported that minority faculty who specialize in minority issues are considered marginal scholars by some colleagues,” the study said.

More so than being marginalized, Mapps also points out the lack of support within the community of African-American professors solely due to their low numbers.

“I do think there is a critical mass problem,” he said. “A good way to build diversity is to have a critical mass of students and faculty of colors.”

“The faculty of color on campus: There are not that many, but a critical mass helps because there are many issues that particularly pertain to faculty of color and there are not really enough of us here to form a community and support each other individually.”

Seventy percent of faculty said more should be done to ensure multiracial understanding.

With only eight African-American professors on campus, it is understandable that their perspective is in higher demand at many activities on campus, and therefore they are often burdened with involvement in many extracurricular activities.

As Mapps pointed out, “The job is a little bit different as a faculty of color; I think literally the mentoring demands are much higher. I think there are a certain class of students that literally require your time in a way that other faculty may not experience.

“I kind of know if you talk to any faculty of color they feel sort of frustrated and little bit depressed because, given what you would do with all your students, there’s just not enough time or bodies or resources to do what you would like to do,” Mapps said. “I think there is a lot of burn out, a lot of frustration that happens on that end of things.”

Diversifying the power brokers

Brandeis is not only lacking racial diversity in its faculty—in its administration as well.

In the 63 years of its existence, Brandeis has never had a minority president. Of the 11 administrators listed on the “senior leadership” portion of the university website, all are Caucasian. The lack of racial diversity in the senior administration is also mirrored by the 40-member board of trustees, of which there is a single African-American member.

Dean of Student Life Jamele Adams was originally hired in 2005 as the “assistant dean of student life for the support of diversity” and said he still handles many issues of diversity in his current position.

“As an individual of color in higher education, you go into it knowing, one: There are not a lot of us. And two: On any given campus if you have someone color … you by default become ‘the diversity person,’” he said. “That’s fine, it is what it is, it comes with the territory.”

Indeed, one of the responsibilities of Adams’ position is organizing the Community Prejudice Response Task Force, which deals with allegations of discrimination whenever they occur on campus.

Also on the task force is Elaine Wong, who, in her position as senior associate dean of arts and sciences for undergraduate education, sits on the provost’s steering committee on campus diversity issues. In recent years, the committee has spearheaded a “diverse texts” project which seeks to “expose undergraduate students to a variety of human societies, cultures and countries while exploring the causes and consequences of racial, ethnic, gender, class and religious differences” by integrating core texts approved by the committee into as many courses as possible, according to the initiative’s website.

“You know, there is nothing in my job description that says ‘you will deal with diversity,’ but people bring their own passions and commitments,” Wong said of her work with the committee. “That doesn’t mean that if you’re Asian you are going to be particularly caring about Asian-American issues, but it’s possible, or you might have more sensitivity, or at least a more diverse point of view.”

Effects on students

As the university waits for hiring freezes to be lifted and pipelines to be built, the faculty demographics are having a tangible effect in the classroom and on students’ education.

“I want to see professors that reflect their students,” Zakaria Hussein (TYP) said. “From a social level, if you have more professors that reflect their students, students feel more comfortable and form relationships.”

The same sentiments can be seen in reports dating back almost 20 years. The 1993 report revealed that “minority students are labeled as poorly prepared and unable to compete and counseled to avoid math and science courses [by non-minority professors]” and that the “lack of minority faculty and administrators in positions to support minority students in need of assistance exacerbates academic problems and contributes to attrition among black students.”

Then, in 2002 a report by a presidential task force revealed that, “Many minority students express dissatisfaction with the fact that there are very few staff and faculty role models and mentors from their backgrounds similar to their own.”

Without opportunity to discuss and understand race and racial incidents in their own way, the report revealed “many feel burdened by pressure to ‘represent’ their entire group because they are often the only members of that group in a given class or social setting and feel stereotyped, prejudged or unseen by members of the majority. In many instances, this is reinforced by overheard comments or hurtful interactions with students, faculty, staff and administrators.”

Wong said she has seen these same trends with current students.

“In general, what we’ve heard is that students would like to have role models and mentors in as many different disciplines as possible. They want people who are able to explain to them their own stories and paths,” she said. “Students would like our faculty to be distributed throughout the departments and they would like for an African-American [to be] in the theater department, but I could say same thing about the physics department or wherever an African-American [professor] is missing.”

The lack of diverse faculty at Brandeis is disappointing to education major Jesse Begelfer ’12, who said is worried about the effect on students.

“[Students] will never realize what they are missing. I grew up my whole life without every really realizing race. One day, I decided to take an English class on race and identity, and I was just shocked at how sheltered I had been my whole life,” she said.

“I had always known that there was something bigger that I had never understood, always known that there were inequalities out there,” Begelfer continued. “The fact that you can find Band-Aids in your skin’s color in CVS, that’s a privilege. Realizing all the white privilege was just such an ‘a-ha’ moment.”

For others, race education is not only important for them to deconstruct their particular racial experience, but also to understand how teaching surrounding the topic of race can be improved.

Taisha Sturdivant ’11 said there are things she has been taught at Brandeis that she wants to “unlearn” because “there have been some things for me that have been healthy for me to digest about race and some things that are doing more harm.”

Sturdivant said when she returned home after living at Brandeis for a long time she felt “slightly uncomfortable and unsafe in my own community.

“And then I’m like, ‘wait a second, I’ve been walking these streets my whole life, I know these people, I chill with them, I walked these streets even late at night,’” she said. “But it wasn’t until I came to school and started learning about all these sociological theories about the vilification of the dark, how black people are criminalized, the way they’re viewed in the myriad.

“I had started to internalize what I was learning,” she said. “Do I want to write off people who are not doing well in my family as ‘ghetto’ or ‘trapped in a cycle’ or do I still need to view them as a human who needs help just like anybody else who’s struggling?”

Moreover she often questions the many assumptions still made by professors and students alike in the Brandeis classroom, “I have had classes where a professor will say, ‘can we get the urban perspective?’ and literally look right at me and I will be the only person of color in the class,” she said.

“Everybody in the class will just look at me and just wait for the urban perspective. What makes you think I have the right to speak for people from the urban environment and what makes you think I want to do that? The professor didn’t even realize how disrespectful and embarrassing that was.”

More so than lack of education surrounding race, Mapps worries minority students might avoid taking courses in other subject areas if there is not a sufficient number of minority professors in that field.

“I do think white faculty can teach issues of race because white is also race,” Mapps said. “So I do think that’s a problem but it’s not the one I worry about.”

“The students in mathematics do not have any mentors within their field of study,” he continued. “Students can realize that ‘Oh, there is a black chemist, and I had never really thought about chemistry before, but maybe I can do it.’”

A golden opportunity

While former President Jehuda Reinharz was in still in his presidency he recognized how dire the diversity of the faculty was, stating, “Clearly, however, more needs to be done. This is a task of the highest priority for our university and for me personally. I count on every student, every faculty and staff member to play a constructive and continuing part in this effort.”

The 1993 executive summary attributed the lack of minority administrators to “little turnover in administrative positions,” saying “they cannot offer employees promotions and career advancement, which makes retention of minority employees difficult.”

With the influx of a new administration in the year to come, however, this gives much hope to faculty who desire to see this issue given priority at the university and see this year as a golden opportunity for this university to change its ways.

As Hale told The Hoot, “I think with our new president I have hope, but I want to see a dean and/or a provost who’s black. And I want to see a power triumvirate that is not all Jewish and white.”

Newly elected President Frederick Lawrence acknowledged his power to set the future agenda of Brandeis as well as its diversity issues in an interview saying, “One of the things I do get to do is sort of articulate a theme and what I choose to talk about is important.

“I am comfortable talking about issues of race and diversity and I think maybe in some way that can be useful. Cold comfort lies in the fact that things are dramatically better than they used to be, but that is not the standard. The standard is where they should be, but the trajectory is good.”

Also Jaffe concluded in an interview with The Hoot, “I would say particularly with respect to the faculty, we have not succeeded as well as I would have liked … [We] haven’t made as much progress as I would like. But I haven’t run into the philosophy that there’s nothing else that can be done.”

Wong agreed with him, stating, “I think there should be more staff of color in certain departments … In offices that work with students it’s good to have, again, a range of backgrounds. Why should it look any different than the population in general?”

For some, like Hale, having minority faculty members is the best way to prepare students for the globalized world into which they are graduating.

“[Having a diverse faculty] is the smart thing to do,” Hale said. “If you want a world where everyone can work and live together, and if you want your kids to be a part of that world, you owe it to them to give them exposure to that entire world.”

Hussein agreed.

“Not having professors that are racially diverse is going against our credo of ‘truth even unto its innermost parts,’” he said. “Because I know there are qualified minority professors around and we need them here because it brings different insights to the table and with different insights you have different education. Period.”

For a liberal arts institution of our era, it seems a great portion of students will be leaving uneducated about an important issue: race. Aside from adding another requirement, addressing the issues of minorities in the undergraduate faculty is an avenue that must be looked at, and looked at soon.

As Professor Harry Mairson (BIOL) pointed out in a 2004 issue of WATCH Magazine, “Unless ‘diversity at Brandeis’ means teaching about the pluralism you seek in communities and institutions once you leave Brandeis—and it’s disingenuous to preach what you are unwilling to practice—it has to mean more than inviting others to sit at your table and eat your food. It has to mean actually deeding part of the table to your guests.”

Looking toward the future Mapps finds hope and much inspiration through his teaching that times are changing for Brandeis. “I think this is a water-shed moment. I think that we have gone through a period where the real emphasis was on building the physical infrastructure of the campus, but then there is a different step of what happens inside these buildings and frankly, I think we are still trying to sort out what happens inside these buildings,” he said.

“I believe and hope that that is a priority for our new president: what we fill these grand new buildings with, and what are these buildings for and what kind of community do they support.”

April 29: A Mosaic—a look at the role of race in student life.