Education, Discrimination in Higher

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Education, Discrimination in Higher





Colleges and universities play an important role in advancing equity through their efforts to recruit and retain students, faculty, and staff of color. Despite the great improvement in educational equity since the 1950s, racial discrimination in institutions of higher education continues to exist in the early twenty-first century. To overcome the barriers to advancement in higher education for racialized people, institutions of higher education must make real commitments to greater racial equity on campus. Such commitments do not come in the form of proclamations, but rather in the form of bodies, time, and monetary and community resources. Educational institutions must closely examine the racial climate on campus and work toward ideological shifts that will remove any existing barriers for racial/ethnic groups. Such commitments result in the sort of institutional transformation that is necessary in order to see a meaningful reduction in racial discrimination at colleges and universities. There are a number of basic ideas that institutions can implement in order to both address issues of discrimination and attempt to retain faculty of color.


Colleges and universities have not traditionally provided equitable educational opportunities to students of color, and in the early 2000s, students of color are not represented in higher education at proportions that reflect their numbers in the population as a whole. Table 1 demonstrates this point by examining the number of students earning doctorates in 2002.

This table indicates that the number of earned doctorates is well below any reasonable expectations for any racialized groups, except for whites and Asian Americans. According to the 2000 census, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Latino/Latina, 12.3 percent identify as African American, 3.7 percent identify as Asian American, .9 percent identify as American Indian/Alaska Native, .1 percent identify as Pacific Islander, and 69.1 percent identify as white. One might reasonably expect the student population receiving doctorates to be more closely aligned with these numbers. This is not to say that the ratios should be exactly the same, but the discrepancies indicate a lack of access to and retention in institutions of higher education. Clearly, there are barriers for some racialized groups to institutions of higher learning.

One strategy for improving admissions, retention, and hiring in institutions of higher education is through affirmative action programs. Race-based affirmative action programs in higher education have been advocated by a number of scholars, and they are often supported by traditionally marginalized students. Yet attacks on these programs have been fierce, and the discontinued use of affirmative action in some states has resulted in significantly fewer students of color applying to and attending institutions of higher education. Although arguments abound in support of need-based rather than race-based affirmative action programs, a number of scholars have expressed the view that institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to repay communities of color for past injustices, and that need-based programs are likely to divert more resources to white men (see Feinberg 1996, Heller 2002, St. John 2004).

Table 1.
Earned Doctorates for Racial Groups in the United States, 2005
Racial and ethnic group of U.S. citizens 
1 In this entry, we use the term Latinas to indicate both Latinos and Latinas. U.S., state, and local governments often use the term “Hispanic” to denote this group.
SOURCE : Reproduced by permission of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education: The Almanac, 2005. Volume 52, Number 1, p. 19.
American Indian and Alaska Native0.5%

Once students are on campus, the racial climate of the institution is crucial in determining whether students persist in their studies and graduate. Campus climate is an important issue because even if institutions of higher education are able to recruit more diverse student bodies, students are less likely to persist and graduate if they experience a hostile environment on campus. Evaluating campus racial climate has been the topic of much research since the 1980s. A 1991 survey by the American Council on Education found that 36 percent of all institutions (and 74 percent of research institutions) reported incidents of intolerance involving race, gender, or sexual orientation. Further, despite current efforts, many students—including many minority students, white women, gay and lesbian students, and disabled students— still find the campus climate unresponsive to their needs, past experiences, and educational expectations (see Humphreys 1998). In their book The Agony of Education (1996), Joe Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Nikitah Imani argue that when researchers examine campus racial climate and racism in institutions of higher education, they need to consider not just overt racial incidents, but also patterns of human recognition of racialized students and how social spaces are racially marked. Critical-race scholars have focused on the micro-aggressions experienced by students of color on college campuses across the nation. In 1998, for example, David Solorzano analyzed the microagressions experienced by Chicana and Chicano students who were Ford Foundation Minority Fellows, and his findings led him to challenge the colorblind meritocracy ideology that tries to pass these microagressions off as “oversensitivity.” Researchers have also documented how students of color experience greater emotional stress due to prejudice, and that racial tensions are more likely to be perceived by students of color (see Hurtado 1992, Johnson-Durgans 1994). These experiences of hostile racial climates also impact the academic success of students of color such that they are less likely to do well in college. Walter Allen, a professor of higher education at University of California, Los Angeles, has documented that black students at historically black institutions have better completion rates and report closer connections to their universities than black students at predominantly white institutions. Ana Alemán, an associate professor at Boston College, reported in 2000 that the dominant culture of predominantly white universities makes friendships with racially matched peers even more important for the success of racialized students. Clearly, then, access to institutions of higher education is not enough to ensure equity within these institutions, because the campus climate experienced by students of color is often extremely hostile and stands as a barrier to these students’ academic achievement.


The proportion of people of color in faculty positions continues to lag behind that of whites and closely mirrors the rate of those people earning doctorates. Table 2 illuminates the disparities in faculty positions at all levels.

The low proportion of doctorates being awarded to people of color is often blamed for the dismal increase in faculty of color since the mid-1990s. However, there is more to the problem of low numbers of faculty of color than the “pipeline” argument. Octavio Villalpando and Dolores Delgado-Bernal argue that faculty of color face “institutional barriers at most stages of their academic careers” (2002, p. 244). Reflecting on the framework for diversity outlined by Sylvia Hurtado, Jeffrey F. Milem, Alma Clayton-Pedersen, and Walter R. Allen in 1998 provides a reminder that problems in achieving structural diversity are related to issues of psychological and behavioral diversity, and to the historical legacies of individual institutions and the broader institution of higher education. In the following examination of literature regarding faculty diversity in higher education, the focus is on available research, most of which examines the experiences of faculty of color and the barriers they face.

Biases against people of color “contribute to unwelcoming and unsupportive work environments for faculty of color” (Turner, Myers, and Creswell 1999, p. 28). Overt and covert racial barriers include: tokenism, isolation, racial and ethnic bias in recruiting and hiring, barriers found in tenure and promotion practices, the devaluation of “minority research,” and isolation and lack of mentoring. Tokenism is a problem common to environments where structural diversity is low. Relatedly, researchers have pointed out that faculty of color feel alone and often invisible when they are the only scholar of color in departments or colleges (see

Table 2.
Number of Full-Time Faculty Members by Rank and Racial and Ethnic Group during Fall, 2003
1 In this entry, we use the term Latinas to indicate both Latinos and Latinas. U.S., state, and local governments often use the term “Hispanic” to denote this group.
SOURCE: Reproduced by permission of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education: The Almanac, 2005. Volume 52, Number 1, p. 26 .
American Indian and Alaska Native
Associate Professor5290.4%
Assistant professor6610.5%
Asian American
Associate Professor9,1837.1%
Assistant Professor13,2169.3%
Associate Professor7,2045.5%
Assistant Professor9,4646.7%
Associate Professor3,8613.0%
Assistant professor5,3213.8%
Associate Professor109,31384.0%
Assistant professor112,92079.8%
TOTAL OF ALL436,077 

Essien 2003). Biases in recruiting and hiring can reflect the racism of individuals, but they also mirror an institution’s lack of attention to its own legacy of exclusion. The mechanism of tenure and promotion in higher education is an institution itself, and it is rife with barriers to faculty of color, including the devaluation of the extraordinary service responsibilities of faculty of color and the lack of legitimacy granted to research agendas that fall outside of the mainstream. In a 1994 article in Educational Researcher, Amado M. Padilla discussed the concept of “cultural taxation” to illuminate the fact that many underrepresented faculty are expected to cover minority affairs, in addition to completing a rigorous agenda in research, teaching, and institutional service.

In addition to questions regarding their research agendas, faculty of color find their legitimacy questioned by those who challenge their place in the institution due to the role of affirmative action in the hiring process. Linda Johnsrud and Kathlee Sadao found in 1998 that such ethnocentrist behaviors and attitudes are rampant in college and university faculty. In a 2000 survey by the American Council on Education, Geoffrey Maruyama and colleagues found that the faculty in their survey who had more experience working with diverse groups of students had more positive attitudes towards institutional and departmental values about diversity and the importance of having a diverse population. As with students, it appears that faculty exposure to and interaction with diverse groups and individuals leads to an increased acceptance of diversity.

Another challenge to faculty of color is the amount of institutional service they are asked or required to perform. Indeed, they “often complain about overwhelming counseling responsibilities” (Allen et al. 2002, p. 192). Faculty of color serve on a myriad of institutional committees and are expected to represent the “minority voice.” Additionally, these faculty become mentors and counselors to students of color in their departments. Departments may have only one or two people of color on staff and they are often expected to serve larger numbers of students of color. While time spent on these activities is important, and faculty gladly undertake it, it does detract from research responsibilities, which are more highly valued in the promotion and tenure process. In this way, institutional service expectations for faculty of color actually represent barriers to their professional progress. Increasing structural diversity will add more faculty of color to share the responsibilities of institutional service. However, it is important to also examine institutional histories and the psychological climate on campuses, and to assess their impact on differential service expectations for faculty of color and white faculty. Working towards diversity in these areas will create better institutional environments in which faculty of color can focus on performing excellent research, teaching, and service to further institutional missions, including diversity initiatives.


Institutions are transformed by increased diversity through positive changes in campus climate. Some researchers have argued that these changes are evident in the increase in the acceptance and value of diversity that they bring. Further, Hurtado and colleagues (1998) suggest that a recognition of historical legacies of inclusion and exclusion and a desire to make the campus more inclusive of all people and groups are ways institutions can increase diversity. This mirrors the argument that as students are exposed to different groups and individuals they become more committed to the concept of diversity. Devon Williams argues that university teachers can improve intergroup relations by employing “jigsaw” groupings in their classrooms (forming groups and then switching members to new groups) in order to force students to cooperate and interact with their peers. Finally, diversity courses often challenge students to think in more complex ways about identity and history and to avoid cultural stereotyping. Diversity in the curriculum has a positive impact on attitudes toward racial issues, on opportunities to interact in deeper ways with those who are different, and on overall satisfaction with the university. These benefits are particularly powerful for white students who have had less opportunity for such engagement (see Humphreys 1998).

Institutional transformation can be evident in more tangible ways as well. For instance, changes in institutional mission are indications of institutional transformation. Roxane Harvey Gudeman, a psychology professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has found that such adjustments in mission statements reflected the institutional value of diversity. Mission statements are often criticized as having purely symbolic value, but once adjusted to reflect changing attitudes toward diversity, they do contribute to improving the climate for people of color at all levels of the institutions. It can be argued that this kind of transformation accompanies an institution’s examination of its historical legacies of exclusion and inclusion. However, mission statements alone do not reflect historical context or change psychological climate. They are, as with all other steps towards increasing diversity, only factors in a larger approach to a continuing problem.

Institutional transformation can also be assessed in terms of policies that either do or do not advance greater equity. Research that has examined university policies as they relate to diversity and equity generally shows that institutions still have much to do. The shift to distance education and a greater reliance on Internet technology may open doors to students in rural areas, but, as Rachel Moran argues in “Diversity, Distance, and the Delivery of Higher Education” (1998), it actually further stratifies higher education because those without access to the technology are largely people of color and those from low-income backgrounds. When colleges and universities fail to implement ethnic fraud policies, they are “allowing a charade to continue” and thus fail to advance more equitable hiring, admissions, and financial aid practices (Pewewardy 2004). Angelina Castagno and Stacey Lee point out in a 2007 article that universities that continue to embrace Native American mascots contribute to the perpetuation of racism and stereotypes against Indigenous peoples, whereas Delgado Bernal noted in 2002 that admissions criteria largely exclude students of color because of the Eurocentric epistemologies that shape and guide them. In general, the thrust of this work is that universities have a significant responsibility to work toward greater equity in their policies and practices, and that many institutions are currently failing in this regard.

Focusing on institutional transformation in relation to discrimination and the benefits of diversity contributes to the effort to move the emphasis away from the idea that students of color come to college with deficits. A spotlight on the institution, rather than the individual, allows for a recognition of the role institutional strategies and policies play in the culture of exclusion on many higher education campuses.


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Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy
Angelina E. Castagno
Kristi Ryujin

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