If the University of Missouri succeeds in meeting a student demand for a faculty that's 10 percent black in two years, it will likely be alone among its peers.
No state's “flagship” public university campus had a black faculty population approaching that level, and only a handful topped even the 5 percent mark, an Associated Press analysis of 2013 federal data found.
The norm on most of the main campuses was a faculty that was between 2 percent and 4 percent black, the data showed.
Universities are well aware that staff and student bodies often don't match, administrators and experts say, and demonstrations and discussions around the country in recent days have driven home the point.
Fresh from a two-hour “listening session” Friday, University of Massachusetts Senior Vice Provost John McCarthy said students made clear the need for change.
“It was the biggest auditorium we have and undergraduates of color were standing up and talking about the fact that they need to see more faculty of color in the classroom, they need to see more faculty that look like them, they need to see faculty who are more familiar with their experiences as students of color,” McCarthy said.
Different learning experience
It's the difference between feeling understood and the pressure of being seen as representing a race, students and others said.
“There's a difference in the learning experience that you have when you're learning from someone you believe you can identify with more closely,” said Micah Oliver, 21, president of the Black Student Association at the University at Buffalo.
Oliver, a senior, added, “The injustices that are happening in society aside, police brutality aside, those matters aside, I feel like I can learn from you better because you seem like somebody I can connect with on a personal level or on an experiential level.”
Recent racist incidents, and the perceived lack of response by administrators, led to protests, a student hunger strike and a threatened boycott by the football team at the University of Missouri, where student demands now include a call for increasing the percentage of black faculty and staff to 10 percent by the 2017-18 school year.
A group of former minority faculty members sent a letter Monday to President Michael Middleton supporting the students. It citied their “experience related to being racial and ethnic minorities on a predominantly white campus.”
Like Missouri, the percentage of black faculty members at the vast majority of main campuses in each state's public university system was generally well below the percentage of black students enrolled, the AP review found.
At a number of schools, the percentage of black faculty was close to or below half the percentage of black students, notably at schools in the South with both relatively large proportions of black students and faculty.
The school with the largest percentage of black faculty, the University of Mississippi at 6.29 percent, also had the largest percentage of black students, 15.26 percent. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a faculty that's 6 percent black, compared to 8 percent of the student body. The University of Alabama's faculty is also 6 percent black, but the proportion of black students is higher at 11.46 percent.
The University of Georgia had the next highest percentage of black faculty at 5.76 percent with a 7.83 percent black enrollment while the University of South Carolina-Columbia's faculty was 5.18 black compared to 10.56 percent of the students.
At no other school was the percentage of black faculty above 5 percent.
“Studies show that students normally do better if they're taught by people that can relate to them, not only economically or socially, but racially because naturally we face similar struggles, being adults, students, staff,” said Deidree Golbourne, 20, an African-American studies major at Buffalo, New York's flagship university, where 2.5 percent of the faculty and 5.7 percent of the student body are black, according to the data.
Small pool of candidates
Experts say the pool of candidates is traditionally small for positions that often require PhDs. UMass, the State University of New York and others have funded programs meant to boost minority numbers.
“It's very competitive to get faculty of color simply because a lot of schools want them. There are a lot of programs out there,” McCarthy said.
But the problem also may be in how schools define who is qualified, said Stella Smith, president of the Black Faculty Staff Association at the University of Texas at Austin. She said it may be time, she said, “to open up the definition of what is academy worthy and also to understand that there are different ways to be exceptional, so there's not just this one route to being the best kind of faculty member.”
The disparities were less pronounced when the numbers of all non-white faculty were compared with non-white students.
The school with the largest percentage of non-white faculty at 38 percent was the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where 72 percent of the student is also non-white. Many students and faculty members are Asian.
The University of California-Berkeley was one of eight main campus public universities with a greater percentage of black faculty members than black students. But the overall percentage of non-white staff - 29 percent - at Berkeley compared to a student body that is 53 percent non-white. The school has relatively large populations of Asian and Hispanic students.
At South Dakota State University, the percentage of non-white faculty outstripped the student body, 13 percent to 9 percent because of a relatively large number of Asian faculty.
The numbers don't make for ready role models, said Beth Olivares, dean for diversity initiatives at the University of Rochester.
“At the root of it is not just encouraging but ensuring that high school students and undergraduate students are aware of that as a career path,” Olivares said. “Many students are not.”