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Toward Understanding the Underrepresentation of African-American Faculty in Community Colleges

February 2012, Volume 25, Number 2                 

by Tara Carter

Community colleges enroll a significant number of African-American students, but the majority of these students do not have an opportunity to learn from African-American professors—a group that is underrepresented in community colleges. To better understand this underrepresentation, I interviewed  African-American community college faculty members using Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the conceptual framework. CRT is used by legal and educational scholars intent on “organizing, activism, and service who look to challenge social inequality” because it present[s] the untold stories of prejudice and how privilege has affected people of color (Yosso, Parker, Solorzano, & Lynn, 2004).

As a tool to fight for social justice, CRT challenges scholars to “ask not only about whom is the research but also for whom is the research, with the focus on identifying who is capable to act and demonstrate agency” (Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 267). As a conceptual framework, CRT accepts that race does matter and is appropriate when looking at the issues of privilege and institutional racism in higher education. I aligned my findings with emergent themes in the literature and used the themes to construct the narratives that emerged from 60-to-90-minute interviews with 12 African-American community college faculty members.

Summary of Findings

Three themes that emerged from the study are (1) marginalization; (2) the definition of “minority”; and (3) institutional and attitudinal barriers. Although the themes overlap, each is distinctive.

Marginalization. Ten of the 12 African-American community college professors interviewed for this study revealed that they feel marginalized on their campuses, with 11 of the participants reporting that they have very little interaction with colleagues outside of routine conversations about textbooks, course objectives, and other teacher-related issues. One participant shared, “My primary day with colleagues involved meetings to discuss student issues and stuff like that.” Another stated, “With faculty, what I’ve learned is that there is just a way that you keep it surface because if you talk really about anything authentic, it creates a level of, uh, animosity that I’ve never experienced before.”

Defining “Minority.” There is also a belief among interview participants, also reflected in the literature, that African Americans have lost ground in the struggle for inclusion because the term “minority” has grown to encompass too many non-white groups. One participant reflected on his beliefs about important considerations in defining what it means to diversify faculty:

I’m talking about one of those third-generation ex-slaves, third-generation welfare kids who made it against all odds, against the low funding in the schools, against the gang violence. He survived and didn’t get killed, you know he made it enough, that far, to go to Chicago State because that was the only school he could really go to and get away with it, and he pulled it off.

Institutional and Attitudinal Barriers. All interview participants agreed that institutional and attitudinal barriers contribute to their underrepresentation. One professor shared that she felt intimidated during the interview and was grateful she could rely on previous interview experiences that helped her perform at an acceptable level. Two participants reported that their mentors were not helpful in any significant way throughout their tenure at the college. As one explained, “I was assigned a mentor during the new faculty seminar and she, I think, did the best she could but it wasn’t a system that was organized enough for her to be effectively mentoring me.”

Findings from this project affirm reports in the literature regarding institutional and attitudinal barriers for African-American faculty, and include:

  • Institutional racism comes in the form of a lack of sincerity by college administrators toward diversity issues.
  • A “chilly” (Turner, Meyers, and Creswell, 1999) institutional climate can be damaging to the efforts to increase minority faculty presence on campuses, especially when systems are not in place to deal effectively with majority faculty who consciously or subconsciously create a hostile work environment for minority professors.
  • The search process is flawed, with literature indicating that faculty search committee members should be trained in cultural sensitivity as a way for them to identify and understand the roles of cultural and racial identity, and to assist them in handling personal biases and prejudice.

Advice From Interview Participants

The interview participants offered a number of suggestions for community colleges working to eliminate institutional and attitudinal barriers that inhibit recruitment and retention of African-American faculty.

  • Develop a clearer definition of “minority” when defining diversity, so that it can be operationalized. Explicitly state this definition before college leaders implement strategies designed to increase the numbers of minority faculty.
  • Perfect the faculty mentoring program (provide training), which includes helping the African-American faculty member transition to both the on-campus and off-campus communities.
  • Increase starting salaries and offer other types of financial incentives to attract and retain African-American instructors. Allocate funds to create and implement diversity initiatives. Failure to do so leads to questions about your commitment to increasing faculty diversity on your campus.
  • Establish a link between the mission statement of the school and faculty, staff, and administrative evaluations to help ensure that everyone is abiding by the college’s diversity statement.
  • Change or adopt recruitment practices. Send college representatives to conferences that draw significant minority participants as a way of establishing a positive identity in the minds of potential faculty candidates. The more positive a potential applicant’s contact with an institution is, the more likely the college will be able to recruit, hire, and retain African-American faculty.
  • Create a campus culture that embraces people so that African-American professors, once on campus, are inclined to stay.

The 12 African-American faculty members’ commitment to teaching far outweighs the attitudinal and structural barriers they face in the workplace. However, it should be noted, as Stanley, Porter, Simpson, and Ouellett (2003) pointed out, “It is unproductive…to generalize these findings across all institutions—or even across all African-American faculty” (p. 174). Increasing the representation of African Americans as professors in American community colleges signals a positive, more inclusive shift in the current professorial culture. Implementing strategies that will increase the representation of African-American faculty will be a positive step toward correcting the “systematic discrimination and deprivation” (Allen, Epps, Guillory, Suh, & Bonous-Hammarth, 2000, p. 126) experienced by minority faculty in higher education, a step that can only strengthen the quality of the American educational system.


Allen, W.R., Epps, E.G., Guillory, E.A., Suh, S.A., & Bonous-Hammarth, M. (2000). The black academic: Faculty status among African Americans in U.S. higher education. The Journal of Negro Education, 69 (1/2), 112-127.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Racialized discourses and ethnic epistemologies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 257-277).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stanley, C. A., Porter, M.E., Simpson, N.J., & Ouellett, M.L. (2003). A case study of the teaching experiences of African American faculty at two predominately White research universities. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 14(1), 151-178.

Turner, C.S.V., Myers, S. L. & Creswell, J. W. (1999). Exploring underrepresentation: The case of faculty of color in the Midwest. Journal of Higher Education, 70(1), 27(3).

Yosso, T.J., Parker, L., Solórzano, D.G., & Lynn, M. (2004). From Jim Crow to affirmative action and back again: A critical race discussion of racialized rationales and access to higher education. Review of Research in Education, 28, 1-25.


Tara Carter  is Dean of Arts, Communications, and Social Sciences at Kishwaukee College in Illinois. This article is derived from findings of her doctoral dissertation study; for more information about the study, please contact the author.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 02/06/2012 at 4:25 PM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -