Nearly Half of All Black College Students Have Never Had a Black Professor…

An interesting article by Dr. Boyce Watkins.

actual article written, 2.10.2011 for During a four-year college career, most students take roughly 40 courses. Personally, I went to graduate school for another seven years after college, taking an additional 40 to 50 more classes. During my entire undergraduate, masters and doctoral experience, I never had one African American professor.

This experience made the educational process incredibly uncomfortable for me. I never experienced the privilege of my white classmates, who had teachers they could relate to, work with and connect to on a meaningful level. I did meet one African American professor (I never took his class) named Dr. Tommy Whittler. He is the sole reason I became a professor. He was the first faculty member who’d ever taken time to mentor me.

Unfortunately, Dr. Whittler was the only African American professor to ever be tenured in the history of the entire business school at the University of Kentucky (the business school has several departments and none of them, except one, had given tenure to a black man in more than 100 years). Tenure is basically when the university gives a permanent job to a faculty member to replace the temporary position. If you don’t get tenure, you’re typically fired. The same promotion that had been granted to hundreds of white men before Dr. Whittler had only been granted to one African American, with all the rest either being fired or not hired in the first place. Another professor who mentored me during my doctoral studies at The Ohio State University, WC Benton, was at the time, the only African American to be tenured in the history of that business school as well.

Unfortunately, my experience as a college and graduate student is not uncommon. According to an recent survey taken at, nearly half of all African Americans who attended a predominantly white university (42 percent) never had a single black professor during four years of college. Nearly three-quarters of these students (74 percent) only had one black professor in a field outside of African American studies.

There are various theories regarding why black professors are missing in many of America’s universities. To hear the story told by many campus administrators, black professors are missing because they simply don’t exist or are all unqualified to teach at predominantly white institutions. “We can’t find qualified minorities” is the typical comment made on many campuses who claim to seek diversity.

In my experience teaching at the college level over the past 17 years, I cannot agree with this assessment. My in-box is full of stories from black professors all over the country who either cannot get academic jobs, or who were released from their campuses because they “didn’t fit” with the culture of the faculty in their departments. This form of racial discrimination is most prevalent in schools of business and engineering. There is a way of thinking and doing things that fits into white American culture that ultimately leads many white scholars to consider black professors to be inferior, in large part because we are different. In other words, it’s White Supremacy 101, or what Dr. Christopher Metzler refers to as “academic imperialism,” where predominantly white institutions either punish black scholars for doing work that engages with the black community, or places them in the Black Studies Departments to marginalize them from the mainstream of academic administration.

When black faculty are hired on many campuses, most of them are not given tenure and are instead given temporary visiting positions to improve the school’s diversity numbers. Harvard Law School, for example, just granted tenure to only the second black woman in the school’s nearly-200-year history. (I argued that this move was in response to national controversy about Harvard’s racially discriminatory hiring practices in light of the Elena Kagan nomination to the Supreme Court). Associate Justice Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, helped conduct 32 hires of tenured or tenure-track faculty, and did not hire one single African American, Native American or Latino faculty member. This is in spite of the fact that there are thousands of highly trained black and brown attorneys who’d love to teach at Harvard. Many campuses, such as the business schools I’ve attended, have tenured no more than one African American in any department in the last 100 years, and most of them don’t even hire black professors to begin with. What’s most interesting is that the campuses are very quick to blame the victim, stating that black faculty would receive more opportunities if they would simply step up their game and make themselves more qualified. But given the struggles of leading black scholars such as Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, the truth is that the devaluation of black scholarship and black scholars themselves is the most likely culprit in this tricky racial mirage.

The Campus Accountability Project 
is an initiative designed to begin holding campuses accountable for their diversity numbers. Many universities refuse to share data on the numbers of African Americans who’ve been hired or tenured, primarily because the results are so embarrassing. Additionally, there is an interest among black college students and alumni around the nation to see the problem mitigated. Equally intriguing is the fact that many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) don’t hire very many African American faculty either. Within the pool of survey participants who attended HBCUs, half (50.5 percent) didn’t have more than three African American professors in a field outside of African American or Africana Studies during their four years of attending an HBCU. Professors from other countries are sometimes accused of using their powerful positions to lock out people who are not of the same ethnic background, so qualified African Americans have trouble getting access to black students at HBCUs, especially in the sciences. In fact, many HBCUs have no more than one or two African American male faculty in their business schools or the sciences. I recommend you take a look at your own campus to see if the theory holds true.

The presence of black faculty can make all the difference in the world when it comes to helping black students clearly visualize their personal goals. Black students and their parents should speak on the issue and ask universities the hard questions regarding exactly who will be educating their children. The lack of diversity on college campuses is a serious and persistent problem, and it serves to impede the likelihood of success for our children.


One thought on “Nearly Half of All Black College Students Have Never Had a Black Professor…

  1. I found this article while looking up information about HBCUs. From my understanding, this was originally written by another author and I have directed my comments below to that person since I could not find the original article on

    Personally, I think that it is offensive to say that you never experienced the “privilege” of your white classmates, who had teachers they could relate to, work with and connect to on a meaningful level. I attend a prestigious research university that is in the Top 5 for Engineering in the U.S. and I have not had any black professors either. But I will go on to say that many of my professors have actually been Asian or Indian. Furthermore, the professors that are white are typically from other countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, etc. While I also believe that there is a lack of African-American professors, as well as female professors in Engineering, I must profess that I do not feel like I am missing out on any “privilege” that, for example, my male classmates have. I am still able to succeed regardless of the race or gender of the person teaching the class. I do not believe that you need to have a mentor that “looks like you”. It is more important that the person is in a place that you would like to see yourself and can guide you in that direction. To restrict yourself to only people of color is a disservice to yourself and the Professor who, although of a different skin color or even culture, can learn from you as well.

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