Graduate school at a predominantly white institution was a complete culture shock after four years of attending a historically black college and university. Since the age of 10 I knew I would attend and graduate from an HBCU. Both my mother and my aunt were products of HBCUs, and I understood early in adolescence what it would mean to attend HBCU in opposed to a PWI. While in undergrad at Tennessee State University, I never thought about how invaluable having black professors were until I arrived at the School of Journalism at Indiana University.
The j-school at IU felt like a foreign place. Sure I had gone to private school for a couple of years in my childhood where I was one of a handful of black people. And I had certainly been the only black girl on my 8th grade cheerleading team. But academia promised diversity- diversity of thought, student body, faculty and administration. Early on I recognized the absence of black professors in the department. I searched aimlessly for that one professor who would understand the unique challenges I would face as a black woman, not only in the program, but also in the real world. To no avail my search came up empty handed. There was not one tenured black professor in my department. Apparently my experience was not uncommon.
According to a Yourblackworld.com survey, 42 percent of black college graduates had never had one black professor in four years of college. Seventy-four percent only had one black professor in a field outside of Africana studies. Dr. Boyce Watkins was included in that 42 percent. In his four years of undergraduate studies, and seven years obtaining his Master’s and PhD, Watkins claims he never had one black professor. Watkins writes:
“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.”
Some may wonder if there is significance in black students having black professors. After all, as long as the professor is qualified to teach the subject matter should race really matter? In my experiences in undergraduate my black professors cultivated my interests. They also challenged me and made me work harder because they understood the racism and global competition I would face when I left the institution. I longed for at least one black professor at IU, not because I felt only a black professor could teach black students, but because I wanted that one professor who understood what it was like being the speck of pepper in sea full of salt. And who would understand the subtle racism I encountered on a few occasions in grad school.
Morgan White, 25, a graduate of Indiana University only had one black professor in the Kelley School of Business in her four-year collegiate career. As a finance major, usually the only black woman in all of her classes, White said she could have greatly benefited from having other black professors who would understand her plight.
“Since IU was a PWI I expected to have very few black professors,” said White. “But if I had more black professors they would have been able to help me with issues unique to me as a black student.”
White also noted a difference in how her black professor challenged her to excel versus some of her white professors that barely recognized her existence. “My black professor was about his business, and he pushed me harder than he did any of his other students,” said White.
Cornell University graduate Besusekad Tadesse, 29, had three black professors in four years, but only one black professor in his chemical engineer major. The other black professors were in the Africana Studies department. The one black professor in his major also served as his advisor. For Tadesse it’s hard to say whether having few black professors affected his education positively or negatively. But he admits the importance of the shared experience between a black student and black professor.
“The shared experience of black professors and black students are important,” said Tadesse. “It is beneficial to have a professor who understands the obstacles you face being black.”
Malika Butler, 25, a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill graduate said she had zero black professors. As an early education major she was baffled her field wasn’t more committed to diversity, she said.
“We’re educators. If any major would have diversity you would think it would be in the school of education,” said Butler. “It was really disappointing.”
It’s a no-brainer that diversity benefits everyone, not only minorities. Academia should be representative of the racial makeup in this country. Black students need the presence of black professors at universities across the country. With black student graduation rates remaining at an abysmally low 42 percent, black students need a professor that will take a vested interest in seeing them matriculate.
“It’s imperative to have professors who look like us to instill critical consciousness,” said Butler. “And black professors are also needed for advocacy purposes. We need someone to advocate on the behalf of our black students.”