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University News

Faculty whiteness complicates the classroom

Differences in faculty, student backgrounds can affect advising and classroom dynamics

By and
Senior Staff Writers
Thursday, December 4, 2014
This article is part of the series Pervasive Prejudice

The second in a three-part series exploring race and racism at Brown.

As leaders of classroom discussion, pedagogues and advisers, faculty members often must navigate their students’ beliefs and backgrounds, in many ways defining some students’ college experiences. But because white students and especially faculty members predominate at Brown, some students of color find themselves at a disadvantage, struggling to find mentors who can fully relate to their experiences.

There are nearly 10 times as many white faculty members as underrepresented minority faculty members at Brown. White students also outnumber students who identify as underrepresented minorities, but at a less drastic rate of just over two to one.

And more than a decade after then-President Ruth Simmons laid out improving faculty diversity as a goal in her Plan for Academic Enrichment — with limited success — it has again emerged as an administrative priority. President Christina Paxson announced at a faculty meeting last month that she intends to double the proportion of underrepresented minority faculty members in the next decade.

Miscues in the classroom

Students of color sometimes encounter difficulties in the classroom resulting from the differences between their experiences and those of white faculty members.

While Armani Madison ’16, president of Brown’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has not experienced outward racial bias from faculty members, he said, “race is dealt with quickly” in the classroom. When racial issues in the United States are brought up, they are frequently skirted by professors and summarized in the framework of the American people moving forward, he said.

White faculty members sometimes espouse views in class that should be questioned, said Emma, a junior whose name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

“I would love to see more initiatives aimed at making faculty aware of microaggressions and biases and how those could affect students in class,” she said.

But being of color is not necessary for a faculty member to handle discussions on race deftly in the classroom, Emma added. “I have professors who are not of color who have to talk about race and other sensitive issues who handle it very well.”

Still, the dynamics in a predominantly white classroom may pose challenges for students of color.

Often Madison is the only student of color in the room, he said. When subjects relating to race arise, he said, he is “looked to as the authority” on the subject by his peers.

Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’15, a double-concentrator in physics and Africana studies, also expressed frustration with the pressure of being one of few students of color in a classroom, especially in disciplines like physics and mathematics. If an underrepresented minority student fails a math exam, a professor might attribute the performance to the student’s racial identity, she said.

“If I don’t do well, then that’s just going to prove these people right,” Watson-Daniels said she often thinks while taking exams.

“It paralyzes you in a situation where you need to do well,” she added. “Your situation becomes less about … (figuring) out how to think about this problem and more about what’s going to happen if I can’t solve this problem.”

The pressure to perform in a predominantly white class taught by a white faculty member is particularly intense for students of color who may not have had high school preparation as strong as that of their peers, said Dolores Maldonado ’16, who came to Brown intending to concentrate in physics.

“If it’s a white professor, they expect me to be at the same level (as students with stronger high school preparation), so I need to prove that I don’t fit into stereotypes,” Maldonado said. “I need to speak very intellectually or formally to portray an image that they would want.”

Seeing “deplorably low” numbers of faculty members of color in senior administrative positions makes him feel out of place at a predominantly white institution, Madison said. He will “never be comfortable” at Brown, he added, due to the overwhelming lack of diversity.

But the small number of faculty members of color affects students in different ways. Coming from a private school background, Jordan Ferguson ’17, president of the Black Student Union, said he was accustomed to mostly white teachers before attending Brown. This semester, Ferguson is taking his first course taught by a professor of color — Keisha-Khan Perry, associate professor of Africana studies.

For Ferguson, it has been an “eye-opening experience.”

In Perry’s class, Ferguson feels more empowered and free to speak openly, he said. Perry has not shied away from racial issues but instead engages with them, creating a space in which they are deeply examined rather than briefly mentioned, he added.

Upon coming to College Hill, Ferguson was surprised by the paucity of faculty members of color because “Brown paints a picture of diversity,” he said, adding that the faculty should better reflect the diversity of the student body.

It is hard for students of color to find faculty members with whom to connect over shared experiences, he said.

Maahika Srinivasan ’15, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, said her experience as a student of color has been mixed. “There seems to be a lack of understanding of cultural backgrounds” in the classroom, she said.

“There’s a perception where students walk into (any large introductory class) and feel immediately disadvantaged in a sea of white students and usually a white professor,” Srinivasan said.

‘No one to turn to’

The lack of faculty diversity is particularly relevant to the strength of the advising system. Some students of color said they may encounter difficulties receiving mentorship from professors who do not have personal understanding of the experience of being a student of color in a predominantly white learning environment.

Students of color tend to go to faculty members of color as mentors, said Madison, a former Herald opinions columnist. Students “suffer” when there are so few mentors to look to, he said.

This difficulty in finding mentorship can cause students to question their prospects for success, he added.

After struggling in introductory physics classes for which her high school education did not prepare her well, Maldonado sought advice from faculty members, but she found that professors and deans, the vast majority of whom were white, did not understand the challenges someone of her race and class faces.

“There’s just no one to turn to as mentors,” Maldonado said. “When there’s someone who’s lived the complete opposite life of you or who can just not understand what your experience is being a minority, you just kind of feel alone — in a different world.”

After a difficult first-semester advising experience, Ferguson switched to a new adviser, Yolanda Rome, assistant dean of the College for first-year and sophomore studies. As a person of color, Rome could relate to Ferguson’s student experiences by initiating questions beyond academics and “allowing (them) to establish a better relationship,” he said.

But despite numerous challenges, Ferguson said he has found certain white faculty members to be “that extra resource” and “very supportive” to students of color, regardless of their different backgrounds.

In other cases, the disparity sometimes manifests in the guidance advisers give to students with whose backgrounds they may be unfamiliar.

There are only eight underrepresented minority faculty members in physical sciences departments at Brown, making up just over 4 percent of the faculty in those areas, according to Office of Institutional Research data.

Watson-Daniels said she was looking for guidance from a faculty member of color, but was “very disappointed in the University” because she felt “there wasn’t anyone” available to give her advice she needed on pursuing a career in physics.

Problems with STEM

But the difficulties that students of color concentrating in science, technology, engineering and math fields encounter extend beyond the relatively low proportions of faculty members and fellow students of color in those departments. Some students said there seems to be a way of thinking among some STEM students and professors that puts the burden of ameliorating a lack of diversity on the very groups that have historically been excluded from a white, male domain.

The general belief is that “women and minorities are the reason there aren’t a lot of women and minorities in STEM,” Watson-Daniels said, adding that white STEM students and professors have often chalked up their dominance in the field to greater interest in science.

“Science is thought of as something that is inherent and comes with an inherent passion that can’t really be taught,” Watson-Daniels said. The flip side, she added, is that those who perform poorly in STEM classes and later drop out of the field are led to believe they are simply not cut out for the discipline, instead of being encouraged and made aware of environmental factors or racial dynamics that may contribute to their difficulties.

This neglect of the influence of racial dynamics on students’ academic performance is particularly harmful in fields where a substantial number of students of color quit their intended concentrations for other departments outside of STEM, Watson-Daniels said.

Additionally, a lack of faculty diversity could weaken a facet of advising for white STEM concentrators who may not interact with racial issues in their personal lives or the classes they take. Because the open curriculum does not mandate that all students engage with issues of privilege and power, the burden lies with advisers to encourage students to look at courses dealing with racial issues, said Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

The Department of Physics has yet to institutionalize efforts to educate its faculty and students about the way racial identity may affect students’ success, said Jim Valles, professor and chair of the department.

In fact, students led the first formal attempt to bring the conversation on race and gender to the department: This semester, Watson-Daniels and 11 other students created a Group Independent Study Project on race and gender in STEM, Valles said.

As part of the GISP, the students presented a lecture to an introductory physics course that aimed “to get folks to start thinking about how race and gender can affect the experience of students in a physics classroom and to recognize that these problems are everyone’s problems,” said Abigail Plummer ’15, a member of the GISP.

Plummer said she received positive feedback from students who attended the lecture. She added that she hopes students participating in the GISP will lead a discussion with STEM faculty members about similar issues in the coming months.

Addressing the issues

Though Paxson announced her goal of bolstering faculty diversity last month, the racial composition of the faculty will not change significantly in a year or two — for now, the University must try to put its white faculty members in the best position to communicate with students of color about race, and faculty members must seek out available resources, said Dean of the College Maud Mandel.

“If you’re a professor in the U.S. and you are teaching in 2014, you have to be sensitive to your students,” Bogues said. “You have to understand … as much as one can, how does race impact the students in your class.” Just as a faculty member would seek to improve any other area of weakness in his or her teaching, an inability to be sensitive to students’ backgrounds is a pedagogical weakness that must be addressed, he added.

Some faculty members recognize their own struggles talking about race in the classroom and utilize University resources such as the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning to make improvements in their teaching approaches, Bogues said.

Aside from pedagogy, faculty members can turn to resources like Team Enhanced Advising and Mentoring, a program that helps faculty members work on their ability to advise students from underrepresented minority groups, Mandel said.

But when faculty members do not pick up on their own flaws and students repeatedly recognize a problem, the University has a responsibility to address it, Bogues said.

To bolster the chance that the University will pick up on a faculty member’s racial insensitivity, the administration may consider adding questions about a professor’s treatment of race in the classroom to course evaluations, said Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity.

The Office of Institutional Diversity, which Cariaga-Lo leads, will release a Diversity Action Plan in the coming months that will outline strategies to diversify the faculty and hold faculty members accountable for the way they handle racial issues. The report will also address staff diversity and undergraduate and graduate student support, Cariaga-Lo added.

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  1. The market for minority STEM faculty is extremely competitive. Harvard and MIT can offer a $130,000 starting salary, a million dollars in startup funding, access to a world-class research program, and the city of Boston. What can Brown offer besides “conversations”?

    • Winning in STEM says:

      $170k salaries, $35 million in startup funding, the founders of the conferences those research programs publish in, and Waterfire. Ben & Jerry’s is also convenient to have on Thayer.

  2. Joseph Weimaraner says:

    Paxson announced that she intended to think about possibly appointing a committee to discuss policy options for increasing diversity – yet to be defined by another yet to be appointed committee – within the next eon, in time for the launch of Starship Enterprise to boldly go to a black hole – sorry that is just an astronomical term – where no Brunonian trans and the trans’s flaky president has considered appointing a committee to discuss going to before. Complications may arise because Paxson cannot be seen to favor her Klingon relatives in discussing the consideration of possible talk of committee memberships.

  3. Tom Bale '63 says:

    Of course we can’t go head to head with Harvard’s financial resources. Brown has other ways of succeeding. I like what Professor Bogues suggests: How can Brown improve the racial sensitivity of the faculty already teaching at the University? Every white person growing up in our society carries some degree of racial bias. I think it is impossible not to carry that around on an unconscious basis. It has nothing to do with the power of one’s intellect. We should adapt something that Fidel Castro used to require: All professional Cubans needed to spend some time each year working on the farms. He wanted to make sure the virtues farming and farmers infused in the culture were not lost on city folks. Here is a radical idea for Brown faculty: How about if once a year each white faculty member was expected to attend on a voluntary basis one class taught by a faculty of color that involved some aspect of race – historical or contemporary. Would this open up any eyes? Could the BDH follow this experiment along with interviews for all faculty and students to see what professors were serious about wanting to make the improvements Professor Bogues talks about?

  4. No worries about the taboo topic of quotas on Asians…which clearly extends beyond just undergrad and professional school admissions to faculty hiring…

  5. SpecialKinNJ and elsewhere says:

    Commenting on underrepresenttion of female faculty in STEM fields got then Pres.Summers in trouble with Harvard-related women et al.

    He posited, inter al,, having children, innate (genetic) differences in affinity for developing quantitative abilities, and cultural factors discouraging women from entering math/science fields.

    Regarding the possibility of genetic differences, the hypothesis of gender differences in “affinity for developing quantitative ablitiies” remains unproved. There is, however, evidence supportive of a necessary but insufficient condition for its validity, namely, the presence of very stable, substantial, gender differences in performance on a widely validated test of developed mathematical abilities, namely the SAT Mathematics (SAT-M) test.

    More specifically in 1973 the SAT-Math (SAT-M) mean for female candidates nationally (489) was 36 points lower than that for males (525), and some 36 years later, in 2009, the disparity was 35 points, favoring males.

    Such stability indicates primarily that the abilities being measured are highly resistant to change. Will females, on the average, somehow come to be on par with males, on average, in math? Quien sabe. However, it seems likely that women will continue to be under-represented in STEM majors and related careers,.

    A similar pattern of stable performance for ethnic groups is evident on the SAT verbal (Reading) section. For example, in 1987 Black SAT candidates averaged 428 and in
    2011 their average remained at 428. For Mexican-Americans corresponding averages were 457 and 451, and for white candidates the average in 2011 (524) was slightly higher than the 1987 average (524).

    Since faculty members plausibly tend to be drawn from a pool of “more academically oriented students” (and scores on the SAT are significantly predictive of academic performance), it is likely that members of higher-scoring groups will tend to have
    greater representation in college faculties than members of lower-scoring groups.

  6. sciencequota09 says:

    Yes please, let us hire 2nd rate scientists so that Brown can feel good about its minority ratio. You people know that cancer doesn’t cure itself, right?
    Can’t we just quadruple the African and Women studies department so that people finally shut up about this?

  7. SpecialKinNJ and elsewhere says:

    Looking at the topic under consideration in another context could be helpful. Consider, for example, racial make-up of professional athelic teams:

    National Basketball Association: TIDES gave the NBA an A+ grade for
    racial hiring practices on its 2013 report card. More than three-quarters of
    all NBA players are African-Americans; people of color make up 81 percent of the
    league’s players. In 2012-2013, the NBA employed its second-highest
    number of black head coaches ever and set a new record for assistant coaches of

    National Football League: The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports gave
    the NFL an A grade for racial hiring practices on its 2012 report card. Two-thirds of the league’s players are racial minorities — the vast majority of them black —

    Major League Baseball: Major League Baseball received an A grade for its
    racial hiring practices on its 2013 TIDES report card. More than a quarter of
    baseball players are now of Latino origin, and the number of Asian players increased as well. The number of foreign-born players is now at its fourth-highest level ever. Just 8.2 percent of players were black,

    End excerpts from linked item

    How might one account for the fact that blacks make up only some 8 percent of baseball team players?

    • One might account for the fact that blacks make up only 8 percent of baseball players because it’s cheaper to sign and develop Latino talent who have had little protection socially, culturally, and economically from the United States. Conversely, black American kids cost more than they are “worth” to develop into baseball talent, and therefore black American cultural norms have shifted toward basketball and football. It’s not like American kids with black skin just lost their “baseball gene” or something.

      • It’s a hard argument to make that professional athletes in this day and age are exploited relative to the quality of life of their fans. I’d also venture to say that the lion’s share of Latin and Asian talent is international as baseball is tremendously popular in Latin and Asian markets far and ahead of basketball or football. With so many people willing to play professional sports it’s not about teams deeming whether or not its “worth” to develop talent as it is to find value in the readily available talent pool.

        Going to the sourcing of domestic black talent, if we look at predominately black communities, we don’t see many baseball diamonds. Rather, we see basketball courts. Why? Basketball is a much cheaper sport than the others (only need a half a court and a ball) so it’s an easy choice for the planning committees to choose as the recreational facilities for poorer neighborhoods where most blacks in the US live (another issue altogether). So a majority of black youth in the US grows up playing a lot of basketball, honing their technique, and some of those kids grow up to become basketball greats.

        Now, how football, arguably the most expensive of the 3 sports to playl? Most if not every highschool has access to a football field and reuse players equipment. I’d also be curious to see which positions we see most of the black players in the NFL. If the majority are some kind of lineman of immense size and strength, then it’s less about access to football fields early on in childhood for most of black America and more about growth spurts in highschool and coaches sourcing the players they need on the gridiron effectively. To be a great lineman is less about technique and more about strength, size, and speed.

        Baseball, requires a great deal of technique to play and as a result, leagues are already highly competitive and exclusionary when kids are 12 years old (Little League). The chances of becoming suddenly any good at baseball become exponentially worse as kids reach highschool when those from poorer, urban backgrounds without previous access to baseball would finally have a chance. You’re right, it’s not about genes, it’s just access to exercise those specific muscles.

  8. Stating the obvious TRUTH says:

    What kind of nonsense is this newly fabricated term “underrepresented minorities”?

    What do the writers smoke? Dope?

    Even they admit that there are lot of successful Asians there at Brown, so obviously, the university is NOT racist.

    It is not university’s fault that some students are not apt enough to pass the admission tests.

    Who cares about race, it is merit what counts!
    Shame on you Harris and Zappa, you a couple of true RACIST hacks!

  9. Wow. Attitudes and idiocy like this have driven me to do something that I have never done before . . . next presidential election, I am voting Republican. You don’t want my support, alright.

  10. ala um um um says:

    dumbest goddamned thing i have ever read

  11. STEM at the university and commercial level is the closest we have yet come to a meritocracy. The cure for a specific cancer or the next generation of green energy technology does not care about race or ethnicity. Only great talent, forged in the rigorous crucible of a critical STEM program, will make the critical break-throughs. If we want to fix the demographic disparities we must fix them at the primary level of education and cultivate talent where ever it is found. There is no short-cut. Selecting faculty on criteria other than rigor will only diminish us all.

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