Seats Taken

By Jamari Jordan

Not everyone gets a seat at the dinner table, but what is unfortunate is the fact that many never receive an invitation. Black faculty members have never had a seat at the table at the University of Georgia, and it’s doubtful their invitation has been lost in the mail for 55 years.

The University of Georgia approximately has 5.7% black faculty. In comparison to other notable schools in the state of Georgia, the university is tied for third with Georgia Southern University trailing only Georgia State (10%) and Emory (6.8%) with rival Georgia Tech holding less than three percent black faculty.

On the surface, the University of Georgia is on par not only with schools within its state, but it is beginning to close in on the national average. In the United States, black professors are approximately six percent of fulltime faculty employed by colleges and universities. However, the story runs much deeper.

Several colleges within the University of Georgia hold less than a handful of full-time black faculty members, with many barely holding one at all. Based on faculty pages listed online for the respected colleges, the biological sciences, psychology, political science and chemistry departments hold only three black faculty members combined out of over 140 positions.

The University of Georgia School of Law, a top 30 law school in the country, has only three black faculty members out of 51 possible positions. The Terry College of Business, a top ranked, renowned business school in the country, has only two black professors in all nine departments spanning over 150 positions.

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Dawn Bennet-Alexander, Associate Professor of Law and Legal Studies at Terry College, speaks to the audience during the State of the Black Community Forum which was hosted by the Multicultural Services and Programs at the University of Georgia’s Chapel Monday, 17, February 2014. Photo by John Roark/ johnroarkmedia.com

“Any time a presence is minimal there are simply things that go with that territory,” said Dr. Dawn Bennett-Alexander, one of the two black faculty members. “Not seeing yourself reflected in any significant way, being minimized, dismissed, ignored, overlooked, feeling scrutinized more closely, not being chosen for certain roles, and not feeling you have folks around you who understand you or your plight. I’m actually a rather unique case because I learned quite early in my 28 years here that I had to look outside my college for my tribe and I did.”

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the No. 2 journalism school in the country only behind the University of Missouri, has only one black faculty member.

Valerie Boyd is an associate professor that teaches magazine writing and narrative journalism. Boyd’s narrative as a professor at UGA can be best described with one word: isolation.

“It feels isolating,” said Boyd. “It feels alone… The most challenging thing in a way is someone saying something crazy and there’s no one in the room for me to make eye contact with. It’s not just about having a black person in the room, but it’s about perspectives and experience. Like black lives matter, black perspectives matter.”

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Additionally, Valerie Boyd is the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in Residence. Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Hamilton E. Holmes integrated the University of Georgia in 1961 as the first two African Americans to attend the school. 55 years later, the number of African Americans enrolled at UGA has drastically increased, but many of the same issues that faced Gault and Holmes still linger.

In 1990, UGA approximately had an undergraduate population of 6.6%. Now, UGA has an undergraduate black student population of approximately 7.6%. In 26 years, UGA has increased its black student population by only one percent.

Black students still face the everyday struggle of finding a sense of community amongst a sea of faces that are unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming. The biggest issue African American students face at predominantly white institutions like UGA is the pressure of upholding their race.

Often times, African American students are one of few if not the only person of color in their classrooms. When discussions about race or recent media headlines about the death of another black teen under suspicious circumstances dealing with the police comes up, all eyes are fixated on them. Their classmates looking to them to bang their chest and deliver an official statement on behalf of the entire black community.

Everyone knows UGA must continue to increase diversity. A one percent increase in 26 years is unacceptable especially considering the state of Georgia is 30% African American and African Americans make up close to 13% of all enrolled college students in America.

If the University of Georgia is going to continue to be the flagship institution of the state of Georgia and be heralded as a public ivy, it is going to have to answer the bell in terms of actually attacking its diversity issue.

With that said, UGA’s diversity issue does not only extend to students but to faculty as well. Frequently, the belief is that the two are mutually exclusive and must be tackled separately. In actuality, when you attempt to correct one, you are helping the other end of the spectrum as well.

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“I think it’s critical in a journalism school to have diverse faculty because you want to be training a diversity of voices to be the future journalists in our country,” said Grady College Professor Vicki Michaelis. “We need that diversity among the journalism ranks and If we don’t have diversity among the faculty, we can’t expect to have diversity among the students.”

The first step in correcting the issue is admitting there is one. Then, the second step is for white faculty members to speak up as well when they see discussions and practices go awry.

“I have repeatedly challenged my colleagues to speak up,” said Boyd. “If something is going on that you think is not fair or have something to say about it, or you agree with what I’m saying, don’t tell me privately. Speak up in the public conversation so your views can be registered and have an impact.”

Valerie Boyd may be the only black professor in Grady, but not for much longer if Dean Charles Davis’ plans go according to plan.

“It [diversity among the faculty] has been a failure of mine in my first three years here that we haven’t moved the needle,” said Davis. “We have to. We just got to. We have to look more like the students that we teach.”

Davis has convened a diversity outreach committee that will run along side search committees in Grady when the college actively pursues new professors in the hiring process. Hopefully, we will see tangible results when a number of current Grady faculty retires in the coming years. With that, other deans at colleges will follow Davis’ lead.

As important as it is to hire new African American faculty members, it is equally important to keep the ones we already have. They should not be dismissed or allowed to walk out the door because they are not happy. Instead, they should be encouraged and persuaded to stay.

“Why don’t I teach at an HBCU,” Boyd pondered. “I would love to and I think there are a strong number and I would love to do that. But, I feel like students need me here too. This isn’t 50 years ago. Black students don’t have to just go to an HBCU. Why can’t I teach here and not be a token?”

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That is the question that most black faculty members around the country ask themselves everyday. There is no plausible reason why African Americans make up only 6 percent of college professors across the country, especially when there has been a 43 percent increase in the number of African American PhDs over the past 15 years.

“To me, it’s about commitment,” said Boyd. “I know there are qualified candidates out there. When people say they can’t find any, that’s an excuse. If you have the will and the commitment to find them, I think that can happen.”

Black faculty members may not have a seat at the table or even an invitation, but they still relish the opportunities and impact they have on their students, especially ones that look like them.

“There’s something so beautiful to me about being taught by somebody who understands my experience,” said SGA Senator Tifara Brown. “The conversations are just a little different. At an institution where so many of the people don’t look like me, to go into a classroom and have someone who looks like me and knows my struggle, you can’t put a price tag on that.”

 

 

 

 

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