Diversity: Students, Faculty, and the Work to be Done

In 1968 the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign launched an initiative called Project 500 to enroll 500 African Americans in the freshman class.  The project was a response to the local and national Civil Rights movement and was, in its time, a breakthrough. Now,  in 2013, our campus fails to meet the benchmark it set forty-five years ago. This year’s freshman class included only 433 African-American students.

Today, the U of I has more international students than any other public university in the nation. A student body with broad variety in national origin is important for undergraduate education. But does the high number of international students address the long-standing problems that Project 500 targeted?  Today, we are not succeeding at recruiting or graduating students from historically underrepresented groups. The overall 4 year graduation rate at UIUC is 65%, but only 40% for African-American students. The overall 5 year graduation rate is 81%, but only 63% for African-American students.  Graduation disparities are similar for Latino/a and American Indian students.

How do we explain these troubling disparities?

The University has looked at campus climate as a factor in the low numbers of underrepresented groups enrolling at UIUC, and in the differential graduation rates. In 2012 approximately 11,200 students, faculty, and staff responded to a campus climate survey. Students were asked to rank factors relating to climate, including access to resources, faculty and academics, and integration. Two factors in particular, “offensive comments”  and “threats and violence,”  were cited by students as seriously damaging the campus atmosphere.  Clearly, university-wide leadership is needed to help students of all backgrounds feel the University  of Illinois belongs to them.

Increasing the number of faculty from under-represented groups is critical to recruiting and retaining minority students.  As is well-known, for students to succeed academically they need to see themselves reflected in the classroom and among the faculty.  We also know that all students benefit from a faculty that includes vigorous representation from historically underrepresented groups.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees (BOT) knows that the three campuses must step up efforts to diversify faculty. On May 31, 2012, Vice-President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre told the BOT that the university needs to increase numbers of minorities, women in science and technology, veterans, and people with disabilities among the faculty.

While we agree with his observation, the CFA questions Vice-President Pierre’s understanding of the meaning of diversity.  By itself, his definition of the term is too broad to help improve the numbers of under-represented faculty, and thus, students. (As designated by the federal government, and tracked in the UI’s statistics, these groups include Latino/a, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, African American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander.)  Pierre argued that one of the diversity problems the University faces is that foreign students cannot stay here to work, and so diversity hiring  pools are weakened by national policy.  CFA  believes that international faculty, with their rich backgrounds and variety of experiences, are a wonderful asset for our campus.  We should hire faculty from overseas when they are the best candidates for the job. Yet increasing the number of international faculty cannot address the critical problem of hiring and retaining more professors from historically underrepresented U. S. groups.

What can a faculty union do about this problem? We can insist on better monitoring of the progress of  students through benchmarks, including not only admission, but also rates of graduation in 4 and 5 years.  We can insist on regular, clear summary reports to the faculty on this issue.  We can insist on clear benchmarks and regular reporting on the hiring of underrepresented faculty.

We can also work on tuition.  The recent sharp increases in tuition remain a  barrier to increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups. Tuition rates are already so high that U of I is  pricing lower-income and first-generation students  (of all races and ethnicities) out of an education at UIUC. The effect is particularly pronounced on minority students, since their families are disproportionately of lower income.

We can also work on the issue of the growing number of non-tenure-stream faculty positions. The attrition of full-time tenure-track faculty positions constricts the number of  tenure-stream faculty from underrepresented groups. Collective bargaining can stem this tide, increase the number of  tenure stream positions, and give us more opportunities to recruit and retain faculty from underrepresented groups.

Improving our lagging salaries and benefits will help us recruit and retain minority faculty, for whom we often compete with our better-paid peers.

A faculty union can help our campus move forward with a policy that rewards departments for increasing representation among students and faculty from historically underrepresented groups. A union can lobby state legislators and the Governor to appoint BOT members who would advocate for greater diversity.

Collective bargaining can help our campus reach goals set decades ago. Join our efforts!