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Past and Present: The (In)Visibility of Black Lower Level Faculty

EBONY at Harvard

The Barker Center houses a host of departments, including African and African American Studies.
The Barker Center houses a host of departments, including African and African American Studies. By Kai R. McNamee
By Ebony M. Smith, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ebony M. Smith ’24 is a Government and African & African American Studies Concentrator living in Eliot House. Her column “EBONY at Harvard” runs biweekly on Mondays.

The African and African American Studies Department was born out of trouble. Good trouble.

On April 10, 1968, the Harvard-Radcliffe Association for African and Afro-American Students, or AFRO, initiated a watershed moment in the history of Harvard University by publishing a monumental list of demands:

“Establish an endowed chair for a Black Professor.”

“Establish courses relevant to Blacks at Harvard.”

“Establish more lower level Black Faculty members.”

“Admit a number of Black students proportionate to our percentage of the population as a whole.”

Though they have not all been met, each of these demands is important as they ultimately laid the foundation for the first version of the African and African American Studies Department.

In 2023, our flourishing department consists of some of the best professors and scholars in the country; there is a wide range of courses offered in the African and African American Studies Department, many of which are interdisciplinary.

In short, I wouldn’t be getting the degree I have such a passion for without this history.

Still, one question remains unanswered and rarely discussed. Where are the lower level Black faculty members?

According to the 2023 Faculty Development and Diversity report, out of the 581 total tenured faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, only 6 percent of them identify as Black or African-American. Meanwhile, out of the 142 tenure-track faculty, merely 8 percent of them identify as Black or African-American. The numbers dwindle when gender and race intersect. Meanwhile, in the 2020-2021 academic year, only 5 percent of non-ladder faculty identified as Black or African-American.

These figures indicate little difference in the representation of Black or African-American scholars between tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, and non-ladder faculty. However, the burden of constituting such a small percentage of overall faculty falls the hardest on non-ladder faculty, who lack the most resources and stability out of all groups despite doing so much heavy lifting at the University more broadly.

As a current senior at the College, I’ve been taught by very few non-tenured, non-tenure track Black faculty members. These non-ladder faculty members are often balancing temporary appointments, little job security, and great responsibility to students.

Teaching staff are often not only responsible for grading assignments, but also for leading sections, hosting office hours, and providing the one-on-one communication that is more difficult to find with tenured faculty members. On top of being the most accessible resource in classrooms, teaching staff are pursuing their own research and seeking tenured mentors to assist them. Their unique positionality in the classroom should be celebrated. Not only does their proximity to students make them one of the most visible resources to Harvard students, but it serves as symbolic representation for those to come.

We must question why lower-level Black faculty members remain so sparse in numbers at the University, because it points to a troubling stereotype.

It suggests that every faculty member of color must be at the top of their field. In reality, though, Harvard should be providing resources to lower level faculty so that they can confidently conduct research. They should be allowed to academically grow while at Harvard, and receive proper mentorship and attention.

Harvard must strike a balance between hiring extraordinary scholars and professors — those who have broken the glass ceiling in their fields — and hiring lower level Black faculty who are just entering academia, but have so much to offer. The relative success of AFRO’s original demands and the current African and African American Studies Department can serve as the blueprint for Harvard’s next steps.

While we should absolutely continue to push for more tenured Black faculty, we must also advocate for a parallel system that highlights the accomplishments and value of Black non-ladder faculty members. The 1968 cohort of AFRO made no mistake when they demanded more Black representation at the University. If we are to truly honor the demands of AFRO, we cannot be afraid to critique the hierarchical structure of academia, and the ways it has harmed Black scholars and professionals.

Ebony M. Smith ’24 is a Government and African & African American Studies Concentrator living in Eliot House. Her column “EBONY at Harvard” runs biweekly on Mondays.


Editor’s Note: We have decided to turn off comments on “EBONY at Harvard” due to concerns raised by the writer over targeted racialized comments left on her past work or similar pieces.

— Eleanor V. Wikstrom ’24, Editorial Chair

— Christina M. Xiao ’24, Editorial Chair

— Cara J. Chang ’24, President

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