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Taking the Ivory Out of the Ivory Tower

Toward a Higher Higher Education

By Julien Berman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julien Berman ’26, an Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

I’ve taken eight academic classes this year. Every single one of them was taught by a white professor.

And I don’t think that’s uncommon. For an institution that claims to focus on diversity, Harvard’s faculty is quite racially homogeneous — just 22 percent of tenured faculty are non-white, and less than 10 percent are Black, Hispanic or Latinx, or Native American. While that is far more diverse than Harvard around two decades ago, it is still woefully unrepresentative of the Harvard student body and the larger United States population.

Sadly, the rest of academia isn’t much better. While universities have successfully increased student diversity, faculty diversity has failed to keep pace. Indeed, in 2020, faculty of color at U.S. degree-granting postsecondary institutions comprised just 26 percent of all full-time faculty, even as students of color made up 46 percent of the total student population.

These abysmal statistics signal that higher education institutions must do more to radically reshape their recruitment and hiring strategies. On its current track, Ivy League faculty will never achieve demographic parity with the U.S. population.

Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the United States Census 2017 National Population Projections Tables. Faculty projection R squared = 0.94.
Data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the United States Census 2017 National Population Projections Tables. Faculty projection R squared = 0.94. By Julien Berman

Faculty diversity isn’t just about checking the representational box; it’s essential to the mission of higher education. A racially diverse faculty is critical for both students of color and white students to receive a better education.

One study suggests that faculty diversity positively affects overall graduation rates for students of color. Another concludes that Black students enrolled in STEM courses taught by Black instructors are more likely to remain in a STEM field after a year.

This is not at all surprising. A more diverse faculty provides students of color with role models who share their racial or ethnic background. These students then feel a stronger sense of belonging and validation, which contributes to their academic growth and success.

Studies find that white students, too, demonstrate better critical thinking skills and report improved overall satisfaction when taught by diverse faculty.

So what can institutions do to ensure diverse, representational faculty?

Most obviously, universities should take steps to eliminate racial bias throughout the hiring process for Ph.D. students or postdoctoral researchers. Search committees should employ equity advocates — committee members that promote fair and inclusive evaluation of all candidates — to standardize the interview process and provide an extra layer of accountability.

Universities can also embrace “cluster hiring”: appointing multiple faculty at once across a range of related fields, rather than hiring them one by one. Recruiting a larger group of scholars increases the likelihood of a diverse pool of applicants and can mitigate the isolation often felt by singular faculty from underrepresented demographics.

But hiring is only the shallowest level of the problem. Universities shouldn’t achieve diversity goals just by poaching a limited number of faculty of color from peer institutions — that won’t increase the total number of faculty from underrepresented demographics.

The deeper problem is that the pipeline to professorship is plagued with racial prejudice. Horror stories from Black doctoral students and faculty dissuade Black college graduates from pursuing higher degrees in the first place out of concerns that these programs will treat them poorly.

In addition, many students of color lack the support needed to inspire them to pursue a career as faculty. One recent study found that students who have parents with Ph.D.s are far more likely to become faculty members, in part because they are more likely to receive encouragement for careers in academia from their parents. This finding is problematic given that Black and Hispanic adults are far less likely to hold graduate degrees than white adults.

As a result, higher education appears to be locked in a vicious cycle: Students of color have less access to support and mentorship, leading to less faculty diversity, which in turn makes it harder for students from underrepresented communities to envision themselves in faculty positions.

Universities need to start breaking this cycle — now.

Underrepresented students should be supported at every step on the path to professorship. Universities can partner with programs specifically designed to prepare underrepresented students for doctoral study, like the McNair Scholars Program and the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. They can also focus on hiring doctoral students from historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions that primarily serve underrepresented groups.

Next, universities should pair underrepresented graduate students with faculty mentors, who will help demystify the job search and replace a competitive environment with a supportive one. Mentorship programs can also help build trust among underrepresented students in demonstrating universities’ commitments to closing equity gaps.

Ultimately, breaking down racial barriers requires a multi-pronged support system that begins when students of color first set foot on university campuses. Intervention strategies need to focus both on building the talent pool of underrepresented applicants and ensuring equitable hiring of those applicants. Otherwise, the ivory towers of academia will remain both exclusionary and far too white.

Julien Berman ’26, an Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall. His column, “Toward a Higher Higher Education,” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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