Students of color at UConn say they feel underrepresented, faculty face challenges

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Shawn Alexander has been a computer science major at the University of Connecticut for four years. In that time, he has only had one black professor. It was in an Africana studies class. 


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“Immediately upon arriving at Storrs, I felt more alone, I felt more invisible, I felt more secluded,”  Alexander, a Stamford native, said. “I guess all those things that come with being a person of color in a large area where there isn’t a lot of people of color.”       

Alexander said it’s important for him to see himself reflected in the faculty because it gives him more motivation to excel. 

He said the black professor he has understands him and that there is a “cohesiveness” to the conversations taking place between them. 

“I wish I could have more professors like that, even in my major because that’s even more important, because [computer science] is what I came here for,” Alexander said. 

A study conducted this year by the Pew Research Center showed in 2017 that among all post-secondary institutions, only 6% of faculty members were black compared to a black undergraduate population of 14%. 

Similarly, Latinx faculty was at 5% compared to a Latinx undergraduate population of 20%. 

In contrast, there was moderately less Asian undergrads than Asian Faculty (7% vs. 11%). 

Meanwhile, white instructors held 76% of faculty positions and overrepresented their student counterparts by a difference of 21%. 

The same study showed that from 1997 to 2017, the black faculty population only increased by 1% and Latinx faculty saw a 2% increase. 

According to the 2019 Workforce Analysis Report from the Office of Institutional Equity, there is a total of 1,223 professors at UConn and only 39 (3.2%) of them are black and 65 (5.3%) are Latinx.  

On Nov. 19, newly inaugurated president Thomas Katsouleas announced in an email the creation of the Provost Office Initiative, in which the Provost’s Office will work together with schools and colleges to enhance diversity in hiring. 

This came in the wake of the incident outside Charter Oak apartments last October where two white students were arrested by campus police after being captured on video shouting a racial slur. 

The events sparked movements across UConn’s campus, including marches of solidarity and lists of demands by campus organizations. 

Hiring and retaining faculty of color, however, does come with its challenges, with reasons ranging from few PhD candidates of color in the hiring pool, the added responsibility of not only instructing but serving as a mentor and the amount of explicit or implicit bias operating at a campus, among other issues. 

Glenn Mitoma, the director of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center and an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the Human Rights Institute and the Neag School of Education, said UConn has done a particularly poor job of retaining faculty of color over the years. 

When faculty members of color are the fewest members of their race in a department or committee, they are often expected to fill more roles than usual, and that can “become a tremendous burden,” Mitoma said. 

Based on conversations Mitoma has had with faculty members of color, he said they’re “committed to being there for students.” Nevertheless, it oftentimes results in them being way overextended compared to their white colleagues, which can lead to microaggressions and having their research or work ignored. 

One of the biggest hurdles to hiring more faculty members of color is a low number of PhD candidates, according to a study done by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.  

The study showed in 2017 that out of the 54,641 doctorates conferred by universities in the United States, only 2,963 were awarded to black students. 

In order to close the gap and hire more faculty of color, Shawn Salvant, a black professor and the associate director of the Africana Studies Institute at UConn, said the key to this is a commitment to “structural change.” 

“You have to develop a pipeline,” Salvant said. “You have to develop a long-term plan  for not only bringing people in at a moment’s notice to fill vacancies or to boost numbers, but to have a longer-term plan to make sure you’re developing talent before they get to the faculty level.” 

Many universities don’t like to hire from within, according to Salvant, but a pipeline system can be implemented by building relationships with other institutions in the area by making them aware of UConn’s interest in hiring PhD students of color. 

Salvant said the university could also work with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions serving underrepresented minorities to make them aware of UConn’s programs long before faculty searches occur. 

Mitoma said predominately white institutions like UConn have a colonial past which might further explain the disparities.   

“Traditional metrics that are valued in higher education are ones that favor white male ways of being and knowing,” Mitoma said. 

Mitoma suggested this can lead to a feeling among professors of color that their research and work in the community is underappreciated or even unnecessary at times. 

Noel Cazenave, a full-time black sociology professor who has taught at UConn for 28 years, said he feels like the university is “hostile to his very existence,” and his work in the community is often underappreciated. 

Cazenave said he wanted to teach a class specifically focused on white racism and found that even within the sociology department there were hostilities. 

“I was called a black bigot and compared to Leonard Jeffries and Farrakhan,” Cazenave said. 

Jeffries, an African-American professor, and Louis Farrakhan, a Black Muslim leader, both gained a reputation for their controversial statements. 

Cazanave also said many professors of color are afraid to organize and be outspoken in regard to racism at UConn because doing so could jeopardize their career. 

“To be able to talk on an issue, I would have to get personal emails. I would have to make an arrangement to have a phone call with them, or a meeting with them in person, and when I do, they’re going to be too frightened to take any significant action,” Cazanave said. 

A professor of color was contacted for an interview for this article and declined to do so because they feared it would put their career at risk. 

“There’s not going to be a silver bullet solution, but we certainly know where to start,” Mitoma said. “It’s simply hire more and work hard to retain more.” 


Jordan Noto is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jordan.noto@uconn.edu

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