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NewsMar 1, 2021

Where are the faculty of color?

Tatiana Cruz explores ways to support faculty diversity, equity in New England schools

Tatiana Cruz headshot

By Georgia Sparling

Dr. Tatiana Cruz, a former assistant professor of history at Lesley, is one of two new fellows appointed by the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) who will help the organization’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly in developing a regional initiative for faculty of color.

“The initiative is really to think about ways that New England institutions can recruit, hire, retain, support and promote faculty of color,” says Cruz.

The fellowship is part of a national initiative by the higher-education board, which indicates that people of color make up more than one-third of America’s college students. However, only about 5 percent of college faculty are African-American, about 3 percent are Hispanic and about 1 percent are Native American.

Cruz believes there are many people of color eager to enter academia, but barriers — from expensive and lengthy PhD programs to a lack of support for minority faculty — keep those numbers low in what is already a competitive and shrinking field.

As a first-generation American and college student, Cruz is well-acquainted with the challenges to earning a PhD. She was fortunate to learn from many history professors of color and to earn fellowships that both encouraged her to pursue a terminal degree and helped to pay for it. Yet for many people of color, spending six to 10 years in a PhD program with uncertain prospects in a dwindling academic job market after graduation is a significant detractor.

Cruz will work with NEBHE’s other appointed fellow Dr. Kamille Gentles-Peart of Roger Williams University to develop a strategy to attract, hire, retain and support faculty of color in New England colleges and universities.

Cruz and Gentles-Peart’s leadership will be “essential,” in this work, says board President and CEO Michael K. Thomas.

"Expanding faculty diversity is a necessary condition for achieving equitable attainment outcomes for students of color, truly inclusive institutions and highest-quality learning for all,” he says.

Attracting and keeping faculty of color

Cruz says institutions need to understand that, while they might put faculty of color on payroll, that’s not enough to keep them.

“Given that I was in their shoes only a few years ago, the difficult journey to my current position is still fresh in my mind,” she says. “People always think, ‘We just get them in the door, we're all set.’ But I don't think it works like that.”

New England’s proliferation of high-quality schools are a draw, but other factors make it difficult to retain non-white professors who may be attracted to more culturally diverse academic hubs, such as New York City, Chicago, and North Carolina’s “golden triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

“Those are the things that we're really thinking, particularly for smaller, predominantly white teaching institutions. What is the draw for faculty of color? Are they going to be completely isolated? Are they going to have peers of color? Are they going to have a support network and mentoring network? How do they combat the fact that maybe the towns aren't going to be as diverse?” says Cruz.

Once hired, Cruz explains, many faculty of color experience a new host of challenges such as structural racism and existing institutional inequalities on campus. These colleges and universities can be toxic spaces for faculty of color, who often feel overworked, marginalized and unsupported, with few opportunities for mentorship or spaces for community-building. They also often find their scholarship systematically denied, hidden and obscured.

Cruz and Gentles-Peart are working to address these issues as they develop a regional initiative focused on recruiting, mentoring, coaching and supporting the retention and tenure/promotion processes of faculty of color. By learning what works at other places and building a regional network, Cruz will also look to support Lesley’s ongoing work to build a more supportive and equitable place for faculty of color here.