GAO study reveals persistent underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic faculty in higher education

A recent GAO study highlighted a stark disparity between the racial and ethnic composition of faculty compared to the student body.
NNPA photo submitted

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Senior
National Correspondent

 A new study conducted by the Government Accountability Office,  commissioned by Congressman Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), has unveiled concerning trends regarding the representation of Black and Hispanic faculty members in higher education institutions.

Despite modest increases in their numbers over the past two decades, Black and Hispanic individuals remain significantly underrepresented among college faculty.

The study, which examined data spanning from fiscal years 2003 to 2021, found that while the proportions of Black and Hispanic faculty members have seen slight upticks, they continue to lag behind their representation in the broader workforce, particularly among workers with advanced degrees and professionals. Further, the study highlighted a stark disparity between the racial and ethnic composition of faculty and that of the student body, indicating a systemic issue within higher education.

“Addressing the underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic faculty is not only a matter of diversity but also impacts the overall quality of education and student outcomes,” study authors wrote. “It’s imperative that we hold institutions accountable for fostering inclusive environments that reflect the diversity of our society.”

The study identified the processing of employment discrimination complaints as one significant barrier. Both current and prospective faculty members have the option to file complaints with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Department of Education. However, the study revealed persistent delays in the referral of complaints from the Department of Education to the EEOC.

In fiscal year 2022 alone, the Department of Education processed and referred 99 complaints alleging employment discrimination at colleges, with an average referral time of 71 days—well beyond the mandated 30-day period. Such delays not only prolong the resolution process but also perpetuate instances of discrimination and inequity within academia.

Additionally, the study uncovered deficiencies in the EEOC’s tracking and processing of complaint referrals. Despite receiving complaints referred to by the Department of Education, the study concluded that the EEOC needs a consistent protocol to ensure the timely receipt and processing of these referrals. The lack of accountability poses risks of oversight and further delays in addressing discrimination complaints, the authors stated.

In response to the findings, the GAO has issued recommendations aimed at enhancing accountability and efficiency in the processing of discrimination complaints. Scott has urged swift action from both the Department of Education and the EEOC to address the systemic disparities and processing delays highlighted in the study.

“The good news is that faculty diversity has improved over the last twenty years. The bad news is that faculty diversity is still not representative of the students they teach,” Scott stated.

According to the study authors, historically Black colleges, and universities, among other minority-serving establishments, have had success in nurturing and advancing academic members of color into tenure-track jobs, which offer greater security than adjunct or part-time employment. The authors noted that these schools frequently prioritize the education of students of color in the recruiting and professional development of their professors.

The GAO research suggests that enhancing mentorship, conducting retention studies, and providing leadership opportunities are effective strategies to enhance the retention of faculty members who are of color. The survey also discovered that a positive campus environment affected teachers’ decision to remain at their schools.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Education both handle allegations of discrimination at colleges and universities inefficiently, according to the GAO study. The Education Department’s regulation mandates that complaints be sent to the EEOC within 30 days; however, the average time it took to get a referral was more like 71 days.

“As we strive to create more equitable educational environments, it is incumbent upon federal agencies to prioritize the timely and thorough investigation of discrimination complaints,” the authors concluded. “Our nation’s colleges and universities must be bastions of diversity and inclusion, and addressing the underrepresentation of minority faculty is a critical step towards achieving that goal.”

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