Mail Bag

Letter to the Editor: UH diversity not so black and white

The following is a continuation of running guest essays by faculty members for UH’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. this week.

—The Daily Cougar editorial board


African-American displays of hard work, excellence and progress are typically center-staged with accomplishments in the business of jumping higher, running faster, and singing soulfully. These are all well and good;  however, I find it alarming that at a Tier One institution, the chances of becoming a professional athlete are better than the chances of becoming university faculty.

Today, the chances of a high school senior athlete being drafted into the NFL after completing a NCAA career is 0.08%.  The chance that a high school senior, who is an African-American male, will go on to complete a Ph.D. is 0.05%; chances are substantially less for becoming part of the university faculty body.

Latest UH reports show that only 7 of 965 ranked faculty are both African-American and full-tenured professors. Only 143 of 3662 hold any type of faculty position, including teaching assistants and adjunct faculty.

Across the U.S. there are more African-Americans completing their Ph.D.s and more faculty hires; yet, the Department of Education reported that only 5% of the faculty population is African-American.

Surely Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would consider these facts as unsettling for any university, let alone a Tier One institution with a city population where nearly one out of every four is African-American according to the 2010 Census.  He might even resurrect a carefully crafted warning that he proclaimed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said.

UH has overcome diversity issues in the past by opening opportunities along the education pathway.

UH began as an institution with a diverse, yet not fully inclusive, student body. During our first four decades, the only students excluded from admission were African-Americans and those of African descent.

Andrew Pegoda’s UH thesis was the first to chronicle their struggle to obtain admission and equality on our campus. His study reviewed the UH special collection archives which included letters from UH presidents, administration and applicants. He found that many tried to blaze the trail into UH classrooms.

Educational opportunity was stopped short by the UH administration.

This hardline exclusion ended in 1962 with the acceptance of Charles P. Rhinehart as the first African-American UH student.

In the last 50 years, UH went from being a “non-Black” institution to what our Chancellor and President Renu Khator says is not only “one of the most ethnically diverse universities in the nation, but probably the most ethnically balanced as well.”

Today, approximately 50 percent of African American students who applied were admitted and 25 percent freely chose to be a part of our student body; 1 out of 10 UH students is African-American.

This progress toward full diversity slows to a snail’s pace for our faculty body.

There are many recommendations that may lead to a more diverse faculty. One is that a more balanced approach be used to recruit and matriculate more African-Americans into tenure track positions; where service is valued at the same level as research and teaching.  We all understand that the current realities of a Tier One institution are such that research is valued most; however, I believe that King would propose that our acts of service should be valued most in our pursuit of becoming a great institution, for he says, “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

The impact of service is beneficial to the university because it can increase the pool of qualified applicants to our campus. Faculty can spend a majority of their time publishing research findings about those who slip through the cracks. A shift towards service to low-income neighborhoods, which are typically minority, means that faculty can balance their time pursuing our Tier One goals. This ensures that both the public good as well as their career goals of tenure are met.

The impact of service can be seen right outside our doorstep at Ryan Middle School. The UH family, including the oversight from three faculty members, entered a partnership with community stakeholders and saw great success. The percentage of RMS students meeting or exceeding standardized test scores increased from 51 percent to 83 percent between 2009 and 2011 for sixth-graders; eighth-graders from 52 percent to 76 percent. This is the impact of using our Tier One talents and skill sets for public good.

Chances are slim under our current value system that a young King, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, or someone of a much lesser stature would become part of our tenured faculty today. A slight shift to a more balanced approach might attract the next King, who personified the core tenants of a Tier One institution: research, teaching, and service.  He was published, taught the masses, and won the Noble Peace Prize by his acts of service.

UH is more than capable of showing the world that our entire UH family is diverse from student, to staff and faculty. With more value placed on answering “life’s most persistent and urgent question,” this may help us attract and matriculate more African-American faculty as we seek to meet our Tier One goals.

— Larry Hill, research professor at the Graduate College of Social Work

Leave a Comment