by Jenan Taha
AUSTIN, TX — The largest minority in the United States is also one of the most underrepresented groups throughout academia. Despite Latinos’ rapidly increasing achievements in higher education, their faculty presence is disproportionately low in universities nationwide—especially in states like Texas, where Latinos make up a significant part of the total population.
Unlike their minority counterparts, Latinos enroll in higher education at a greater rate, and their attainment of master and doctoral degrees has increased at a faster rate than any other group over the last 10 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Yet Latinos remain the least represented group in educational attainment, holding just nine percent of the country’s master’s degrees and 7 percent of doctoral degrees.
A Troubling National Trend
A stark lack of Latino professors can be seen around the country, with the average university comprised of six percent Latino faculty in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the University of Texas at Austin, Latinos make up eight percent of all faculty, despite the fact that 20 percent of the student body is Latino, and 39 percent of Texas is Latino.
Victor Saenz, department chair of educational leadership and policy, has been a part of UT’s diversity efforts for several years in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. He said the university is still predominantly white.
“Faculty diversity at UT Austin is atrocious, to say the least,” Saenz said. “As a public university, we are to serve the entire state of Texas—so we’re failing in that regard, by not admitting the proportion of students that reflects the state of Texas.”
Saenz said although the university administration has put in place numerous diversity programs and recruitment efforts, UT still has a long way to go.
“We need to do better in diversifying our student body and our faculty ranks so that we can ultimately promote a more inclusive society,” Saenz said. “That’s the moral imperative, the demographic imperative, the economic imperative.”
The near absence of Latino faculty is partly rooted in the k-12 school system, where dropout rates for Hispanic students, especially males, are among the highest. This is one reason Latinos are less likely to attain a higher education.
“The pool of eligible people that are even qualified to be hired is pretty small with respect to these underrepresented communities,” Saenz said. “For me and many colleagues I know, who come from [minority] backgrounds, it took a lot of great mentorship and support over the years to push me towards an academic career, and I think a lot of us fall through the cracks.”
Saenz said Latino boys are often socialized to join the workforce and become providers rather than continue schooling. He believes it’s important to provide Latino mentors to Latino students to encourage them to continue their higher education.
Richard Reddick, Saenz’s colleague and an associate professor in educational leadership and policy, said the presence of Latino professors is vital to students of color continuing their education.
“Each step of the way you’ll see folks disappear because they’re not graduating or losing interest or don’t feel supported in those endeavors,” Reddick said. “These steps tend not to favor students of color, and it has a lot to do with the fact that they do not see role models or mentors in their fields.”
Reddick said he was inspired by his Black English professor to consider a job in academia, and many of his colleagues, such as Saenz, were inspired in the same way.
“Something about men of color being in those roles sparked something in us,” Reddick said.
“When I see a Latino person in a role, that’s something that looks like I can do too. For a lot of students, especially those of us who are first-generation, we’ve never thought of a role as a professor before, so it’s really important to see people doing that job.”
UT Fails to Reflect Texas
Reddick said historically, Texas has not always had the most welcoming environment for people of color, due to its conservative stance and gun laws. Choosing to work at a university is a long-term commitment, and many professors that Reddick has spoken with have said they feel more welcome in other states.
What about the Latinos who already call Texas their home? The majority of Latino graduates are concentrated in a few states, including Texas, according to Latino research group Excelencia in Education. Why are there so few faculty when the Latino student population is one of the largest in the country?
Compared to schools in other states, Reddick said UT has a relatively high number of Latino faculty, but their presence is small to begin with and nothing to get excited about.
As anthropology professor Martha Menchaca explained, the eight percent Latino faculty includes instructors, lecturers, non-tenured and tenured professors. The number of full-time professors is a mere 5.9 percent, equating to 90 Latino professors out of 1,534 at the university.
“The problem is the departments really do not have plans of action to diversify,” Menchaca said. “What they’re interested in is hiring a person who specializes in something that they want. When it comes to racial minorities, there’s just lack of interest.”
Menchaca said the lack of diversity can be seen throughout the departments, even in her department in the college of liberal arts, which has the highest concentration of Latino faculty of any college at the university.
“They are not concerned with the demographic composition of Texas being 39 percent Latino,” Menchaca said. “They could care less.”
Menchaca added that the larger university administration is not at fault for the lack of diversity, but often cannot retain their minority faculty due to “lower salaries.”
Student body president Alejandrina Guzman said the fact that she is the first Latina president shows how underrepresented Latinos are on campus.
“I’m struggling as a student knowing that I don’t see myself in a lot of my professors because they don’t look like me,” Guzman said. “When there’s no representation, it becomes harder to have that same drive to succeed in any of your aspirations because you don’t feel supported, you don’t feel empowered—you feel alone.”
Guzman said although the university is making progress, it is important to continue to hold accountable those in charge of recruitment, to make the campus welcoming to everyone.
Does Representation Matter to Students?
Malik Gning, biology and anthropology junior, said he has never had a Black or Latino professor throughout his studies in the College of Natural Sciences. He notices the lack of diversity on campus “constantly.”
“In my classrooms, I always think ‘I’m the only black male in this class,’” Gning said. “I’ve had several classes where I was the only black male, which I think is strange.”
Gning said having Latino or other minority professors has a positive effect on all students.
“It inspires you when you see someone who looks like you in a position of power, because it makes you realize that not all the stereotypes are true,” Gning said. “Diversity is important because everyone has different experiences and everybody has something to teach you, and it’s really hard to go through life if you have a limited view on it.”
Gning believes the absence of professors of color can be attributed to UT’s history of segregation and discrimination against students and professors of color. UT was desegregated in the 1950s and did not begin to actively hire faculty of color until the 1980s, according to UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
“Having more Latino or Black professors would show students that you can be Black and you can be successful, or you can be Latino and you can be successful,” Gning said.
Other students expressed their belief that there is a lack of Latino professors available in the U.S. in the first place.
Sociology junior Enrique Garza said he does not see the low number of Latino professors as a major problem and does not believe it is due to discrimination or disenfranchisement.
“It’s representative of the population and I don’t feel like minorities Latino or otherwise have been underrepresented in faculty,” Garza said. “I’m much more concerned with those workers making fair wages.”
Loren Martinez, management information systems senior, said she has never had a Black or Hispanic professor in her classes at the school of business. Although diversity is “always a plus,” she does not see the lack of diversity as a key problem that affects her academic experience.
“I personally haven’t noticed a direct, obvious consequence to the students or quality of education because of this,” Martinez said.
In a state where the Latino minority is soon to replace the white majority, it seems counterintuitive that those in charge of teaching and mentoring the next generation are not representative of the state’s demographics.
As the number of degree-attaining Latinos continues to increase rapidly across the country, the need for schools to diversify their ranks remains fundamental.
“It’s about providing an educational experience that actually reflects reality,” Reddick said. “You’re going to learn more in a diverse environment, and you’re going to be able to impact the world in a more forceful way.”
Jenan Taha is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin with majors in Journalism and Arabic.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The graphic above was created by Andrea Acevedo, a senior at Trinity University.