“Us living as we do, upside down, and the new word to have is revolution.” This line from Gil Scott-Heron is perhaps the most befitting description of the current state of events in the United States. Catalyzed by the student demonstrations at the University of Missouri, students at multiple universities nationwide have demonstrated against what they believe to be injustices perpetrated by their respective administrations toward people of color. Demonstrations have also taken place here at Emory, and a list of demands written, rather presumptuously, on behalf of “the Black Students of Emory University” has been sent to the administration.
The most poignant aspect about the demands rendered is that they reveal how much more powerful perceptions can be than the reality of a situation. Due to a rising tide of race related tensions on campuses around the country, students on Emory’s campus seem to be reacting to their personal experiences of race relations elsewhere by lashing out against the administration. I have seen students who previously expressed no qualms or dissatisfaction with Emory prior to events at the University of Missouri, and other colleges, suddenly begin to express dissatisfaction and anger about the racial climate on campus here. It is very possible that this dissatisfaction has long been held in. However, students seem to be attempting to hold the University administration responsible for problems that are not the result of the institution’s policies, but the result of external conditions in American society as a whole.
One prime example of this comes from the student demands calling for a higher percentage of black and Latino full time professors employed at the University. This stems from a key assumption that the numbers we currently see for black and Latino professors are solely a reflection of Emory’s decisions about hiring professors. However, as economist Thomas Sowell once eloquently pointed out, “You cannot say that numbers collected at the employer’s place of business reflect simply the employer’s policies. Those numbers reflect underlying conditions in the whole society, just as number’s collected in the hospital do not show you that people are sick because they are in the hospital.”
Indeed it seems to be the case with black academia that their employment numbers are reflective of societal conditions. According to the most recent data collected by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007, the national average for the percentage of black faculty employed at all universities in America is 5.2 percent. At Emory University, this number is 6.8 percent. Furthermore, this percentage when compared to the percentages of the top 26 highest ranked universities in the country reveals that Emory employs the highest percentage of black faculty. Emory also has the highest percentage of black tenured faculty among the nation’s top ranked universities and the third highest percentage of black department heads.
The point of these statistics is not that we should give the university a pat on the back and say they’ve done well in hiring black faculty. However, we must have a sense of scale. This is not a problem specific to Emory, or due to Emory’s policies, but due to what is happening in society as a whole. The evidence dictates that the problem is, in fact, a larger societal problem. According to the National Center for Education statistics, of 63,712 doctor’s degrees awarded in the 2007-2008 academic year, 3,906 were awarded to black students.This means that only 6.1 percent of doctorate degree earners in that year were black. Of course, some proportion of these doctorate degree earners will not even go the academic route, leading to even lower numbers of black academia.
With numbers like this, it is not surprising that even a university like Emory with a dedication to diversity would have low numbers of black faculty. However, let’s assume the numbers of black doctorate degree earners mentioned above are more or less consistent from year to year. This means Emory, with 6.8 percent of its faculty being black, has a higher percentage of black faculty than there are black doctorates in the country. This certainly seems to me to indicate that Emory is taking its claims about diversity seriously. However, in times when racial tensions are high, students who have grown up in such a racially charged society are perhaps all too ready to point the finger at the institution for problems not created by the institution but by external conditions. The problem is not that Emory is not hiring black faculty; the problem is that the percentage of black academia in the country is shamefully low to begin with. This is a problem that Emory can not be faulted for as they do not have direct control over it. This is a problem whose fruits appear at Emory, but whose roots lie in societal problems. Students want to hold Emory responsible for a problem created by the inferior quality of high school education for minorities and a culture that does not encourage people of color to enter academia.
This comes from the fact that for young people, particularly students, “revolution” against institutions is often more attractive than grappling issues on a societal level, which is of course their source. If the numbers of black faculty at Emory were low due to discriminatory policies in Emory’s recruitment process, the obvious thing to do would be to confront the administration. However, if the numbers of black faculty at Emory are low due to the already low numbers of blacks entering academia in the first place, it appears we have a much more complex problem on our handsthat cannot be solved simply by policy changes in the institution. It is clear that there are racial problems in the United States. The low percentage of black men and women getting Ph.Ds is one illustration of that. However, it is important to direct energy toward the source of these problems, and not institutions that may merely reflect the effects of these problems.
Activism should take the form of efforts to increase the number of black men and women that enter academia. Initiatives like the Melon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship are a prime example of the kind of action that must be taken. When energy is misdirected by demanding that Emory increase its percentage of black faculty, it inevitably causes conflict internally and leads to a stalemate between the administration and student activists that proves detrimental to both parties.
Tomi Kalejaiye is a College freshman from Lagos, Nigeria.