Anthony Corrales/Sun Contributor

Faculty and students share their experiences as underrepresented minorities at Cornell.

April 9, 2023

Underrepresented Minority Cornell Students, Faculty Share Their Struggles and Strengths in Academia

Print More

Although Cornell is home to a diverse community of faculty and students, those who come from underrepresented backgrounds reported frequently facing unique challenges that their white and male counterparts do not.

Gabrielle Hill ’23 is passionate about her research in environmental harm, racial capitalism and slavery through a Black feminist lens; however, she said white women professors have told her that such research would never earn her a job in academia.

“[I was] basically being told I wasn’t going to be successful in a traditional academic route by people who were very much privileged by the system that we were working under,” Hill said. 

Hill has not yet entered the world of academia as a professor, though she noted that her work could potentially be devalued as “me-search” in the future, a derogatory term for research that deals with some aspect of personhood or identity, especially when that identity is the same as the researcher’s.

But research being categorized as “me-search” is just one of the many barriers facing underrepresented minority students and faculty in academia.

From outsize advising burdens to imposter syndrome and uncompensated diversity, equity and inclusion work, to challenges during the tenure process, URM faculty confront a host of difficulties directly and indirectly related to the lack of representation in academia — as well as hostile, if unstated, attitudes toward their identities.

The number of Black, Hispanic, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and American Indian  professors, associate professors and assistant professors has increased almost every year at Cornell since Fall 2012, but their numbers still fall far short of those of white faculty — in Fall 2022, there were 151 Black, Hispanic, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and American Indian faculty, compared with 1,136 faculty who were white or of an unknown race, according to University data. On the national scale, only about 14 percent of faculty — including instructors and lecturers — are URMs.

Proving Oneself in Academia

Prof. Carole Boyce Davies, Africana studies, literatures in English, recalls being surprised when learning about many of her colleagues’ academic histories as she served on a salary committee at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

“I was shocked, totally shocked, that people I looked up to and those men who walked around with the blazers and the Ivy League things and all that — many of them didn’t have that many publications,” Boyce Davies, who is the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, said. “So they were just operating on white male privilege — and, you know, the ability to sort of have that posture that nobody scrutinized.”

Boyce Davies said that these white men, bolstered by their privilege, were able to attain tenure having authored significantly fewer publications than their URM counterparts. 

According to Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, the publication burdens for minorities — whose presence in academia has increased just as the expectation for publication has risen — far outweigh those of their white counterparts, creating a barrier for minorities hoping to achieve tenure.

“Such increases in standards and expectations disadvantage racial and ethnic minority faculty, given that white faculty, as a group, entered academic jobs when the expectations for hiring and promotion were comparatively lower,” Rucks-Ahidiana wrote in an article for Inside Higher Ed.

Additionally, according to a 2016-2017 report from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, nearly three-quarters of Black, Asian, Latino/a and Native American academics perceived a need to work harder than their peers to prove their legitimacy, compared to less than half of white faculty. 

“The minute that you walk into the room, you’re on,” said Prof. Karen Jaime ’97, performing and media arts, Latino/a studies. “People read you in a very particular way. We’re constantly going to have to dismantle particular stereotypes and undo preconceived notions while remaining grounded in who [we] are.”

Even students like Hill, who is still considering whether to pursue a career in academia, keep minorities’ need to prove themselves in mind.

“The long and short of it is that it’s tough, right? It’s not that easy, often being the only one in the space, but I think knowing that the academy was built on a lot of exclusion, built on white supremacist tenets of anti-blackness and classism — you’re going to run into [those ideas],” Hill said. “So, knowing that there is going to be an air of racism and classism.”

According to Boyce Davies, the feeling of having to prove herself has, at times, extended into defending her research. Boyce Davies recounted being asked to teach American literature classes at Binghamton, even though her speciality was in African diaspora literature.

“Very early, I discovered that even though I was hired to teach African American literature, they were still trying to have me teach mainstream American lit,” Boyce Davies said. “And the reason why that’s important is that if you’re a young professor hired in the English department, and they know that you can teach the other literatures, more than likely they will kind of de-emphasize the fact that you are the expert in African American … literature and [try] to get you to be teaching more in mainstream literature.”

Boyce Davies also noted that only one professor in the literatures in English department explicitly focuses on the continent of Africa.

“That’s what I mean about the minimizing of the vastness of the field. Those of us who are in the field are always pushing back against that,” Boyce Davies said. “So, if you’re a young professor just coming in without tenure, you might feel that you have to go with the status quo and just do what they want. But then you will be diminishing your ability to do your work in your field.”

Even still, many academics of color approach their positions with the conviction that they, too, belong in these spaces, regardless of what they may have been told and despite that inner feeling that they must work harder to earn the same respect as their white peers.

“I think the key is to keep in mind that we’re outsiders within in these spaces, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t belong there or that we shouldn’t be there. It means that there are going to be barriers, there are going to be challenges along the way,” Rucks-Ahidiana said in an interview with The Sun. “And it’s important to find the people who are going to support you through the process.”

Outsize Burdens

To Jaime, the question of including diverse voices on university committees can often be a “Catch-22” — URMs are invited to participate in these opportunities because of their unique perspectives, but their participation can often result in a shifting of labor. The URM is expected to do the work of dismantling prejudice, Jaime said, as opposed to the people who benefit from this prejudice.

“When people think of diversity, equity and inclusion work, they feel like the people of color and the women need to do the labor. No, we know the DEI work, we live DEI work,” Jaime said. “The work to learn and the work to undo needs to come from the ranks of the people that are benefiting from a lack of the work. Or, it’s like the mandate is we have to walk into the room and we have to teach you how problematic this is, how can we work to undo this, and you can sit back and choose to [participate] or not.”

Because of their underrepresentation in the academy, URM faculty may take on more University service commitments than their white counterparts. The problem of balancing these commitments with other responsibilities is even documented in the University Guide to the Tenure Process.

“[Tenure candidates should] avoid taking on excessive service activities and commitments,” the guide states. “This can be a particularly serious challenge for women and those faculty who are underrepresented in their fields, who are frequently invited to join committees and other activities based on their important ability to provide different perspectives.”

The constant requests can present even more of a challenge for URM faculty who have yet to achieve tenure, because they have little time for other commitments — all of which are equally weighed in determining whether the candidate will be awarded tenure — according to Prof. Shirley Samuels, American studies.

In addition to frequent invitations to serve on University committees, URM faculty may also experience far more advising requests from students.

“The growing number of students of color and the continued underrepresentation of nonwhites as tenure-track faculty in higher education means that nonwhite faculty must respond to much greater student demands for mentoring, role modeling and counseling than their white colleagues do — particularly around issues of race and racism on campuses,” Rucks-Ahidiana wrote in the article.

Though the number of URM faculty at Cornell has been on the rise, Jaime still finds that URM professors may be unable to keep pace with the requests for student advising.

“Because of the classes that I teach, if you are a grad student, in particular graduate students of color who are queer, you are going to knock on my door. We are hiring people, but the resources — in terms of faculty — [do] not meet the demand or what we’re able to provide,” Jaime said. “It’s something that my cis, white, male colleagues don’t necessarily have to deal with.”

Identity as Strength

Despite its negative impact, Boyce Davies said the pressure for underrepresented minorities to perform better than their white peers can lead to a higher degree of excellence.

“Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you’re a double minority or triple minority, but use it as your strength,” Boyce Davies said. “I always tell everybody, make sure you meet more than the basic standard for whatever the requirement is for the position — so that if they’re saying you should have six articles, you should really, as they tell us in Black community, do more.”

According to Boyce Davies, studying little-researched fields — especially when the subject is a marginalized group — can have significant impacts.

“If you’re doing anything related to the Black community globally, there’s still so much work to be done, so that almost anything that you do is going to be a major contribution,” Boyce Davies said.

In addition, URM faculty can use their identities as a strength in their teaching and scholarship, which is often grounded in their unique insights.

“My ethnicity deeply informs my teaching and my writing as I seek to make particular stories of people that look like me — or that might share similar experiences — visible,” Jaime said.

URM scholars’ research and teaching can also benefit from the intersections of their identities. 

“Queerness also greatly informs my work,” Jaime said. “It’s not like, ‘Here’s the Latinx and this is the queer and then I’m going to talk about ethnic studies over here, and I’m talking about Black studies.’ No, it’s all part of who I am and what I bring to the classroom. My classes are deeply not just interdisciplinary, but also deal with different ethnicities.”

Exploring the Solutions

The issue of representation in higher education is often discussed as a two-pronged problem: URM faculty must be recruited — they must complete Ph.D. programs and be hired to universities — and they also must be retained. These goals can be difficult to achieve given the outsize burdens placed on URM faculty during the tenure process and in academia in general, according to Rucks-Ahidiana.

“Universities just have to do more,” Rucks-Ahidiana said. “You can’t just bring in more people of color, more Black women. There needs to be changes to support and retain those faculty members, so that they’re successful going up for tenure, and not just pushed out before they get there.”

According to Rucks-Ahidiana, there are concrete steps an institution can take to increase retention among their URM faculty.

“If you see an institution that is attempting, for example, to provide formal credit for mentoring students of color, that’s a good sign. That’s an institution that is trying to make some kind of change,” Rucks-Ahidiana said. “If you see an institution that’s providing mentoring for faculty of color, that’s a good sign. If you see an institution asking students and faculty of color about their experiences, and making concrete plans to address that, that’s a good step.”

At Cornell, there has been a concerted effort to increase diversity across University departments, and there have been modest increases in the number of URM faculty — since 2012, the number of Black, Hispanic, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and American Indian  faculty members has increased by 47 across the University, and the number of Asian or Asian-white faculty members has increased by 91.

Several University programs may have helped contribute to this growth, including an initiative to increase the number of diverse faculty in the sciences, as well as at the University overall, primarily by increasing funding to hire URMs. 

The University aims to improve retention by awarding faculty who demonstrate leadership in diversity issues and mentor diverse students, providing resources for travel to campuses and conferences to recruit faculty and facilitating networking opportunities. 

Programs like the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which operates at dozens of colleges and universities across the country, aim to address the problem of minority underrepresentation in academia via a pipeline solution. The program’s goal is to address the problem of underrepresentation in the academy at the level of college and university faculties.

The program includes mentoring, research production, presentation and funding, among other resources designed to prepare undergraduate students for graduate school. These components can help address one of the main problems with getting URM into graduate school — the lack of access to information.

According to Rucks-Ahidiana, white Ph.D. holders, whose parents and peers are more likely to have achieved that degree than their URM counterparts, have traditionally benefited from insider information gleaned from those social connections.

“So if you take that in this context, white folks with Ph.D.s are going to be more likely to have a parent with a Ph.D. And that comes with some insider information,” Rucks-Ahidiana said. “There’s a lot of hidden curriculum in the Ph.D. process, both in graduate school, but also when you’re on the tenure track. A lot of things are just not very transparent. You have to do a lot to kind of figure things out, so having some insider knowledge from a parent is obviously an advantage.”

Hill, who participates in MMUF, said the program provides this insider information, helping bolster URM students’ knowledge of graduate school.

“I think a lot of what Mellon gives you is information that is not readily accessible, [that] you often have to hear by word of mouth,” Hill said.  

Programs like MMUF can also affect scholars in a more profound, psychological way, by helping young URMs develop confidence in their voices and in the possibility of conducting research.

“It was kind of that initial push, opening the world of research to me as a possibility that I never really thought of as a career. [Prof. Derrick Spires, literatures in English] really did that for me, and I am forever grateful for that, because having somebody see that in you I think is really helpful,” Hill said. “Especially as a minority, nobody’s coming up to you like that, and saying that your voice is valuable and that your voice is needed. And so that was really an invaluable moment for me.”

MMUF scholars also described a sense of community and solidarity.

“As someone who’s more introverted, I’m grateful for the ability to even be within a community of peers who are passionate about their own research projects, who are comfortable sharing their work and [helping to] even bolster mine,” said Isaac Salazar ’23. “Whether it’s through their own methodological processes or if it’s just something as simple as giving me a book reference that they seem to find a connection with in relation to my project.”

According to Hill, the program represents the hope of a better, more equitable academic future.

“It’s tough, but we have each other,” Hill said. “We’re going to be okay and we’re going to change things, and just that energy is so refreshing. And I think that sense of hope, when dealing with an academic institution, is invaluable.”

Clarification, April 10, 2:03 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Gabrielle Hill ’23 anticipates that “me-search” could potentially be used to devalue her work in the future, but that it has not been used against her thus far. In addition, the article has been clarified to indicate that the white women who commented on her research were professors.

Correction, April 10, 2:13 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Prof. Boyce Davies served on a salary committee at Cornell, but she served on the committee at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The article has also been updated to accurately reflect Prof. Boyce Davies’s role at Cornell, as well as information included in two of her quotes. The Sun regrets these errors, and the article has been corrected.