August 2017

Climbing the Ivory Tower: Marginalized Voices in Academia

As part of our special issue on “education” for the month of August, The Activist History Review would like to introduce a multi-part series on the experiences of academics from marginalized communities.

As part of our special issue on “education” for the month of August, The Activist History Review would like to introduce a multi-part series on the experiences of academics from marginalized communities. Academia is often portrayed by conservative media as a haven for liberals, radicals, and social outcasts. As the authors of this series note, however, while academia can sometimes be a safe space for individuals facing the inequities of their larger society, it often replicates those inequities, whether deliberately or unthinkingly, within the ivory tower.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2013, 43% of full-time faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions were white men, while 35% were white women. Black men and women accounted for only three percent each, Hispanic men and women composed two percent each, and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women made up six percent and four percent respectively. Less than one percent were from First Nations communities, and the remainder identified as having multiple racial backgrounds. The division is even more stark when the statistic is narrowed to full-time professors. Fifty-eight percent of full-time professors were white men and twenty-six percent were white women. The percentage of black men and women that were full-time professors fell to two percent and one percent respectively and Hispanic men and women dropped to the same numbers, while Asian/Pacific Islander men rose slightly to seven percent and the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander women was halved. Again, the number of full-time professors from the First Nations was below one percent. Meanwhile, scholars with disabilities only account for an estimated four percent of the academic community according to the The National Center for College Students With Disabilities, and a 2010 report by Campus Pride found that over half of university students, faculty, and staff hid their sexual orientation or gender identity for fear of reprisals.

Many of these statistics are at odds with the demographic breakdown of our larger society. According to US Census Bureau estimates, white men made up 38% of the population in 2016, while white women made up a slightly larger 39%. Black men and women accounted for six percent and seven percent respectively, Hispanic men and women each composed eight percent, Asian/Pacific Islander men and women both stood at three percent, and First Nations peoples comprised two percent. According to the latest statistics, 22% of Americans have disabilities, and 48% of LGBT respondents in a 2011 survey indicated that they had not revealed their sexual orientation to their employers in order to avoid workplace discrimination.

Clearly, though advances have been made in recent years, academia still has much ground to cover to become a more inclusive and secure environment for the members of marginalized communities. As the authors from our series indicate, scholars from those communities continue to face systemic and individual acts of discrimination and harassment, and often lack the appropriate resources and support from their university systems and peers to seek redress for those acts.

Without making the academy more representative of our population, those resources and support systems may never materialize. This process cannot begin without a dramatic overhaul of graduate program admission and university hiring standards. In the meantime, university, department, and organization administrators must take concrete steps to put more effective support systems in place for their employees from marginalized communities. The voices of academics from those communities should not be ignored, even when their message brings discomfort. We here at The Activist History Review are committed to providing a space to amplify those voices in the hope that our collective demands will one day be too loud to ignore.

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