Underrepresented Minority Faculty

The study of the lived experiences of historically underrepresented populations in the United States represents our research commitment to a critical and understudied area of inquiry. Recently, our work has focused on historically underrepresented minority (URM) faculty in research extensive institutions. The following groups are defined as URM: African American/Black, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans/American Indian.

The principal investigator, Dr. Ruth E. Zambrana, Director of CRGE, gratefully acknowledges the following funding support over the last five years on URM  faculty retention: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), Grant #68480, the University of Maryland Tier 1 seed grants, Division of Research, Faculty Incentive Program, and currently the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) (#214.0277). We acknowledge the support of Dr. Debra J. Pérez, Vice-President for Research and Evaluation for her support, guidance, and enthusiasm about this study.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are the historically URM faculty?

Study of URM faculty in the U.S. represents a central area of research interest due to their historical and contemporary underrepresentation in all disciplines and among faculty. The following four groups are considered underrepresented relative to their proportion in the general U.S. population: African American/Black, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans. Although the percentage of African American faculty increased from 3.2% in 1988 to 5.0% in 2010 and the percentage of Hispanic faculty increased from 2.4% to 3.6% during the same period (see Table 1), the percentage of Black and Hispanic faculty obtaining tenure and earning promotion to full professor has stayed relatively stagnant.

Table 1. Distribution of Full Time U.S. Faculty, by Race/Ethnicity (1988-2010)

In fall 2013, of those full-time faculty whose race/ethnicity was known, 79 percent were White (43 percent were White males and 35 percent were White females), 6 percent were Black, 5 percent were Hispanic, and less than 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

These groups have a historical legacy of exclusion in U.S. higher education institutions and prestigious occupations. Yet these groups are an invaluable part of our domestic talent pool and proffer diverse intellectual, scholarly, and pedagogical perspectives. In a time when the United States is on the cusp of an inevitable demographic shift – that will make us a minority-majority nation – the retention of  URM faculty in higher education is even more pressing. Given the increasing numbers of URMs in the population, if we’re not successful with balancing this underrepresentation, we won’t adequately serve the state, the nation, and the world.

What barriers/challenges do URM face in Research-Extensive Universities?

Within the historically White, male, upper-middle class field of the professoriate, the interlocking effects of sexism, racism, and classism contribute to unwelcoming work environments for URM faculty. Significant underrepresentation of URM faculty signaled a call to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the barriers to increasing URM representation in research-extensive universities. RWJF funded a national mixed methods study that examined occupational stressors, family-work balance, mentoring experiences, coping strategies, and their relationship to health and mental health status among URM faculty. A brief summary of the thematic findings from Understanding the Relationship between Work Stress and U.S. Research Institutions’ Failure to Retain Underrepresented Minority (URM) Faculty may be found here.

Why should universities focus on recruiting and retaining URM faculty?

URM faculty bring intellectual and pedagogical diversity to the academy due to their unique and specific backgrounds that shape how they teach, what they study, and their ability to nurture and mentor the next generation of students. Since URM faculty serve as role models for URM undergraduate and graduate students and those interested in important questions of race, class and ethnicity, without URM faculty, it is more difficult to recruit, retain, and graduate URM students.

Strengthening all campus climates with a focus on “inclusion,” not just “diversity,” creates a welcoming, reaffirming, supportive environment where URMs feel fully included, heard, and empowered; making the institution better for everyone. Creating a responsive departmental environment for URM faculty is key. This requires some attention to how we currently “do business” and implementing more inclusive ways of managing personnel. The changes institutions make to address the isolation and alienation of any marginalized population lead to a more accountable, more equitable, more ethical, and more dynamic institutions. The presence of URM faculty at higher education institutions changes the culture of the institution; it communicates to students the value of various life experiences, and it often translates to further community engagement and a rich variety of topics of study.

What can universities do to make their campus more welcoming to URM faculty?

This is not a simple question but universities across the country are making strides and demonstrating a commitment to finding solutions. Campuses committed to supporting diverse groups often need to go through multiple cultural and institutional (policy and practice) changes. But, commitments to hiring and mentoring this population of scholars and making sure you and your institution understand why URM representation is important to the culture and climate of your institution—what it communicates to your students, staff, and faculty—is definitely a starting point. Making policies for tenure, promotion, and family leave, for example, more explicit and accessible, definitely strengthens the possibility that URM (and other minority populations) will succeed at your institution.

Evidenced-Based Recommendations for Higher Education Policies and Practices

Based on a mixed methods study of 676 URM faculty across the nation, data on work-life experiences, mentoring, perceived discrimination and value placed on their research agenda have yielded Preliminary Recommendations on how to Diversify the Faculty, Transform the Institution. Four areas of themes were identified:

Below is a recording of a lecture given by Dr. Ruth Enid Zambrana that engages in translational approaches using study data drawn from the research project entitled Understanding the Relationship between Work Stress and U.S. Research Institutions’ Failure to Retain Underrepresented Minority (URM) Faculty to inform new policies and practices in higher education institutions.



Please click here to read further strategies

I am a mentor to a URM faculty member. What should I think about?

Great question! Mentoring has been shown to be a huge asset for URM faculty in their academic life course. If done well, it can mean the difference between being hired or not, getting tenure or not. Your senior faculty experience—in terms of knowledge of the academy—are invaluable to URM faculty. For further information on mentoring please see: Zambrana, R.E., Ray, R.J., Espino, M. M., Castro, C., Douthirt-Cohen, B., & Eliason, J. (2015). “Don’t Leave Us Behind”: The Importance of Mentoring for Underrepresented Minority Faculty. American Educational Research Journal, 52(1), 40-72.

In the next section, we lay out some things to think about as a mentor for URM faculty.

Mentoring Tips

Faculty, URM and non-URM, benefit from the strong mentoring of senior faculty. Senior faculty have understandings of the academy that come from experience-being "insiders" and navigating the academy over the course of their career. While peer mentoring is also important, senior mentoring is essential to success. The suggestions below come from a mixed methods study of African American/Black, Mexican American, Puerto Rican and Native American faculty across the United States funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study included data from in-depth interviews and focus groups (n=58) and an online survey (n=618).

  1. Value research at the margins. While not all URM faculty study economically disadvantaged and/or racial/ethnic populations, many do, and perceive that their mentors either do not intellectually respect their work or do not take the time to understand it. As a mentor for URM faculty, it is important to recognize the structural and normative forces that pressure URM to "water down" or assimilate their intellectual contributions. Please consider this: suggesting that URM faculty study more "traditional" research topics often reflects a misunderstanding of why some URM faculty enter the academy and it is also a reflection of a mentor attempting to make their research less "raced" or "gendered." This can be intellectually and personally alienating.

  2. Value URM service to the community. URM faculty may have entered the academy because of their commitment to addressing practice and policy in communities. Mentors can help URM faculty make service choices that will not hurt them in the tenure process without compromising the community engagement that keeps them inspired and grounded.

  3. Offer instrumental support. Many URM faculty are some of the first in their families to attend college. This means there may be an accumulation of social disadvantage and less exposure to minority cultural and institutional norms. Like all junior faculty, URM faculty need support in understanding how to write a grant, get published in the top journals, give an effective conference presentation. Have a conversation with your mentee about where she/he sees their instrumental needs - writing articles, networking, presenting, interviewing - and help them to get resources to meet these needs.

  4. Help build networks of scholars doing similar work. Retention of URM faculty is often difficult due to feelings of intellectual and scholarly isolation. Support the development of a network with other URM scholars, especially senior scholars who can support their scholarly growth.

  5. Offer political guidance. Offer information, strategies, and skills that can allow URM faculty to succeed without demanding assimilation. Political guidance helps URM understand the informal "rules of the game" and unwritten policies-those "ways of being" that are not transparent-without demanding that they erase their sense of self in the process.

    Most importantly, recognize that due to historical legacies of structural and institutional marginalization, mentoring of URM faculty may be different from the mentoring of non-URM faculty. However, the diversity in intellectual knowledge production, pedagogical style, background, and service will strengthen the academy and help to build a more dynamic intellectual environment!

    Organizational Resources

    Selected Links of Interest

    Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's New Connections Program

    AAUP's Diversity Bibliography

    Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards (PDF)

    Diversity & Democracy

    National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity

    University of Wisconsin's Institute for Clinical and Translational Research's Mentoring Guides

    Searching for Excellence and Diversity: A guide for search committee chairs (PDF)

    The Revolving Door for Underrepresented Minority Faculty (PDF)

    Bias Check for Review Committees (PDF)

    Recruiting the Next Generation of the Professoriate

    Selected Readings

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