Photograph by Gordon Parks, inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
"Where did all the black men go?" That's the question I've been posing to some of my friends and colleagues here at SIUE.
After looking over the most recent edition of the university's Factbook, which provides statistics about the university, I noticed a relatively significant drop in black male faculty members. In the fall of 2009, there were 21 of us. In the fall of 2010, there were 15. That 28.6% decline is notable, especially when we consider that black men make up such a small proportion of the total faculty.
How small? Well, there are 877 total faculty members, which means we - black men - now constitute about 1.7% of the professors at the university.
If it's true that college students are less inspired to pursue advanced degrees or become college professors when they do not see people who look like them in faculty positions, then we're in trouble.
Another reason we should be concerned about the dramatic decline is because of how rare it is for us to hire black men as faculty members. Over the last ten years, the university has hired 9 black male faculty. 2007 was the last time a black male faculty member was hired. He was the only black male professor hired that year.
In 2002, two black men faculty members were hired. 2003, the year I was hired at the university, was a relatively big year for black male hires; 3 of us started that year. There was one black male new hire in the years 2000, 2001, 2004, and, as mentioned 2007, and there were no black male hires in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
Given those numbers, it's perhaps unrealistic to expect any major additions in the ranks of black men faculty. The trends, in fact, suggest that our numbers will continue to decrease.
Overall, SIUE saw decreases among other racial and ethnic groups of faculty as well. The recession has clearly had an effect on our university's ability to make new hires. For instance, there were 47 new hires in 2009, and 26 new hires in 2010. There were also numbers of faculty who left.
Still, the seeming disappearance of black male faculty was particularly notable among all the groups that saw declines. I'm not sure if folks around campus have been discussing the changes and what it might mean for us as a university. Of course, for some it is a touchy subject.
For instance, try asking a professor who's served on a hiring committee or a departmental chair why they have so few or no black men in their unit, and they will likely respond with a version of the following, "well, we have tried to recruit black men and women, but they don't apply here. Or, if they do apply and interview here and we make them an offer, they end up going somewhere because another place gave them a higher salary."
Ok, fair enough. Still, there's a kind of defensiveness, or particular certainty and lack of curiosity with that kind of familiar response that has helped create tensions and distance between black people and non-black people here at SIUE and really at universities across the country.
So beyond doing something about the decline, we might consider figuring out ways to do something about how we communicate with each other about the decline.
Finally, these shifts are fascinating when placed in the context of national conversations about race. Remember two years ago with the ascent of Barack Obama, there was a conversation about us living in a post-racial society? Folks wondered out loud and in public about how things related to race would be different. It was really optimistic. You do remember, don't you?
Well, interestingly, when I first looked over those numbers in our recent factbook, I wondered if I was witnessing a different kind of post-racial world at the university, a situation where black male professors were steadily and mysteriously vanishing.
Off the Radar