Getting to the Table: The Struggle of African Americans to Acquire Leadership Positions in Academia

By Marcia Boyd, Chicago Chapter, President

The Past . . .

Harvard University, the first institution of higher education in the United States, was established in 1636.  Over 200 years after it was established, Harvard graduated its first Black student, Richard Theodore Greener in 1870.  Although Harvard University is the nation’s oldest college/university, Alexander Twilight, is the first known African American college graduate.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College (founded in 1800) in Vermont in 1823.  It took many years for colleges and universities in the United States to admit and graduate African Americans nationally.  (  This could not have happened without legislation granting us citizenship and a variety of legislative actions to provide land grants to religious institutions to establish Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Bearing in mind that African Americans were not considered citizens, in fact, until the 13th amendment declared African Americans “free” and the 14th amendment gave us full citizenship, we were not provided access to any form of education as legal citizens. We also must bear in mind, that the U.S. educational system, in particular, the university world was not designed with African Americans in mind.

The Stats . . .

African Americans have made great strides within the last century with respect to earning undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees in the United States.  We only

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“If you are not at the table you are probably on the menu” -Elizabeth Warren

represented 7% of those receiving master’s degree in 1976, by 2015, this had almost doubled to 13.56%  and our Ph.D. degree attainment has risen from 4.1% in 1976 to 8.4% in 2015 (

There are over 1.3 million postsecondary teaching positions in the country with a projected growth rate of 15% over the next decade for postsecondary educators, unfortunately, African Americans only comprise a small percentage of full-time faculty.  According to the results of a survey conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, reviewing the numbers of Black faculty at selective universities, the most selective liberal arts colleges, and the 50 flagship state universities, only 5% of nation-wide full-time faculty are Black.  (

The Landscape. . .

Since there are so many postsecondary teaching positions available, the question begs, “Why aren’t there more African Americans in teaching positions at universities?  My guess is because there is elitism.  Quite often highly selective colleges and universities are seeking certain “types” of people to bring into their universities.  For sistas who don’t fit the mold, i.e., not white, male and/or graduates of a highly selective universities, it may be difficult to be afforded the opportunity to secure a coveted tenure track position.  If you happen to acquire a full-time, tenure track teaching position, your next challenge will be to be granted tenure.

The Importance . . .

If we expect to be a part of the projected 15% growth in postsecondary teaching positions within the next decade, we must prepare and position ourselves for success. Here are a few tips for navigating the postsecondary teaching terrain.

How to navigate the terrain . . .

When a sista or brother is considering teaching in higher education/university/academia, there are a few things to consider:

  1. What is the type of college/university where you would like to teach? Research Institution? Highly Selective? Ivy League? Flagship University? Private, liberal arts? Historically Black College or University? Community College?
  2. Do you have the academic credentials that the type of institution that you’re seeking employment in requires? Ph.D.? J.D., Ed.D. M.F.A?
    1. For example, if you are seeking employment at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution), do you have the pedigree they are seeking (i.e., do most of their faculty have degrees from Ivy League institutions?) Are their certain types of degrees the department is seeking – Ph.D. opposed to an Ed.D? ). Does the institution have a commitment to diversity as evidenced by African Americans having tenure track (full-time faculty positions)? Do you have any publications or significant research projects?
  3. Are you involved in professional organizations that faculty at your preferred institution(s) are members of?
  4. Are your networking skills up to par? How does your LinkedIn profile compare to faculty who are teaching at your preferred institutions of higher education?
  5. Are you seeking positions on job search engines that focus on diversity in higher education?
    1. Higher Ed Jobs: – Diversity & Inclusion Email
    2. Academic & Diversity Search:
    3. Diverseed Jobs:
  1. Are you a member of professional higher education organizations for people of color?
    1. Association of Black Women in Higher Education:
    2. Blacks in Higher Education:
    3. National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (African American Knowledge Center):
    4. Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (Diversity Resources) – African American):

As we celebrate our accomplishments as African American educational leaders, we must be in a position to make decisions and shape the lives of brothers and sistas coming behind us.  If we are not at the table, we will not be able to affect the future.