Closson: Faculty diversity is essential to improving student inclusion

Troy Closson, Assistant Opinion Editor

When Northwestern releases its demographic information for this incoming freshman class, I’m sure the class of 2021 will be touted as “one of the most diverse” groups of admitted students to date. And if that’s the case, it’d be good progress — clear steps in the right direction. However, solely increasing the number of students of color without devoting attention to other aspects of students’ experiences limits the potential impact.

Diversity can often be thought of as measurements of raw numbers, a minimum threshold to cross or a box to be checked off. But diversity is often discussed without full attention to something that goes hand-in-hand: inclusion. While diversity relates only to representation, inclusion deals with the environment, atmosphere and culture of organizations and has the potential to more directly change experiences. By increasing the diversity of NU’s faculty and staff, the administration could greatly increase NU’s inclusiveness for students of color. Since arriving in the fall, navigating this campus’ lack of diversity and full inclusion has presented challenges. And increasing the presence of non-white faculty in classrooms is just one of the steps University administrators could take to greatly improve minority students’ experiences.

The Black Student Experience Task Force Report released in the fall revealed that black students’ satisfaction with their experience at NU was lower than that of every other racial and ethnic group. Of the students surveyed, 40 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the cultural competency and sensitivity of faculty, something that could be improved with a more diverse set of professors.

During my time at NU, I’ve been taught by only a few professors of color — and nearly all of those have been in either foreign language or social sciences departments. Although I personally have regularly dealt with environments that had few non-white faculty members in schools I attended throughout my life, many of those obstacles have felt compounded on campus. At times, while discussing “black” issues like slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve felt pressured by professors to speak up or provide comment and clarification. Additionally, I’ve experienced challenges in reaching out to faculty due to the alienation I’ve felt in the classroom. These issues could change, however, if NU committed to increasing diversity within all majors and academic disciplines.

As professors can serve not only as instructors, but also resources and advisers for students, creating a more representative faculty could provide students of color with strengthened support systems. In the Black Student Experience Task Force Report, over 50 percent of surveyed students also expressed dissatisfaction with the “extent to which curriculum and course offerings (at NU) reflect the lives, perceptions and contributions of people from marginalized backgrounds.” Increasing faculty diversity could additionally provide platforms for different perspectives and viewpoints, helping move course curriculums away from being highly Eurocentric to more representative of diverse backgrounds. And perhaps most importantly, it could increase the satisfaction of students of color not only within the classroom, but also in their overall experience on campus.

Faculty diversity isn’t an obstacle specific to NU; many predominantly white institutions at all levels of education struggle with establishing a diverse, representative faculty. Many highly ranked universities seek candidates with the highest degree level. Black and Latinx populations, however, are underrepresented among Ph.D. holders, limiting the number of potential candidates. Yet, by truly focusing and making proactive efforts to increase the number of professors of color, re-evaluate hiring and tenure processes, provide ongoing diversity training and work to deconstruct obstacles to the employment of non-white professors, NU could begin to address its lack of diverse faculty — ultimately improving the experiences of students of color.

Of course, even faculty of color can face exclusion, alienation and isolation. But while I can’t speak for the specific experiences of faculty, as a black student on campus, I believe increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of professors at NU could help make the campus environment more inclusive and create a greater sense of belonging for marginalized students. As more marginalized students gain greater access to higher education and enroll here, increased diversity would unquestionably help members of the student body feel more represented on campus. But to truly improve current and future students’ experiences, more attention should similarly be devoted to creating inclusive environments — and providing diverse faculty is an enormous part of that.

Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.