In fall 2019, only 5% of full-time faculty at the University of Georgia that reported their race was Black or African American.
Academia has a reputation for being less accessible to people of color, and UGA is no different. Attracting Black faculty members is only the first step. The next is retaining them.
Valerie Babb left UGA three years ago partly because of the way the university handled the Baldwin Hall situation. In 2015, an expansion and renovation project unearthed human remains underneath the building. Some of them were identified as African Americans from the 19th century, which led researchers to believe they were slaves. They were reburied at Oconee Hill Cemetery in 2017.
Black activists in Athens criticized the university’s decisions regarding Baldwin Hall, saying that not enough attention was paid to the Black community. Babb, who taught English and African American studies at UGA for 17 years and is now a professor at Emory University, felt there wasn’t enough communication between UGA and the people affected by the situation.
Coming to UGA from Georgetown University was an adjustment for Babb, who encountered a different culture and student body than the one she was used to.
“I just felt that there was enormous resistance to acknowledging that universities have to play a role in furthering social justice understanding and furthering social justice initiatives. We can’t be apart from that,” Babb said. “This has been a very long ongoing conversation I have actually had at every single university that I’ve been a part of.”
Despite the difference in school culture, Babb said her experience at UGA with colleagues and students was good, but her experience as someone trying to expand perceptions of race and history was more challenging. Her decision to leave was also motivated by Baldwin Hall and the ongoing debate over campus carry.
The culture that comes with carrying a gun to school concerned her, and she was worried classes that stirred up strong emotions in students might become dangerous. Classes about race and privilege can be difficult to teach and can cause tension, she said.
Babb and other professors proposed ways UGA could move forward after the remains were discovered at Baldwin Hall, including collaborations between the university and K-12 education in Athens and collecting oral histories from residents. Babb said UGA received that report, but the steps it took concerning Baldwin Hall were disconnected from the history of slavery at UGA.
Kecia Thomas also left UGA this year after 27 years of teaching. Now the dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences, Thomas said her decision to leave was because she had been at UGA for a long time and wanted to lead at a higher level.
“I think, at times, perhaps it was difficult for people to connect with my scholarship,” Thomas said. “Being someone who works specifically in industrial psychology and who deals with issues like race, gender and sexuality, sometimes it may be difficult for people to move beyond that and to understand how all of those issues are critical to leadership across different areas.”
At UGA, Thomas founded the Center for Research and Engagement in Diversity in the psychology department. She felt her work was appreciated in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, but there were limitations in opportunities to grow as a leader with new positions.
For Sheneka Williams, the decision to move on from UGA’s College of Education to Michigan State University happened when the opportunity presented itself. She was offered a position as a professor and chair of the Department of Educational Administration, which was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
“I left Georgia because I saw opportunities out of things that I don’t think Georgia could afford,” Williams said. “What could I do for students? What could I do for myself that Georgia might not have the structures to offer? It’s not personal to anybody, but it’s just where the university is.”
What can be done
A network of support is one of the most important things universities can do for faculty of color, Williams, Thomas and Babb said.
Babb said it was essential to show Black faculty that there are resources for them. UGA’s Institute for African American Studies is a good step, but it lacks the power that a department would have, she said.
“It is not a department, it is not allowed to tenure and promote faculty, whereas at places like Georgetown and Emory, African American studies as a department says to me that there is not the same kind of institutional commitment [at UGA],” Babb said. “A program is fine but it can’t grow if it can’t hire faculty, if it can’t tenure faculty.”
Williams emphasized that her experience at UGA was shaped by the infrastructure and leadership offered by the state. She had a good experience in Athens and didn’t leave on bad terms, but she said there are things UGA should do to support Black faculty members.
Universities must attract, support and retain Black faculty members, Williams said. All three steps are necessary and work with each other.
Attracting faculty members of color means recruiting them, offering competitive salaries and writing job descriptions in a way that encourages them to apply. Once at UGA, a network of support and funding should be there, Williams said, and if they receive another offer, the university could make more of an effort to retain them.
Steps to retain faculty could include offering more funding for research, a higher salary or graduate assistant support, Williams said.
UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said the university has launched a series of initiatives to promote diversity in faculty members and the student body. UGA was ranked the #1 flagship public university in America in the number of doctoral degrees awarded to African American Students in 2018, Trevor said.
“The university’s commitment is a vital contributor to the national pipeline of new BIPOC faculty,” Trevor said in an email.
Trevor said the university’s Presidential Task Force on Race, Ethnicity, and Community will “examine these issues at the University of Georgia, with the goal of developing concrete recommendations that can be implemented during the coming academic year to improve the campus culture and strengthen the learning environment at UGA.”
Williams also said it is not just Black faculty leaving. Since the numbers of Black faculty are already so much lower, the impact is felt more than when white faculty members leave for other institutions.
Thomas said people responsible for hiring and retention should focus on diversity. She suggested including retention of minorities in annual evaluations as a way to encourage retaining talented faculty members.
“Faculty retention will rely on institutional acknowledgement that what that faculty is doing is important and is appreciated,” Babb said.