Why Does It Matter? Representation & Women of Color in the Academy

This note from the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University is part of the Collaborative’s 2016 annual report.

As an interdisciplinary center at Wake Forest University seeking to advance
justice through intersectional scholarship, the Anna Julia Cooper Center
supports, generates, and communicates innovative research at the
intersections of gender, race, and place in order to ask new questions,
reframe critical issues, and pursue equitable outcomes.

The center is named for foundational black feminist scholar Anna Julia
Cooper, who became only the fourth African American woman to earn
a Ph.D when she completed her doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1924.
Cooper’s lifetime of work as an author, educator, and activist sought to
expand opportunities for other black women, but she would discover much
unfinished work in our contemporary institutions of higher education.
According to U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for
Education Statistics, as of 2013, black women constitute only 1.4% of full-
time, full professors in United States universities. Latinas (1.1%), Asian/
Pacific Islander women (1.9%), and American Indian/Alaskan Native women
(0.1%) suffer equally abysmal representation at the highest professional
rank.

Even with a somewhat broader view of the professoriate, the American
academy is overwhelmingly and disproportionately constituted of white
men at all ranks of full-time faculty. At degree-granting postsecondary
institutions in 2013 only 3% of full time faculty were black women, 2% were
Hispanic women, 4% were Asian/Pacific Islander women, and 0.2% were
American Indian/Alaskan Native.

Why does it matter for women of color to stand at the front of college
classrooms and to have their names on the spines of academic
monographs and in the citations of scholarly journals? Full-time faculty
have the primary responsibility for governance of colleges and universities.
Working with students, community, and administration, it is the faculty who
determine curriculum, instruction, requirements for degree completion,
and the intellectual tone of campus life.

It is faculty who decide what is worth knowing, how it should be taught,
and whether it has been mastered. When women of color are absent from
the faculty they are absent from the production of knowledge.
When women of color are present on the faculty they ask different
questions, directing current and future research in meaningful new
directions. When women of color are present they choose new areas to
explore, select new tools for their work, and innovate novel connections
between existing scholarship. When women of color are present they teach
classes not previously offered and mentor students often overlooked. To
change the face of the faculty is to alter the very shape of our knowledge,
to alter our assumptions, expand our horizons, and push the boundaries of
rigid disciplines.

The Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research is a meaningful
step towards creating this new and more representative faculty by initiating
the institutional leadership and sustained investment required to make
these changes possible. Anna Julia Cooper wrote, “tis woman’s strongest
vindication for speaking that the world needs to hear her voice.”
The world needs to hear the voice of women of color as faculty members.
Collaborative institutions are offering models of how we begin.