Black professors continue to be in the minority at American colleges and universities. A 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that Black people account for only 2% of all full-time, tenured professors in the country. Black academics are also less likely to be in leadership positions. The American Council on Higher Education’s Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: 2020 Supplement Report found that in the 2018–2019 school year, about 85% of academic department heads were White. Only 4% of those roles were held by Black and African American faculty. There is also a dearth of diversity among the ranks of senior administrators. During that same time frame, more than 85% of provosts, or chief academic affairs officers, were White—and just 5% were Black.
In light of these discouraging statistics, we talked to several Black college professors and administrators to find out how they made it in higher education and get their advice for students who are in the process of deciding where they’d like to go to college. Check out their stories and words of wisdom below, which we hope will encourage aspiring Black educators to find their rightful place in the higher education field.
David Ikard, Vanderbilt University
When David Ikard left home to start college at North Carolina State University back in 1990, there was a lot he didn’t know. “Coming from small-town North Carolina, I literally did not know that Black people wrote books,” says Ikard, who was a first-generation college student.
That all changed when Ikard took an African American studies class that introduced him to James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. He was so taken with the course that he asked his professor how he could also teach that material. “She said, ‘You have to get a PhD,’ and I said, ‘What's that?’ I really was that green,” says Ikard. “She walked me through it, and she told me what I needed to do. She told me I could do it, and really, in some ways, the rest is history.” That professor was Doris Lucas Laryea, who became the first Black female professor at NC State in 1974.
Ikard earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from NC State before going to the University of Wisconsin—Madison for his PhD, which he was awarded in 2002. Today he’s a professor of African American and Diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Ikard encourages students to look for people who will help them succeed in college and beyond. “Seek out mentorship from those people who are doing what you want to do,” he says. “Surround yourself by people your age who share in your vision, who are about their business.”
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Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Swarthmore College
Sarah Willie-LeBreton is the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and has been in this role since 2018. Prior to that, she served as a sociology professor at Swarthmore for more than 23 years, chairing the school’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology from 2013 until she accepted her role as Provost.
Willie-LeBreton seemed destined to pursue a career in higher education from a young age. Both of her parents have advanced degrees, and her father became a sociology professor at Harvard University in 1974 when she was 10. “The expectation was that me and my siblings would go to college, and we did,” says Willie-LeBreton. “So I was already imagining myself not only going to college but going to some kind of graduate or professional school as well as having a leadership role.”
As a high school senior, Willie-LeBreton served as her school’s student body president. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College and later earned her master’s and PhD from Northwestern University. She says working to ensure Swarthmore’s student body is more diverse is “absolutely central to every aspect of what I do,” and she urges students interested in higher education not to be deterred by the cost of tuition, as many schools offer scholarships and substantial financial aid packages for top students from low-income families. She also encourages students to explore all kinds of colleges and universities, including community colleges. “There's a college for everyone,” she says. “Having an associate degree, having a bachelor's degree, having an advanced degree after a bachelor's—each of those things are absolutely correlated with higher earning potential over the course of a lifetime. So don't assume that college isn't for you.”
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LaToya Brackett, University of Puget Sound
LaToya Brackett has a tenure-track position at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She’s an assistant professor of African American studies and also serves on the leadership team for the school’s Race and Pedagogy Institute. Coming out of high school, Brackett says she was unsure about what she wanted to do, but she was sure about what she didn’t want after watching her single mom work two to three jobs to make ends meet.
“I didn't want a job that was hourly,” says Brackett, who was also a first-generation college student. “I wanted a salary job. I wanted to feel more secure financially.” From there, Brackett sort of fell into Africana studies as an undergraduate at Cornell University. “I loved learning about myself and my own culture, which is something I never got to do in high school,” she says. She went on to earn a master’s degree and a PhD from Michigan State University.
Brackett advises students to follow their passions when it comes to deciding what to study. “Study what you love,” she says. “Every opportunity, just say yes. You can sleep when you graduate. Enjoy those opportunities and recognize that a small failure is just a blip on the radar. It's going to teach you something, and you’ll be better for it the next day.”
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Sydney Freeman Jr., University of Idaho
Sydney Freeman Jr. is an associate professor of Adult Organizational Learning and Leadership at the University of Idaho. His research focuses on the experience of Black students in higher education. As an undergraduate student at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama—a Historically Black University—Freeman was a student leader. He started a group called the Progressive Black Caucus, which worked to educate students about issues affecting the Black community.
After shadowing the school’s president as a senior, Freeman decided that he wanted to be a university president. “I sought opportunities to figure out what kind of degree would prepare me to do something like that,” says Freeman. “By chance, I learned that you could get a degree in higher education administration or student affairs. That was awesome to me as a person who was a student activist to say I could get a degree in working with students and learning how to support students.” He went on to earn his master’s degree and PhD from Auburn University in Higher Education Administration.
Now at 36, Freeman is a leader in his field, and he expects to become a full professor this year. He attributes his success to several mentors who guided him along the way. He attended high school at Pine Forge Academy, a historically Black boarding school in Pennsylvania, where he learned from 15 Black male teachers. He advises Black students to consider Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. “Predominately white institutions have their advantages, particularly around resources, [but] those institutions were not made with Black people in mind,” he says. “I went to a university where the president was Black, the provost was Black, the [department] chairs were Black. So I had the advantage of knowing who I was.”
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Sanderia Faye Smith, Southern Methodist University
Sanderia Faye Smith teaches creative writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where she’s an Assistant Professor of Practice, a non-tenure track position. While she was working to earn her PhD, Smith started teaching at SMU as an adjunct professor, or a professor who works part-time on a contractual basis.
In high school, a teacher encouraged Smith to pursue a career as a writer. But she says she never imagined herself in this type of role when she first went to college. “When I mentioned it to my parents, they were like, ‘No, that's not happening,’” says Smith. “My cousin had majored in Accounting, so I decided to major in Accounting.” After getting her undergraduate degree in Accounting from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Smith worked in the field for several years, but she wasn’t happy.
While some of her friends found fulfillment in auditing and sales, that wasn’t the case for her. “It was a career for them, but it always felt like a job for me,” she says. “I was very dissatisfied. I just had the urge that there was something more that I should do.” Despite a career counselor suggesting it was a bad idea, Smith left the business world behind to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. “They accepted me there, and that actually changed my life,” says Smith. She went on to earn another master’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas and her PhD from the University of North Texas. “You have to be open,” she advises. “Just be open to life in general and where it might take you. And read—we don't read enough in America.”
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We hope you enjoyed learning about some incredible and inspiring Black college faculty members. You can click the button at the end of each spotlight to connect with and request information from the schools where these awesome people work! And while Black History Month may be coming to an end, you should never stop learning about and supporting the Black community in the fight for true equality. Happy Black History Month!
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