Examining the Transformative Role of Faculty at HBCUs

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Pamela Petrease Felder

When I was a graduate student, one of my peers asked me if I would ever return to an Historical Black College or University (HBCU) as a faculty member. Given my research interests on the role HBCUs play in supporting historically marginalized students in their transition to doctoral studies, and being an HBCU alumnus myself, without hesitation I remember thinking, “Of course I would.” I recall his look of disbelief. After all, we were in graduate school pursuing “elite” graduate degrees—why would we want to work at institutions that face so many challenges?

I wasn’t puzzled by his response as I knew why this sentiment existed. That is, graduate school is a huge personal and financial investment and the idea of making a professional commitment to institutions that have been known to struggle is unrealistic for some graduate students. However, HBCUs have a history of resilience and have made great contributions to higher education. When thinking about institutional transformation, I often wonder about the kind of professional commitment necessary to support institutions that have had to accomplish more with less to support historically marginalized student populations. Specifically, in what ways do faculty members contribute to the future success of HBCUs?

Fast-forward several years, and in 2014, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, The University of Maryland Eastern-Shore, as a faculty member in an HBCU graduate program. After a grueling job search, looking to find a home where my teaching and research interests would be well aligned with the institution’s mission, I was delighted to return to the very place where my postsecondary educational journey began. I returned with high hopes to do what I could to make my institution a better place—to give back to it what it had given to me, especially through my research in the area of doctoral education.

However, I couldn’t help thinking about my previous conversation with my peer regarding whether I would consider returning to an HBCU as a faculty member. To reflect in deeper analysis about my return and contribution, I participated in several conversations with my faculty colleagues to get a sense of their perspectives regarding what affects their ability to transform the future success of HBCUs. Many of the conversations related to the findings of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institution’s report titled, The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including: workload, salaries, and the lack of shared governance.

Workload

HBCU faculty work extremely hard to support student success in ways that are not typically measured or quantified. I’ve witnessed my colleagues spend tremendous amounts of time outside of scheduled office hours and classroom time mentoring students. This mentoring often consists of sharing important life lessons and teaching students how to manage life challenges that greatly influence their lives and degree completion. Since this kind of work is essential to the academic success of students, it’s important to provide faculty support and recognition to build awareness of this activity. Also, providing resources that contribute to the process of mentoring would allow faculty to share this expertise in more meaningful ways. This might consist of formalized collaborative opportunities across departments, schools, and institutions where faculty can share mentoring practices. For example, mentorship practices that addresses the institution’s function to support racial and cultural awareness could serve to promote institutional diversity initiatives.

Salaries

There are significant national average salary disparities for HBCU faculty. While HBCUs do their best to secure financial resources in order to increase faculty salaries, thereby directly addressing this inequity, other areas of compensation should be examined to minimize this gap. For instance, some HBCU faculty members could receive course releases for their mentoring efforts. Also, HBCU faculty members with twelve-month contracts could receive nine-month contracts to allow for increased research productivity through grant and publication writing during the summer months.

Shared Governance

HBCU faculty have a lot to say about the governance of their institutions. However, conversations about governance are minimized to the margins of the governing process. Faculty discussions about governance are often powerful and transformational, but the opportunity to share these perspectives often don’t exist in ways that directly shape institutional leadership. It’s important to understand why opportunities for faculty engagement are not part of the governance process. This would help lead to identifying strategies that strengthen the participation of HBCU faculty in ways that broaden their potential for involvement in institutional decision-making.

In conclusion, what I learned about my return to an HBCU and from conversations with my colleagues is that it’s critically important to understand the relevance of faculty leadership to the future success of HBCUs. This involves understanding the influence of faculty participation on the mission and culture of HBCUs and the ways this influence can be supported to develop avenues for future success. There is much exploration to be done to uncover areas for innovation in this area and further research is necessary.

An infusion of resources is needed to support these faculty members’ mentoring, teaching, research efforts, and professional development.

This support must address HBCU faculty experiences and the ways they contribute to these institutions beyond what we’ve known them to do (doing more with less). Support must help HBCU faculty members’ efforts to strive towards their greater potential for transformation in higher education. Honoring the voices of HBCU faculty is important for increasing awareness about the culture and vitality of HBCUs.

Dr. Pamela Petrease Felder is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland – Eastern Shore (UMES) and an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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