Academic Leadership by Race

Student diversity has grown, but leadership remains mostly White

America has a long and grim history of racism. And while the country has made progress in eradicating racism—for example, through the historic March on Washington in 1963 and the current Black Lives Matter movement—disparities persist for racial and ethnic minorities.

One place where racial and ethnic minority groups remain underrepresented is in the workplace, especially in high-level positions. This is apparent in higher education: In 2019 (the most recent data available), 68% of faculty members were White. At the same time, Latinx/Hispanic, Black, and Asian American faculty made up just 5%, 6%, and 10%, respectively, of professors, instructors, and lecturers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Racial and ethnic minorities are even rarer in academic leadership roles—even though people of color make up a larger share of postsecondary students than ever before. However, diversity among academic leadership is essential for the effective management of the institution and the ability to relate to and educate the student body.

Key Takeaways

  • White men typically hold top academic leadership positions.
  • Women who are members of racial minorities are the most underrepresented group in academic leadership.
  • According to the Center for Education Statistics, White people comprise more than two-thirds of the faculty at colleges and universities.
  • Latinx/Hispanic, Black, and Asian American professors, instructors, and lecturers make up 5%, 6%, and 10%, respectively, of faculty.

First Black College Student and President

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education provides a timeline of key events, starting in 1799. That's when John Chavis—a Presbyterian minister and teacher—became the first Black student to attend an American college or university at what is now Washington and Lee University. It wasn’t until 24 years later that Alexander Lucius Twilight became the first known Black American to graduate from college, earning a bachelor's degree from Middlebury College. By 1900, more than 2,000 Black Americans had earned college degrees. Around 390 of these were earned from White institutions.

Today, education is seen as the most direct path to financial success. Yet while the student population becomes more diverse, faculty have remained predominantly White, even at Black colleges.

Growth is equally slow for Black representation in academic leadership. Henry Martin Freeman became the first Black college president in 1856 when he was hired at Avery College. In 1874, Patrick Francis Healy became the first Black academic named president of a predominantly White school, Georgetown University. It took nearly a century for Clifton R. Wharton Jr. to become the second Black president of a mostly White university, Michigan State University, in 1969.

Minorities Are Underrepresented in Full-Time Faculty Positions

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Black people make up about 13.4% of the country. Yet a 2021 report from executive recruiting firm Crist Kolder Associates found only six Black chief executive officers (CEOs) of S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies in 2021—up from five in 2020. And while Latinx and Hispanic people represent the nation's largest (18.5%) racial or ethnic minority group, just 20 were CEOs at this level.

The higher education industry is not much better. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, full-time Latinx/Hispanic, Black, and Asian American faculty made up just 5%, 6%, and 10%, respectively, of professors, instructors, and lecturers in 2019 (the most recent data available). White academics comprised the largest portion of all positions and represented 68% of full-time faculty.

White people also hold the most administrative positions in higher education. In 2020, more than 80% of administrators were White, with people of color comprising just 13% of top leadership roles.

Racial Wage Gaps in Higher Education

Even in today’s increasingly diverse workforce, equal pay for equal work is not a reality for most people of color.

The wage gap is the difference between the average pay of two groups of people. Consistent income inequality makes it possible for certain groups to amass more wealth than others.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, full-time workers had median weekly earnings of $1,010 in the fourth quarter of 2021 (the most recent data available). However, when broken down by race/ethnicity, the results show glaring disparities. Here's what each group earned:

  • Asian American: $1,384
  • White: $1,030
  • Black: $805
  • Latinx/Hispanic: $799

There is a similar pattern among higher education administrators. White, Latinx/Hispanic, and Black administrators are paid less than Asian American administrators, who comprise 2% of these positions and earn significantly more than their Latinx, White, and Black counterparts.

However, the incomes of these other three groups are very close overall. “When it comes to salaries, minority administrators as a whole are paid equitably in relation to their non-minority (White) colleagues. In other words, minority pay matches non-minority pay dollar for dollar. What’s more, this salary parity has remained fairly steady for the past 15 years,” reports a 2017 study from CUPA-HR.

Racial Minority Women

Women who are members of racial minority groups are the least represented and lowest paid segment of the overall workforce and the higher education industry. This group is susceptible to greater bias because of the intersectionality of their identities. For example, women face discrimination in the workplace, as do Black people, so a Black woman is very likely to experience bias due to both issues.

By gender, median weekly earnings for Black men were $807—just 71.5% of the median for White men ($1,129). Meanwhile, with median earnings of $845, Latinx/Hispanic men earned 74.8% of the median for White men. The difference was slightly less extreme among women, as Black women's median earnings were $802—or 85.4% of the median for White women. Earnings for Latina/Hispanic women were $733, or 78.1% of those for White women. The median earnings of Asian American men ($1,499) and women ($1,165) were higher than those of their White peers.

The gap narrows for racial minority women who work in staff, faculty, administrative, and professional positions at colleges and universities. In fact, when looking at median pay as a percentage of White men's income, pay equity for Black women decreases slightly as the position level increases. At the same time, pay equity declines at every position level for White women.

Racial Gaps Between Faculty and Students

In recent years, colleges and universities have begun to recognize the importance of a diverse student body. Stories of unfair admissions practices made headlines, including alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants to Harvard and celebrities buying their way into top colleges. Although there is still a long way to go before true diversity is achieved, colleges and universities have made some progress.

Today the focus is shifting toward the demographic composition of the faculty. As college students become more diverse, the staff and administration remain largely White. For example, a Pew Research Study found that 20% of college students were Latinx/Hispanic, compared with just 5% of faculty. Forty-five percent of undergraduate students were members of minority groups, compared with only 24% of faculty.

The racial gap has narrowed slightly over the last two decades (from 1997 to 2017) when looking at non-White people as a whole. In 1997, minority groups made up 28% of students and 14% of faculty. However, Black and Latinx/Hispanic representation in faculty barely moved. Black representation increased from 5% to 6%, and Latinx/Hispanic grew from 3% to 5%.

What Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (abbreviated as DE&I or DEI) refers to policies and initiatives that encourage participation and representation from diverse groups. The goal of DEI is to hire and retain a diverse workforce (e.g., people of various races, ethnicities, ages, gender identities, physical abilities, etc.), create a level playing field through fair access and opportunities, and foster a sense of belonging and value within an organization.

How Does Diversity Help Workplaces?

A diverse workforce allows companies to benefit from a variety of perspectives. Research shows diversity also drives employee productivity, fosters innovation and creativity, improves problem-solving and decision making, increases employee retention, and boosts profits.

Within academic settings, diversity allows faculty and students to better relate to one another and consider different viewpoints. According to Trina Limpert, the CEO of the DEI consulting firm, RizeNext, "Lack of diversity in faculty, educational leaders and students further limits our shared experiences and enforces biases that exist in society.”

What Does FAFSA Mean?

FAFSA is an acronym for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's the official form that future and current students use to apply for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs to help pay for college. Many colleges also use the FAFSA to distribute financial aid and scholarships to prospective and current students.

The U.S. Department of Education processes FAFSAs and uses the information to determine how much families can afford to contribute to college costs—and how much aid they qualify for. You must renew the FAFSA each year you're in school to remain eligible for student aid.

The Bottom Line

Having diverse leadership in higher education is important for the institution and the student body. Having minority representation in faculty, administration, and staff improves student engagement and retention, as well as classroom discussions, and helps prepare students for the workforce. Racial gaps will not improve overnight, but there are steps that colleges and universities can take to help speed up the process:

  • Evaluate existing pay and representation to identify any gaps.
  • Ensure fair market wages and competitive salaries when competing for minority candidates.
  • Examine employee turnover, age, and experience of existing minority employees to identify those who can potentially move up the career track.

Higher education has come a long way since segregation and all-male colleges. Taking steps today will help institutions narrow the pay and representation gaps, creating a more equitable environment for all students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

Article Sources
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  1. National Center for Education Statistics. “Full-time Faculty in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Race/Ethnicity, Sex, and Academic Rank.”

  2. Lumina Foundation. "Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education."

  3. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. “Key Events in Black Higher Education.

  4. United States Census Bureau. "Quick Facts: United States."

  5. Crist Kolder Associates. "Crist|Kolder Associates Volatility Report 2021."

  6. Inside Higher Ed. "College Presidents' Cabinet Still Far From Gender Parity."

  7. U.S. Department of Labor. "Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, Fourth Quarter 2021."

  8. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. "Pay and Representation of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Higher Education Administrative Positions: The Century So Far, 2017," Page 4.

  9. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. “Representation and Pay of Women of Color in the Higher Education Workforce," Page 6.

  10. Pew Research Center. “College Faculty Have Become More Racially and Ethnically Diverse, but Remain Far Less So Than students.”

  11. PhoenixBlog. "Why College Diversity Matters."

  12. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. “Representation and Pay of Women of Color in the Higher Education Workforce," Page 10.