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Faculty diversity at California colleges is improving, but there's a long way to go

Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

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Whittier College recently selected a new president who will be the first person of color to lead the school. Cal State is also hitting a benchmark, as a majority of the universities' presidents will soon be women.

The diversity of college faculties has ramifications for the future of the state as a whole, says Estela Bensimon, who directs the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.

As California grows more diverse, the state and its economy will increasingly depend on students of color, particularly Latino students, so making sure they succeed is in everyone's best interest, she said. Increasing the diversity of college faculty can help students of color succeed.

There are empirical studies that show that Latinx and also African-American students and Asian-American students benefit when they have same-race, same-ethnicity faculty members because those faculty members are able to see in their students future leaders, future scholars, future lawyers.

Bensimon said faculty of color can also have increased empathy for the experiences of minority students.

They're able to understand that classrooms as well as colleges are radicalized spaces where students might experience micro agressions, stereotypes, threats and they're able to safeguard for that, whereas white faculty members often think of themselves as color blind. Being color blind also means that you may not notice that students of color are having a different educational experience.

To improve diversity on college campuses, Bensimon said the main issue is not qualified candidates; that's a myth. The hiring process for new faculty members is one area where key changes can be made.

You have to change the job announcement so that it signals very clearly that we are looking for faculty members who have experience and know how to work with first generation, Latino students, black students. Just say that. The second thing is you have to ask candidates that enable them to speak about their competence in creating successful outcomes for marginalized student populations.

Having more diversity in college leadership could help increase faculty diversity overall, but there isn't a simple fix, Bensimon said. The state still has a long way to go.

In the community colleges here in California, 45% of the student body is Latinx, yet 60% of the faculty are white. Only 15% of the faculty are Latinx. For me, equity in the faculty would be if 44% of the students in California's community colleges are Latino, 44% would be Latinos.

There are specific cases that are giving Bensimon hope, including California Lutheran University, a small private school with a large Latino student population. After changing their hiring practices to focus on diversity, more than half of Cal Lutheran's new hires in their most recent hiring period were people of color. This signals colleges are seeing diversity as an important issue. Realizing this is a problem that needs to be fixed is the first step, she said.