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Coconino Voices: Exodus of Black faculty at NAU exposes structural racism

Coconino Voices: Exodus of Black faculty at NAU exposes structural racism

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Two pandemics plague Flagstaff: COVID-19, and institutional racism. Everyone is keen to confront COVID-19, but pleas for addressing structural racism on the mountain have been ignored.

Numbers don’t lie: there is disparate impact in hiring and retention at Northern Arizona University that results in startlingly low numbers of Black faculty. Could this be implicit bias, or is it part of a pattern of structural racism?

We can document structural inequalities resulting in more deaths and disparate health for Indigenous, LatinX and Black communities, but statistics compiled over 20 years at NAU also reflects patterns of disparate impact in the recruitment and departure of Black families, staff and faculty in Flagstaff — the statistics are alarming:

Currently, there are fewer than 18 full-time Black faculty at NAU; fewer than eight are tenured out of more than 1,100 full-time faculty (1.6%). The ratio between full-time white faculty and African American faculty remains 50 to 1. Despite successfully hiring 10 Black faculty in Ethnic Studies since 2003, only three remain. And, despite increases in enrollment, since Fall 2020, three ES faculty of color have been recruited away, and another laid off — an exodus of 40% of the ES faculty core.

Instead of strengthening retention of Hispanics, Blacks and Indigenous students (who experience higher push-out rates compared to other groups at NAU), the exodus of Black and faculty of color (BIPOC) means fewer role models for students on campus.

In addition, at least five EEOC complaints by BIPOC faculty have been filed since 2016 — with no relief in sight. By the time Dr. José Luis Cruz takes office in June, he will find very few racially diverse faculty who understand NAU, who remain in Flagstaff, and who can help cope with the challenges students of color face.

The trend appears endemic to NAU — ranked #387 in “Diversity” among U.S. colleges. ASU ranks #114 and Univ. of Arizona #67; even Grand Canyon Univ. (#265) and Brigham Young (#230) have better diversity rankings than NAU.

But why do they leave, and what is the impact on educational options of students?

“Campus climate” surveys of students and faculty have been withheld from the public, erasing the largely negative experiences of BIPOC faculty and students that might explain why they leave.

Recruitment to Flagstaff is not the problem: NAU has more than 40 percent LatinX, Black, Indigenous and Asian students, but less than 25 percent non-white faculty.

In a state becoming majority Hispanic/LatinX, NAU’s recruitment/retention strategies for BIPOC faculty and staff are non-existent.

Most departments have never hired a Black instructor, nor any non-white staff. If it weren’t for Ethnic Studies and Applied Indigenous Studies, tenure-track Black and Indigenous faculty would not exist in five of the 12 academic units in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS). The numbers are even worse in the natural sciences and the rest of campus.

Though NAU was recently named a “Hispanic Serving Institution” (HSI) by enrolling 25% “Hispanic” students, it has few culturally responsive academic courses for LatinX learners.

Overall, NAU is an anachronistic public university — mostly white. It is clear that public universities serving “majority-minority” populations cannot remain “Predominantly White Institutions” (PWI) and expect to succeed. Declining white birthrates ensure that most college-going students will be non-white — but NAU has failed the test of retaining instructors to reflect these demographics.

Finally, challenged by the task of retaining non-white role models on a PWI campus, NAU fails to make counter-offers to retain BIPOC faculty — as revealed this year when three Ethnic Studies faculty (LatinX, Native American and Asian American) departed, receiving offers that NAU didn’t even bother to match.

What is the impact of BIPOC faculty leaving NAU for other environs? It results in “extreme” white environments in which implicit bias, discrimination and micro-aggressions escalate — leading to rapid turnover of human capital and vital resources that our students need for a globally informed, racially diverse educational experience. Black women students, in particular, simply don’t see themselves reflected in the faculty ranks. According to research, this creates disparate outcomes for students of all backgrounds.

COVID plagues our city, but structural racism plagues our university and our public school system. Can we afford to lose more Blacks on the mountain?

Ricardo Guthrie has been a citizen of Arizona since 2008, is a parent of a student currently enrolled at NAU, and was the first tenured faculty member in the Ethnic Studies Program.


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