Black Exodus

Young, Black, Gifted, and Exiting the Academy
March 3, 2019
Much has been written about the challenges facing black people in higher education.  Recent students have shown that black student enrollment has decreased over the past twenty years at flagship universities.  The number of full-time black professors remains at very low levels at various institutions, including at American flagship universities.  The implications include an uncertain future for the black professoriate and for black activism, including scholar-activism.  While many doctoral programs at flagship universities focus on preparing students for academic careers, black graduate students often decide to pursue what are collectively referred to as alt-ac careers.  The exodus from traditional careers in the academy is undoubtedly due to a number of factors.  I contend that there are three critical factors are pushing black graduate students out of the academy and pulling them in the direction of alt-act jobs.  These factors are:  1) assaults on black graduate students and black faculty on- and off-campus; 2) privileging of scholarship that is white male-centered over and above non-white scholars; and 3) the need for the expertise of black scholars to address persistent social justice issues coupled with the desire to make a difference.
Assaults on black faculty are well-documented.  Black professors are the targets of students, administrators, colleagues, and the general public for doing what they were trained and hired to do.  My co-authors and I recently described how white administrators are complicit in the assaults on black professors by virtual white mobs in an article published in the Journal of Academic Freedom.  Less is written about the specific experiences of black graduate students, particularly those at flagship universities, because of the potential risks associated with disclosing claims of unfairness, injustices and inequity.  Black graduate students—who like other graduate students are grossly underpaid—may place their funding at-risk if they express the challenges they experience within their given programs.  Even when black graduate students do raise concerns with administrators outside of their departments (e.g. with graduate school administrators, human resources representatives, etc.) they are advised to calculate the risks and benefits associated with articulating their concerns.  More bluntly, they asked to consider whether they want to be right or finish.  
It is amazing to me how many graduate students are never introduced to non-white scholars—in even token or in substantive ways—during the course of their graduate studies.  Sociology is just one example.  Very few graduate programs include the works of scholars, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, in required theory courses despite the work of black sociologists like Ear Wright, II and Alton Morris in which they show how significant Du Bois establishing scientific sociology in America before the famed department at the University of Chicago.  Black graduate students who inquire about the oversight often hear the retort, “Well, we can’t read everyone.”  Wright, myself, and other black sociologists are changing the conversation in other ways by offering black sociology themed courses as electives. The courses, which include black and non-black graduate students, enjoy healthy enrollment numbers, engaging discussion about the literature, and lamentations about why all graduate students are not exposed to such scholars, particularly early in their academic careers.  These breakthroughs would simply not take place without the presence of black professors and the underrepresentation of black professors across disciplines at flagship universities and other institutions places the principles of diversity and inclusion in jeopardy of remaining mere statements and not actual practices reflected in the institution, including in the graduate curriculum.  
Black graduate students who are fortunate enough to have attentive black faculty mentors, or who are part of other black scholarly networks, observe first-hand how the unequal treatment, isolation, lack of a sense of belonging, and outright hostility they face does not disappear with the much coveted tenure track position when it comes to black professors.  Increasingly, black graduate students not only want to earn a living, publish, and teach, but they also want to make a difference in the broader society.  The pull on black graduate students to use their talents to address social justice issues is perhaps greater now than in recent memory given the epidemic of police killings of unarmed black people, white backlash against perceived black progress, and persist racial disparities in everything from health to education to housing to incarceration.  This is occurring at the same time that universities claim to embrace diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, but virtually ignore all the above when it comes to tenure and promotion. Consequently, black graduate students who persist and earn a graduate degree may exit programs not with a spot in the Ivory (white-centered) tower in mind, but for alt-ac jobs where they can support the work of grassroots activists and organizations in their fight to compact racism and bring about revolutionary changes in black communities and in the broader society.  
The under enrollment of black undergraduate students, the lack of representation of black professions and limited appreciation for scholar-activism, as well as the exodus of black graduate students are distinct, but interrelated trends in higher education that far too few people are talking about.  The implications for these interrelated phenomena may have implications for the academy for generations to come.  
Lori Latrice Martin is professor of African and African American Studies and sociology at Louisiana State University.  Her research interests include race and ethnicity, race and sports, and racial wealth inequality.  


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