Faculty retention declines at Columbia – especially among instructors of color

By Olivia Cohen, Editor-in-Chief

Kailey Ryan


For the 25 years she’s taught in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, Karla Fuller has been the only full-time Black faculty member.

Her colleagues are wonderful, Fuller said, but she’s been lonely.

“I worry that when I decide to retire that I won’t be replaced by a Black faculty member, which would leave the largest department of the college without a single Black professor,” Fuller told the Chronicle.

According to a recent survey, just 20% of Columbia’s full-time professors are faculty of color. About half of those identified as Black.

Even though she was the only full-time faculty in her department, Fuller said she was still surprised when she saw the demographic data.

“I guess I fell for the marketing of Black faculty images around the 600 building,” Fuller said, referring to the college’s administration building at 600 S. Michigan Ave. “I had no idea our numbers were so low.”

The Communication Department is losing its only Black faculty member after this semester. Associate Professor Curtis Lawrence is leaving after teaching at the college since 2004. Six tenured faculty of color and one assistant professor have left the Communication Department since 2016. Five of the tenured professors were Black and one was a Latina. Grace Choi, the former assistant professor who is Asian, left last year after only two years. She was the department’s social media and digital strategy professor.

The racial breakdown of Columbia’s faculty comes from a study spearheaded by Madhurima Chakraborty, the president of the Faculty Senate; Chris Shaw, an associate professor in the Science and Mathematics Department; and the membership chair of CCC-AAUP — Columbia’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Columbia’s Institutional Effectiveness Department assisted with the data collection.

Chakraborty, also an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, said she has seen a lot of important and needed conversations around student retention efforts but not so much for faculty.

The report found the college’s retention rate of faculty of color has been decreasing since 2011— especially for Black full-time professors.

According to the report, there were roughly 35 full-time faculty at the college in 2010 identifying as Black. In 2022, there were 15.

Dave Pabellon, an assistant professor in the Design Department, said the lack of diversity among Columbia’s full-time faculty is a “reflection of a greater national disparity.”

In Fall 2020, of the 1.5 million faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US, nearly three-quarters of full-time faculty were White, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This includes professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, assisting professors, adjunct professors and interim professors.

Of the white faculty, 39% were white men and 35% were white women.

7% were Asian/Pacific Islander men and 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander women. Four percent of full-time faculty were Black women, and 3% each were Black men, Hispanic men and Hispanic women.

The data did not separate non-binary faculty.

While serving on the Faculty Senate and the college’s DEI Executive Committee, Pabellon said he’s gained a better understanding of the landscape of higher education; specifically the shortage of academics of color in academia’s pipeline.

“As a start, I think not only retaining faculty that better represents our student body but also grooming that population for success and possible leadership in the institution can create a ripple effect in shifting the numbers of demographic enrollment and hiring,” Pabellon said.

Fuller said she would like the college to scout graduates from historically Black colleges and universities as possible candidates in all departments as a starting point. Fuller also said there needs to be more support among Black faculty across the board, especially new tenure-track faculty when they get to the college.

Since the 2011-2012 academic year, the school has lost 35% of its full-time faculty.

Joan Giroux, the president of the CCC-AAUP, said faculty have left for a variety of reasons, including inadequate compensation, overwork, lack of support, low morale and general concern about the lack of healthy shared governance at the college.

“In my conversations with departing faculty and those who remain, people describe a sense that across the college, there are varying degrees of awareness, support and commitment to unpacking and working together to understand biases and existing systems of inequity at the college and to address them,” said Giroux, who is also professor in the Art and Art History Department.

Chakraborty said the two departments that had a rise in full-time faculty across numbers, were American Sign Language and Interactive Arts and Media. She added this is not necessarily a new issue, as the college’s full-time faculty are and have been predominantly white for a “really long time.”

Overall, however, Chakraborty said she was not entirely surprised by the findings, despite the college’s efforts at hiring more diverse faculty.

“We’re not even really seeing a trend that’s beginning or anything,” Chakraborty said. “The visualization is actually pretty stark.”

For Gabriela Díaz de Sabatés, an assistant professor in the Humanities Department, the college’s lack of diverse, full-time faculty could contribute to Columbia’s student retention issue.

“Lack of diversity in [the] faculty body surely makes the institution less appealing to prospective students, especially considering that their professional areas of interest in the real world are vastly diversified,” Díaz de Sabatés said in an email to the Chronicle on April 19. “A graduate who wants to be successful in their areas of expertise has an essential need to receive multicultural, diverse education.”

Luying Chen, an associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, said she believes this is an intersectional issue as well.

“It is an issue, especially if you consider the overlap between race and social-economic background,” Chen said.

The majority of doctoral students who graduate each year are white, a number that has been consistent for nearly 50 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2020-21 academic year, 17,041 Black students earned their doctorates, compared to 16,465 Hispanics. The number of white students earning doctorates was 108,082.

Columbia is thus competing to hire a small number of faculty of color with other institutions.

Díaz de Sabatés said Columbia’s location in Chicago, a large, diverse city, should help.

“But faculty in academia is still predominantly white, and there needs to be sustained, systemic and proactive efforts by institutions of higher education to attract, hire and – most importantly – retain faculty of color,” Díaz de Sabatés said.

Jessica Meharry, director of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said the college implemented a DEI-focused hiring process in 2018 for full-time faculty. This process requires all participants to submit a a statement about inclusion. Hiring committees use a DEI-focused rubric, and finalists interview with the Director of Academic DEI.

“These steps have really helped us recruit more faculty of color and faculty who deeply engage with DEI-related issues in their teaching, creative practice and research,” Meharry said. However, she said they have not been as successful with retention of those faculty.

Charee Mosby-Holloway, the director of Student Diversity and Inclusion, said she cannot overstate the importance of having diverse faculty – especially when it comes to race.

“Having faculty of color is a net positive for all students,” Mosby-Holloway said. “Part of a quality and robust educational experience is being exposed to a variety of perspectives and approaches. Faculty of color have so much to offer in terms of their knowledge, skills and innovativeness, but unfortunately, they are too often undervalued; especially adjunct faculty.”