A student at Texas State University-San Marcos approached Dr. Jaime Chahin about 20 years ago and asked to borrow 20 dollars. Chahin offered directions to his house and instructed the young man to arrive early one Saturday morning. “I had him pick weeds from my yard and I paid him,” said Chahin, currently dean of the school’s College of Applied Arts. “I figured it was better than just giving him the money.”
Besides teaching a lesson on working for wants and needs, Chahin inspired the student to think beyond an undergraduate degree. The young man continued his studies at Michigan State and eventually earned a Ph.D. Now he’s a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, placing him among the sliver of Hispanic faculty members at U.S. institutions of higher education.
The burgeoning Hispanic population has been a popular topic among demographers in recent years, playing a key role in the last two presidential elections and projected to account for nearly one in three U.S. residents by 2060. Hispanics are graduating from high school at higher rates than a decade ago, and the number with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree has reached record levels.
But according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanics represent about 4 percent of all faculty members at two- and four-year schools.
At this weekend’s eighth annual American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE) conference, March 28-31, attendees will discuss solutions to raise the low numbers.
“Overall, that’s a big challenge,” said Dr. Anne-Marie Nunez, an associate professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio. “A lot of times people will say there aren’t enough people in the pipeline and they’ll use that as an excuse. But research shows that, even when there are qualified Latino candidates, they’re still not being given faculty opportunities.”
Despite the demographic trends (or, perhaps, because of them), Hispanics face a climate that’s arguably lukewarm. Latino studies have been prohibited in parts of the country. There also have been efforts to ban Spanish and enforce English-only policies in classrooms, which studies suggest could hurt Hispanic graduation rates. In addition, anti-immigration and anti-affirmative action sentiment has swelled among segments of Americans.
“In the country, our universities are microcosms of what’s happening in the larger world,” said Dr. Elizabeth Ortiz, DePaul University’s vice president of Institutional Diversity & Equity. “Right now around the world, there’s a feeling of immigrants being ‘the other.’”
“Latino faculty face a double-whammy,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they immigrated in the last few years, or if they’re like me, a third-generation Mexican American. People think we came last night. It really is the ‘other-rizing’ of Latino faculty.”
Nonetheless, increasing the number of Hispanic students who pursue graduate degrees and careers in academia is a pressing concern for advocates such as Ortiz. Changes in the financial aid structure, as well as the decreased number of grants, have created a difficult situation for many Hispanics, who typically are reluctant to borrow.
“The biggest challenge right now is access,” said Dr. JoAnn Canales, dean of Graduate Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “The Hispanic population doesn’t really look at loans to finance education. If there are no grants or scholarships to provide that financial support, it can be a discouraging factor.”
The path for new faculty members can be dispiriting, too, when so few co-workers share your heritage and language. Many of the same obstacles facing students of color—particularly first-generation attendees—are present for new professors. They don’t know the system and how things work. They often aren’t part of the same networks or invited to the same parties or asked to serve on the same committees.
Experts agree that institutions of higher education have to be more intentional when it comes to recruiting and retaining Hispanics and other faculty of color. Organizations such as AAHHE strive to ensure that the issue remains part of the national debate and officials are held accountable for progress, or the lack thereof.
Much of the talk until recently focused on the moral imperative of doing what’s right, but the rhetoric didn’t result in much action. Now proponents are stressing the economic necessity of attracting faculty members who bear more resemblance to the emerging student body.
“Diversity is one of the great riches of this nation and it’s the future of democratic education,” said Dr. Susan Albertine, vice president of Diversity, Equity & Student Success for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “Everybody gains when the faculty and the students look like the population.”
“Every study on diversity and learning makes the case that diversity is better for everybody,” she said. “All students learn better. It’s personal for Latinos in them not having mentors and peers, but the whole institution is missing out because it’s not mirroring the population.”
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