AAU Membership at What Cost? - Higher Education
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AAU Membership at What Cost?

by Black Issues

AAU Membership at What Cost?

When a university’s quest for inclusion in organizations like the American Association of Universities comes at the expense of the recruitment and retention of minority faculty, some question the institution’s diversity commitment.
By Bill Robinson

These are heady times at the University of South Carolina (USC), the Palmetto State’s largest institution of higher education.
The university’s administration recently kicked off the public phase of a $300 million capital campaign that it hopes to reach by the school’s bicentennial in 2001. Some $200 million in pledges, including a whopping $25 million from New York financier Darla Moore, has breathed excitement into a public university looking to escape from the shadow of its better-known counterparts in the deep South.
Research grants brought in by USC professors have doubled in the past four years — to $92 million — and the undergraduate library is moving up the rankings list of institutions with the best and broadest holdings.
Additionally, the institution is making a concerted bid to become a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU). The AAU is a group of 62 universities that emphasize such academic yardsticks as federally funded research, scholarly publications, the quality of an institution’s library, and high academic standards. 
But all is not well here in the state’s capital. USC is struggling to attract and hold on to African American faculty in a state where 30 percent of the population is Black. And part of the problem has to do with the university’s quest to become an AAU member.
Shortly after the fall semester started, Dr. Aretha Pigford, one of the university’s most visible Black professors, resigned from the College of Education. Her decision to leave follows the departure of other African American professors, including three in the College of Social Work.
“I’ve reached [the] point [where] being in an institution where there is an alignment of what’s important to me and what’s important to the institution is more important than I realized. I decided to make a change,” she says.
However, Russ McKinney, a USC administration spokesman, says the university is committed to attracting and retaining minority faculty members.
“It’s very difficult out there — for everybody,” McKinney says of competition to find African American professors.
USC, which has a Carnegie classification of Research II, does have a laudable track record in one area of diversity. In the 1990s, it has emerged as one of the nation’s leaders in graduating African American students. The number of Black students who pursue degrees at USC is greater than any school in South Carolina — including the historically Black land-grant school, South Carolina State University, in Orangeburg. Approximately 19 percent of USC’s 16,000 undergraduates are African American.
Nonetheless, it is still possible for students to spend an entire undergraduate career at USC and never see a Black professor in a classroom. Of the 1,421 faculty members at USC this year, 153 — or 3.8 percent — are African American. And the numbers at Clemson University, South Carolina’s second largest public research institution, are even lower.  There, barely 3 percent of the full-time
faculty members are Black. In 1995, Blacks comprised 3.2 percent of all faculty at Research I and II institutions.

Feelings of Neglect …
Paradoxically, while USC’s faculty has shrunk by 8.9 percent in the past decade, the number of African American faculty members has actually increased 29 percent, according to the university’s office of statistics.
“We are very concerned about recruiting,” USC Provost Jerry Odom says.
Odom says he has money allocated in his budget to help academic departments pay for the salaries of minorities and, when appropriate, to make counteroffers to USC professors being wooed by other institutions.
When a high-profile professor like Pigford leaves, the void is difficult to miss. Pigford, who also serves on the state board of education, now works as the interim superintendent for Columbia’s largest public school district — a culturally diverse system with children who live on farms, in subsidized housing projects, and in affluent neighborhoods.
Pigford says she was happy as a professor at USC until she was elected to head the university’s Black faculty and staff association about two years ago. It was then she began to mingle and interact more frequently with other African Americans on the campus of 26,000 students just a block from the state capitol, where a Confederate flag flies high atop the dome.
“As president of the organization, I found myself trying to respond to faculty who had major issues in their colleges. And some of those issues, they felt, were related to an insensitivity to some of the realities of Black faculty members,” she says.
Odom says he’s taken steps in the past several months to shore up any feelings of neglect like those raised by Pigford and others. He says he has met with advisers “to get to the heart of the matter really quickly,” and has talked with his deans about “how to improve the atmosphere in their colleges.”
Additionally, he has also organized luncheons with minority faculty members to foster dialogue about issues they face on the predominantly White campus.
“I told them, ‘Tell me what do you see as a problem with your being able to advance,'” he says.
Odom says that “having a dialogue with young faculty members will do a lot of good” in making them — especially the African Americans — recognize that the university wants them to feel that they’re an integral part of the institution.

… In a ‘Culture of Scholarship’
But according to Pigford, USC has a long way to go. She says she grew disenchanted with university leaders who seemed indifferent to African American concerns about “relationship issues, communication issues, supervision issues, fairness in terms of evaluations, issues in terms of allocations of resources for research, [and] who gets invited to what. That sort or thing.”
During her 13-year career at USC, Pigford says she grew accustomed to, but never fully comfortable with, the expectations that come with being a prominent minority faculty member at a traditionally White institution.
“They wanted diversity, and they got it,” she says. “But I gave it at a personal cost. I still had to do all the stuff that was required of AAU. I still had to respond to the African American community, who will let you know … that you have to serve.”
Being invited to join the other 62 institutions in the AAU is a priority for USC President John Palms. It is the motivation behind the push to boost library holdings and the endowment, to woo young, energetic professors, and to attract a greater share of multi-million dollar research grants.
The problem with that, in the eyes of some African American professors, is that their teaching specialties tend to be in disciplines that aren’t major contributors to the university- wide cause.
An education professor like Pigford can — and did — win grants. But her contributions were not nearly of the magnitude of a cancer researcher in the chemistry department, or an electrical engineer trying to find new ways to create powerful new batteries for U.S. Navy vessels.
Pigford also says she’s troubled by what she perceived as an eroding role of service, one of the professorial troika that also includes teaching and research.
“USC is very focused now on becoming an AAU institution,” she says. “In recent years, it has been almost the single, driving force. It’s almost as if you’ve got a drum beat and it’s getting louder and louder and louder — and pretty soon, everything else is drowned out. If it’s not related to AAU, its value is questionable.”
Odom says that’s not so: “There is scholarship that goes on throughout the university. Just because some professors might not be bringing in large grants doesn’t mean they’re not doing excellent scholarship.
“Culture of scholarship is what we’re trying to build here,” Odom adds. “It doesn’t matter whether there is money involved, or not.”

Crosstown Traffic
In a state troubled by poor test scores, high birthrates to single mothers, and large pockets of poverty, Pigford said USC’s faculty should be key players in helping South Carolina solve its problems.
Joyce Kelly-Lewis left USC’s College of Social Work a year ago, after what she describes as a tumultuous three years trying to adapt to a new institution and a faculty she says seemed out of touch. She now teaches at nearby Benedict College, a historically Black private institution.
Initially, Kelly-Lewis says, she was overjoyed with the recruiting process that sold her on USC. But that euphoria eroded quickly. She says she was asked to administer a grant in addition to a teaching load that included two, and sometimes three, classes. She says she also found herself being drawn into committee service.
“I managed it, but I did not get the support I needed to be successful in that setting,” Kelly-Lewis says.
Odom says he’s moved to address concerns about workload. He says he’s told deans and department heads to limit committee assignments handed out to young, tenure-track professors. And he’s also urged the administrators to parcel out teaching loads judiciously.
“If we’re trying to build research enterprise, we need to let young people get their research projects started,” Odom says.
Kelly-Lewis says she asked for a mentor and was assigned one, but the person was “very, very, very busy, so that was not forthcoming. I thought there would be collaboration among the faculty on projects, articles, things like that. It was not forthcoming.”
Odom says he is working on plans to sponsor a workshop for veteran professors that will provide guidance on how to be a mentor. And he’s hoping to create an assignment system that “lets [new professors] have a voice in who their mentor will be.”
Kelly-Lewis also says she had a bad experience during her first peer evaluation and it soured her on the working atmosphere in the college.
“I thought peer reviews were to help you, but [at USC], it was [used] to pull you down,” she claims, acknowledging that she is “a very outspoken person. I know that creates problems for me, because I question the status quo.”
She concludes that “the idea behind working [in USC’s College of Social Work] was, ‘You’re here, but be invisible unless we want you to do whatever.’ That did not fit me.”
So she resigned a tenure-track position in the fall of 1997 and moved across town, where she joined former USC professor Glover Hopson in Benedict’s social work department.
Hopson says he left USC frustrated that he couldn’t convince fellow professors on how to go about making the curriculum more culturally diverse.
“They said they wanted cultural diversity in the classroom and infused through the courses,” he says. “I was brought there to do that, [but] I don’t know if they really wanted it done or not.”
Like Kelly-Lewis, Hopson says USC’s recruitment strategy is impressive.
“The same kind of tenacity should be also be expended in terms of retention,” he says.
And he shares Pigford’s concern about the influence the drive for AAU status has on the value of service — especially in a field like social work where it is the foundation of the discipline.
“It’s not given the same weight,” he says.

The Match Goes Out
USC isn’t alone in wrestling with the challenges of trying to integrate its faculty. Clemson President Constantine Curris earlier last year created a Commission on Black Faculty and Staff issues to serve as a conduit for concerns that minority employees might have about working conditions.
Several years ago, women at Clemson pushed and won support for a similar commission that confronted the delicate question of salary inequities. The new panel, chairman Bruce Ransom says, is designed to be a permanent fixture on the bucolic campus in the Piedmont foothills.
“There are individual staff members and faculty members who may have some grievances about some matters,” Ransom admits.
Clemson professor Herman Green runs a center that tries to increase minority participation in higher education. He was eager to serve on the task force when asked.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Green says. “I expect some problems to be solved.”
Clemson hasn’t been without its problems involving minority faculty members. The land-grant university recently was named in two lawsuits — one by a former professor who said he was unfairly fired, and one by a current professor who claims he was denied a promotion because he is Black.
Green says he’s sure tenure and promotion will be the subject of task force deliberations. But he’s also realistic.
“If we’re going to solve problems, no one group is going to do it. We just see things differently. That’s human nature. Different people have different perspectives and we’ve got to find a way to find middle ground that’s comfortable to everybody,” Green says.
Meanwhile, as Green tries to get Blacks interested in going on to college, one of Pigford’s projects was keeping them there — as professors. She spearheaded a drive to create a new graduate program aimed at luring African American graduate students into the professoriate, coaxing commitments from her superiors to back a campaign to win a Kellogg Foundation grant. (See Black Issues, March 5, 1998.)
But while she managed to win support from the administration for a program to produce more Black faces that someday could stand in front of a classroom, Pigford became increasingly troubled by concerns from her peers. Her departure from USC in September took the administration by surprise.
“Maybe the match that had become real important to me as a person between what I need and what the organization needs — maybe that match wasn’t there any more,” Pigford says.   



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