From Black Deserts to a Thriving Academic Culture for Black Students

<< Return to Mission: Mobilizing the Whole University to Promote Black Student Success, Degree Completion, and Advancement in UCI’s Academic Programs


From Black Deserts to a Thriving Academic Culture for Black Students

Black undergraduates and graduates are severely under-represented in the student population in general and in academic programs in particular. They experience a virtual absence of Black academic leaders and faculty. Of the 15 academic or professional schools, only two deans are Black: Business and Law – both firsts. In addition to Engineering, there have been three Black deans of academic schools in the entire history of UCI. Outside of the Department of African American Studies, there are 2 Black chairs in the 86 departments. The overall number of Black faculty has doubled in a decade, and their proportion of the total faculty has increased to 3.9% in 2019 currently from 1.9 in 2009. Nonetheless, Black students are less likely to encounter a Black faculty member in their major course of study during the four-year career – outside of a small number of departments. This is true in schools with male majority or female majority faculty. For these reasons, in schools and departments where they are present, Black staff members tend to represent the only Black people in academic units. It is also notable that the senior management group at UCI currently reflects its lowest representation of Blacks in over a decade at 20% and of women at 20%, so students have limited opportunities to see themselves reflected among these key decision makers at UCI as well.

Black students must therefore negotiate an academic landscape where they are simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Whether inside lecture halls, classrooms and seminars as well as laboratories, studio spaces and clinical wards, they encounter a variety of micro-aggressions from student peers, faculty and patients. These circumstances span from peer avoidance in seating and exclusion from study groups, to being overlooked for special opportunities or projects, presumed to represent all Black people, expected to educate anyone about racial justice, scrutinized about the authenticity of their work, and expected to fail or succeed on their own. These conditions often operate in combination with institutional structures that contribute to Black academic deserts. These include rigid course management practices, ranging from pitting students against one another, curving course graded assignments, to inflexibility in the provision of accommodations for absences and deadlines or causally insensitive remarks. The combined impact of these realities and conditions deny Black students a sense of belonging and discourage Black success in academic and professional programs.

The burden of creating a culture where Black students thrive has in practice been shouldered by Black faculty and staff. In spite of their relatively small numbers, Black faculty and staff assume the responsibility to reconcile the tensions between the public commitment to inclusive excellence and the actual experience of Black students. This takes the form of affirming their presence on campus, listening to concerns and providing advice, using their experience and knowledge to advocate for opportunities and, above all, scaffolding their success. This labor is usually unseen, often unacknowledged, and rarely rewarded in the formal review, advancement and promotion processes. Yet, precisely for this reason anyone can take credit for the success of Black students without directly contributing to this outcome.

By contrast, there is a far more concerted effort to improve the climate for Black students beyond the academic programs through the Division of Student Affairs. The Center for Black Cultures, Resources & Research was established in 2017 with a mission to provide a just, safe, vibrant, inclusive, culturally supportive space – a home away from home – where Black students can thrive and reach their highest potential. It serves as a venue for community building, student success resources as well as co-curricular activities. There is an Academic Excellence Black Scholars Hall. Since 2016, the Black Scholars Hall has provided first-year students with a unique learning community. Residents learn to navigate the university environment while embracing scholastic achievement and individual identity. There are 16 residents in the Rosa Parks House. Mental health resources are critical for a campus committed to supporting students holistically. The Department of Wellness, Health & Counseling Services employs and contracts with African American counselors. All department counselors are trained to serve all students in a sensitive and responsive manner.

Anti-Blackness in academic programs can and does co-exists with a commitment to inclusive excellence for a wide range of diverse students, but this commitment is not purposefully extended to Black students. In minimizing, marginalizing and devaluing Black students, the accumulated weight of micro-aggressions pushes Black students out of their preferred majors, graduate programs and the university itself. The effects of anti-Blackness – withdrawal from courses, migration from majors and dropping out – are causally attributed to the presumptive deficits of Black students and their lack of preparation without any attention to the culture of departments or schools. This assertion often goes unchallenged in faculty meetings or in residential halls. It is much more satisfying to tolerate Black failure as a necessary condition of excellence rather than interrogate a culture that is accustomed to the diminishing presence of Black people.

Creating a culture where Black people thrive requires intention, attention and attitude in confronting anti-Blackness. Being personally committed to diversity is insufficient. Being mindful in confronting anti-Blackness demands that all undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff must understand what anti-Blackness is and be purposeful in interrupting or dismantling it whether in lecture halls, classrooms, seminars as well as laboratories, performance studios, and clinical spaces.

This individual awareness about anti-Blackness must go hand in hand with creating a thriving culture in each academic school or program. This must include setting expectations about the climate. This is particularly important given the paucity of Black deans, faculty and academic advisors as well as the different roles and authority of faculty and staff. Each unit should align expectations to the pillars of the Inclusive Excellence Action Plan: community, thriving and wellness. It is not enough to articulate expectations, deans and other unit leaders must monitor and affirmatively advance expectations. Each unit must establish a climate council. These councils should be tasked with developing and/or overseeing the unit action plan, review climate survey data and identify areas of strengthens and address areas that need more attention, host or co-sponsor training – such as by-stander intervention – and communicate expectations and ways to promote an inclusive culture. This should not be the responsibility of Black faculty and staff and graduate students and undergraduates, but an institutional imperative across the entire enterprise.

Setting expectations about the unit culture and monitoring the climate are critical. These efforts must be fully integrated into academic programs themselves and include changing counter-productive institutional structures. All faculty must take professional responsibility for student outcomes rather than limiting themselves to assigning a grade or approving graduate degree completion milestones. This means that all academic units must affirmatively commit to Black student success, proactively take steps to create inclusive pedagogical learning and advising environments and purposefully sustain a climate for inclusive excellence. Practically, this means working directly with the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning (OVPTL) to utilize evidence-based best practices to improve teaching environments, leveraging teaching and learning resources to maximize student outcomes, and promote greater culture dexterity in teaching, advising, and mentoring.