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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Journalism department needs faculty of color

The time is now to prioritize hiring professors of color

An empty college lecture hall.
An empty college lecture hall. Higher education has long often failed to reflect the diversity of society in its faculty. This needs to change. // Courtesy of Wokandapix via Pixabay

By Lauren Gallup

One of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.”

This involves seeking diverse sources, contextualizing issues and having diverse journalists at all levels — including journalism education.

Higher education has long failed to represent the diversity of society in its faculty. Western Washington University is a predominately white institution, and the journalism department is no exception — that needs to change. Prioritizing the hiring of professors of color to tenure-track positions would be a step in the right direction.

With a lack of diversity in the department, alumna Joyce Taylor said, “Students are missing out, not having diversity on that staff. They’re not getting as rich of an education as they could.”

In the employee demographics on Western’s faculty and staff demographics webpage, 17.62% are part of a “racial/ethnic minority.”

Taylor, who graduated with a degree in broadcast communication, is a KING 5 News anchor and vice president of the Seattle Association of Black Journalists. She said she loved her time at Western and in the journalism department.

Recognized by Western as one of 100 Outstanding Alumni of the Century, Taylor never had a professor of color in the department. 

Taylor said her experience could have been made richer by having professors of color, as it could do for all students now. 

“I think the fact that a faculty is all white is unfortunate for the students that they don’t have different voices on their faculty staff,” Taylor said.

Including more voices on campuses is more inclusive and important in changing the status quo.

Dr. Breea Willingham, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York Plattsburgh, has spent her academic career at predominately white institutions. 

“As a Black woman, professor at a [predominantly white institution], I am disrupting whiteness in my classrooms,” Willingham said. 

Willingham said in the institutions she has taught at, students’ feedback showed how much having faculty of color matters, from giving students of color a mentor that looks like them, to opening up conversations on different experiences for all of her students. 

“I often tell my students of color that I know exactly what they’re going through because I’ve been through it and I am still going through it as a Black woman professor,” Willingham said.

Hiring and retaining more faculty of color isn’t something universities should do just to check off a diversity box, but because of the benefits to students’ experience, education and university equality.

In journalism, diversity is essential.

As a journalism professor, Willingham taught a course focusing on women and minorities in the media. Journalists, Willingham said, write about many different experiences other than their own. 

“You cannot write about other people without having at least at the very least a base knowledge about those other people,” Willingham said.

Why Western doesn’t have more faculty of color, specifically in the journalism department, is a complex issue. 

Three emeritus journalism professors at Western spoke on how building diversity in the journalism department was difficult in their experiences, which span from 1976 to 2014.

When Lyle Harris came to the journalism department in 1976, there were no women on the faculty. The first, Carolyn Dale, was hired a year later and went on to chair the department from 1990 to 1994. 

Dale said via email, “For many years I was the only woman with a permanent position in the journalism department.” At the time, Dale said having women on staff counted towards their diversity metrics, which she said is “hard to imagine now.”

“[The university] kept saying they’d make efforts to find funds to retain well-qualified professors who brought diversity. Sadly, that did not happen in our area,” Dale said of her time at Western.

Harris said they would reach out to journalism associations and publishers of major newspapers to try to find talented journalists of color to teach at Western, but the recruiting competition was tough.

Tim Pilgrim, an emeritus journalism professor who retired in 2013, said via email that professors of color came, but “The university never came up with enough incentive to keep [them].”

Both Pilgrim and Dale listed professors of color who taught at Western during their time, but of those, only one was hired into a tenure-track position: Soon Beng Yeap, who left the university to work for Starbucks. 

“It was a fight, and seemingly, sadly, it continues to be,” Pilgrim said.

The fight is one Taylor said the university is dedicated to. 

“I feel for those students who feel like they’re not being heard, I would just like to say that they are,” Taylor said, speaking of her involvement in the conversation of increasing diversity amongst the student and staff at Western for over a decade.

Both Taylor and Willingham spoke of the difficulty of recruiting professors of color to predominantly white institutions such as Western. 

Willingham said one of the reasons institutions are not diverse is “the environments in which these universities are, they’re not conducive to faculty of color.”

Giving an example, Willingham said one of the things she wanted when she started was resources for new faculty to teach in a predominantly white college, which did not exist at her institution. She also said she wanted a mentor that looked like her, something she had to find off campus.

“It is great to have that network, but we shouldn’t have to go outside to get it,” Willingham said.

These things, she said, should be in place before campuses try to boost their racial diversity.

At Western, there’s the Faculty and Staff of Color Council, whose mission statement is to serve “as a catalyst for social engagement and community for faculty and staff of color.”

“As it relates to having faculty of color, people should continue to ask for that and demand it and be part of the solution of trying to make that happen,” Taylor said.

With Western’s dedication to diversity and the value of this for students and faculty alike, the journalism department should seek professors of color to tenure-track positions. Western journalism students are in need of faculty of color. They have been for a long time. 

What do you think? The Front accepts letters to the editor (max. 250 words) and guest columns (max. 400 words) on subjects of interest to our community. Please submit your ideas, along with a phone number and email address, to westernfront.opeditor@gmail.com

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