Louis Mendoza, Director of the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, Arizona State University
This Latinx talk forum focuses on the paltry numbers of Latinx faculty in higher education. This issue of underrepresentation has not been missed by The Chronicle of Higher Education and the American Association of University Professors, who have recently published articles that highlight the low numbers of Latinx faculty compared to rising numbers of Latinx students. We put together this forum to identify what this critique of representation means for our community and for the future of higher education. To initiate this discussion, we asked Latinx faculty from around the country how the underrepresentation of Latinx faculty has impacted their university, their students, and their own well-being. How do Latinx faculty navigate this and thrive in this context? What actions should we take? What goals she we set? What does this portend for the future?
We sought a diversity of perspectives on this important topic by seeking contributions from faculty and administrators from across the disciplines, from different regions of the country, and from different Latinx communities. The array of responses to the guiding questions that we received from our participants suggests that there is passionate belief that our bodies, our histories, our culture, our difference, all those elements of our lives that make us distinctive, are still considered a problem in higher education. As two of our contributors note, if prior to the 1960s the de facto exclusion of Latinx students on college campuses could be dismissed, this is no longer the case. As the Latinx student presence on campuses has changed the complexion of higher education, our underrepresentation in the professoriate and our ongoing struggle to see ourselves in the curriculum, reveal an egregious neglect in the academic pipeline and a resistance to knowledge transformation. As our contributors also point out, the story of the Latinx community and higher education in this country has mostly been one of struggle—a struggle for reform and inclusion—more than one of rebellion. Seen alongside the efforts for inclusion by other communities of color, Frederick Douglass’ famous assertion that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” comes to mind. What our contributors seem to be implicitly asking is: What will it take to chart a different future in higher education? Is reform possible or even desirable? How do we use our collective power to chart a path that empowers our community? We invite you to join in the discussion.
Nancy Raquel Mirabal, Associate Professor American Studies Department, Director, U.S. Latina/o Studies Program, University of Maryland, College Park
When I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, a white male history professor asked me what type of history I wanted to study. Without hesitation, I told him the history of Latinas/os in the United States. He responded with a question: “Is there such a thing?” I remember looking at him strangely, thinking to myself, what a ridiculous statement. And yet, it proved to be more prescient then I could ever imagine at the time. Fortunately, I had earned an undergraduate degree in history at U.C. Berkeley, took courses in Ethnic Studies, was mentored by brilliant women of color scholars, and was part of a large Latinx student community, so I knew better. The problem, however, is not that I know better, it is that the academy continues to not know better. Despite the extraordinary, paradigm-shifting work of a number of academics committed to transforming the field (luckily too many to list here), mentoring students, and making positive change, the academy is still mired in the same questions, patterns, and thought processes that prompted my professor’s initial response in regards to Latinx history and studies: “Is there such a thing?”
The last two decades have witnessed major demographic changes, including a significant number of Latinx entering college. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, 47% of Latinx high school graduates ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in 2016, up from 32% in 1999. That same year, 2016, a record 3.6 million Latinx “were enrolled in public and private colleges in the U.S., up 180% from the 1.3 million who were enrolled in 1999.” The increase in college enrollment outpaced Latinx enrollment growth in U.S. nursery and K-12 schools during the same span.
And yet, despite the demographic changes and the increase in Latinx student college enrollment, most universities have done little to address current realities. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education only 5% of nationwide full-time instructors are Latinx. At the same time, universities that have a Latinx Studies department, program and/or a center, often have one as a result of intense student pressure and protest, including the US Latina/o Studies Program I direct at the University of Maryland.
And when there is a department, program and/or center, they are under-funded, under-staffed, and overwhelmed. The few faculty hired to do this work are asked to do an inordinate amount of service, mentoring, and program-building with zero to little compensation. It is as though universities deliberately design such departments, programs, and centers to fail.
So why are universities so resistant?
It is my contention that demographic shifts and the increase in Latinx college enrollment portend something deeper and more far-reaching: the current and future state of academic, intellectual, and knowledge production. It is not so much that numbers alone merit change, but what those number reveal about who we are as a nation, and what we value as a society and community.
The numbers speak to larger social, political, economic and cultural realities. They expose a history that has been under-studied, erased, and silenced. The demographic change is not an isolated phenomenon, as is often depicted. Instead, it is indicative of and speaks to a larger, more complicated trajectory. The different populations that constitute Latinidad have an extensive and important history in the United States, one that is deeply tied to Native American, Asian American, and African American histories in the U.S. Centering all histories and naming it as United States history, means learning a history rooted in and defined by colonialism, genocide, slavery, empire-building, interventions, occupations, anti-immigration, and gendered violence, to name a few. Re-narrating history in such a manner challenges comfortable historical narratives that privilege whiteness and U.S. exceptionalism. Moreover, it would also demand that we reevaluate the parameters and uses of artificial borders and think transnationally.
At the same time, the numbers speak to future expectations that must be accepted and dealt with. The United States is changing and despite attempts by the Trump administration to pass immigration bans, build walls, tighten security, separate families, and militarize borders; the future is here. Students, both in secondary and post-secondary institutions are demanding Ethnic Studies courses. In California, AB 2772 would mandate that roughly 1.7 million high school students complete an Ethnic Studies course. The bill will be implemented during the 2023-2024 school year. Study after study has shown the benefits of Ethnic Studies. They have proven that these courses teach and provide students with necessary critical thinking skills and strategies.
For most of my career I have taught in a Latinx Studies Department. First, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, then as faculty in the Latina/Latino Studies Department at San Francisco State University and now in the US Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Maryland. What I have learned over the years is that these courses change lives. They give students the academic tools necessary to challenge falsehoods and re-inscribe themselves into narratives that have excluded them.
And perhaps, that is what scares universities the most. Not only have they not done enough to train scholars in Latinx and Ethnic Studies, but they may just find themselves ill-equipped to recruit, teach, and prepare future populations in the way those populations deem necessary. What then?
I can see it now. In the short future, those universities with no commitment to Latinx Studies will have to face students who might just respond with a familiar phrase, “Is there such a thing?”
William Yslas Vélez, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Arizona
It is well recognized that there is a depressing underrepresentation of Chicano faculty in our universities in the Southwest, especially in STEM fields. I was the first Chicano mathematician hired in a tenure-track position in the mathematics department at the University of Arizona (UA) in 1977. I retired in 2018. I hold the distinction of being the first and last Chicano mathematician hired into such a position in the UA mathematics department. Why does this matter? I only have to mention Dr. Joaquin Bustos, a mathematician at Arizona State University (ASU), born in the Phoenix area and fortunate enough to return to a faculty position there. His impact on the education of the minority population in Arizona was substantial. A professorship in his name was created at ASU to honor his work and commitment to educate the children of Arizona. If only more Chicano/a faculty had had the benefit of obtaining faculty positions in the Southwest, the situation of minority students would have greatly improved.
The seeds for this egregious lack of representation go back to the 1960s. When we look at the research productivity of our faculty in our universities in the Southwest, we must remember that this was not always the case. Beginning in the 1960s, we begin to see a change in the trajectories of our universities. Research, and faculty capable of carrying out such research and obtaining external research funding, began to influence who was being hired. Research took center stage. Universities that in the past were essentially teaching colleges began to develop research agendas. It is in this research climate that faculty can develop themselves into nationally and internationally known scientists. And what happened to the hiring of Chicano/a faculty during this time period, and actually up to now?
At the request of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) I made two studies of this hiring situation in STEM fields in the late 1970s. In Arizona there were 3 Chicano scientists in 1970, in 1976, there were four. With the help of SACNAS’s data base I, together with Celestino Fernández, sent out questionnaires to 150 Chicano/a and Native American scientists inquiring about their experiences in trying to find positions in the Southwest. We had a 55% response rate. We found that more than 85% of these scientists had sought employment in the Southwest, with poor results. Moreover, in the field of mathematics, almost no Chicano mathematicians were hired into doctoral-granting universities in the Southwest from 1975-1995. Our minority population has continued to be ill-served by our universities for the inattention that they have paid to the hiring of minority faculty. Hundreds of minority faculty were forced into positions that were teaching intensive and this did not allow them to develop a research reputation in their fields, a necessary ingredient in order to have a national impact.
There is another factor at play here that has further hindered the ability of minority students to even have the opportunity to be educated in STEM fields, and that is the reliance on international graduate students. In mathematics, about 50% of the PhDs awarded go to international students. I want to state very firmly that I am not opposed to having international students. However, when the percentage of these students is so high, the system is out of balance.
Quixotically, our system of undergraduate education is one of the reasons for this imbalance. In the U.S. we believe in a liberal arts education. If you are a mathematics major in the U.S. then you can only take a third of your courses in the mathematics department. If you are a mathematics major in Latin America or Europe, you take 4-6 mathematics courses every semester for four years. Essentially, when an international graduate student completes the bachelor’s degree, it is equivalent to a master’s degree in the U.S. It is no wonder that international students score higher on the GRE and look like they are more competitive. We have created a system of education in the U.S. for our students and when they complete that course of study, which we require them to do, we denigrate them for not being as well prepared for graduate study as their international counter parts.
As we are all aware of, the Trump administration has placed restrictions on immigration and this has affected applications for graduate programs from international students. A drop in the ratio of international to domestic applications has worried graduate engineering programs. In the above referenced article, we have the following statement, “Such ratios give administrators the option of admitting students who previously might not have made the cut, including more domestic students. But educators are loath to move the bar if it would lower the quality of the talent pool.” The implication here is that domestic students are not prepared for the system of graduate education that we have created in the U.S., in their country! This is insulting to our student population and needs to be addressed. If domestic students are barely competitive for graduate programs, imagine the impact on minority students. This system had led to a situation where few minorities complete PhDs. For the few that do manage it, what are their job prospects in academia?
It must be said that universities have not seen any value-added in having minority faculty. So, how are minority faculty to gain entrance into our present-day research-intensive universities here in the Southwest? Of the many factors at play I want to focus on two: research training and changing cultural attitudes.
If we look at the hiring practices in my own department we see that our faculty have degrees from the top 10 doctoral programs in this country. These top 10 programs have had almost zero minority graduate students. The lack of interest of these top programs to recruit minority students into their graduate programs has contributed greatly to the lack of minority faculty. The question is how do minority students gain entrance into these top programs? The National Academy of Sciences just published their report (2018), Graduate STEM Education in the 21st Century. In this report they propose the following audacious suggestions:
- Institutions would provide faculty with training, resources, and time both to improve their own skills as mentors and to provide for quality mentoring and advising to the graduate students they supervise directly.
- Institutions should include teaching and mentoring performance as important considerations for reappointment, promotion, annual performance review, and tenure decisions.
Were such recommendations implemented it is my belief that the Chicano/a faculty would be the most competitive for such faculty positions.
Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, Marta S. Weeks Chair in Latin American Studies, University of Miami
Latinx Studies at Rutgers
At Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the Department of Puerto Rican Studies was founded in the early 1970s as a result of the struggle for university inclusion and representation of sixteen students who were part of the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF). This is a program in New Jersey for first generation, low income students in the state that was founded after the 1967 Newark Race Riots, incited by an incident of police brutality against an African American taxi driver. Rutgers, therefore, shares in the history of other U.S. public institutions of higher education: the “studies” programs, centers or departments emerged as a result of the civil rights movement and its claims for equal access for non-white and non-male individuals to education and political representation. These “identity politics” departments interrogate the implicit white and Eurocentric focus of most mainstream disciplines, by proposing inter- and transdisciplinary approaches that take into account issues of race, gender, social class, sexuality, and positionality.
When I joined the faculty of the Department of Latino and Caribbean studies (LCS), we had a department devoted to research and undergraduate teaching on Latinxs in the U.S., but to this day there is no graduate program in Ethnic or Latinx Studies at Rutgers. We have a rich history of academic commitment and activism, but the archives of the department, donated to the library by the first chair, were lost. Nancy Mirabal’s recollection above of a white male mentor questioning the existence of a history of Latinxs in the U.S resonates with our experience at Rutgers. In 2015, as part of the redesigned course on “Research Methods in Latino and Caribbean Studies,” we reached out to the alumni and former faculty to recover the history of Latinx Studies at Rutgers. This was an urgent task in light of Rutgers’ efforts to uncover, disclose and discuss their connection and complicity with slavery in the U.S. Furthermore, at the time (and still today), Rutgers had substantial numbers of U.S. Latinx and first generation students among its undergraduate population (as well as among the janitorial and the low paid administrative positions), yet very few Latinxs among the faculty and in higher administration (a problem William Yslas Vélez documents so well in his meditation about the underrepresentation of Latinxs in the STEM fields). At the same time, first generation students were finding it harder to maintain access to the public university of the state, and the attacks against undocumented individuals made the work we did in the department more crucial to the survival of our student population.
Rutgers Latino and Caribbean Community Memory Project
In April 2016, after inquiries to former students and Rutgers Librarians, we located the archives documenting the first ten years of the department’s history. This is how the “Rutgers Latino and Caribbean Community Memory Project” was born, and several colleagues have been working on a multi-year initiative to annotate, and digitize these archives, and to collect oral histories from alumni on how they were able to create an academic space that validated their cultural competency, ways of knowing and presence in a public institution of higher education. Finding the archives, and bringing the history of the department to the center of the research methods class was important for several reasons. First, it empowered our first generation and/or Latinx students, many of whom were also EOF students, since they saw how they could create new spaces for research, teaching, and knowledge production that conceive them as inquiring subjects and not as a problem to be solved. Second, it allowed them to develop research projects around issues that mattered to them. When a medicine student says they choose a particular specialty because a loved one died of a particular illness, nobody questions the seriousness of their studies. But when a student refers to their embodied experiences as the source of their search for knowledge, their motives are frequently questioned. Some people like to refer to the “studies” programs and departments as “me” studies, while History, Philosophy, and Science departments are conceived as serious disciplines of study, with access to objective data. The major and minor in LCS challenged those assumptions by showcasing how all research is embodied, located, and partial, and that many apparently objective methods of knowledge production are partial to first world, white, U.S. and Eurocentric experiences and perspectives. Finally, this teaching and research approach opened the door to many other students who do not necessarily identify as Latinx, but who recognize the importance of understanding this demographic sector to be able to lead a rich individual and professional life in New Jersey and the U.S.
I end with one last meditation. At a moment when the racial divides are increasingly becoming more visible in the U.S., should inclusion be the ideal? Should difference—and not diversity—be the goal?
Fifty years after the Newark Race Riots, and the creation of the Educational Opportunity Fund, access to higher education is still a challenge for many non-white U.S. Americans. Many of our first generation students are unable to blend in with the rest of the student population because they feel alienated from academic spaces. A central reason behind this lack of inclusion is the almost total absence of references to Latinx experiences, knowledges, and modes of thinking in the educational system (both K-12 and college), and the lack of representation among the professoriate and the administration. The implicit racism and bias, as well as the explicit Eurocentrism and U.S.-centrism of many of the research methods currently considered mainstream in many disciplines, make knowledge production blind to the day-to-day experiences of many of our students. So I ask: Is it time to go beyond diversity, inclusion, assimilation, and integration in our goals as educators? How can we promote scholarship and academic spaces that question integration to explore the difficult terrain of human difference in order to transform itself through situated and embodied knowledges, through question-led, instead of disciplinary or method bound research? How can we do this responsibly without falling into the rhetoric of tolerance, or of conceiving that collective human knowledge is truly impossible because there are not facts but only opinions, and that we should respectfully agree to disagree?
Diversity and inclusion only allows for the assimilation of difference into the norm of U.S. American whiteness, and that is not enough. Lena Palacios offers excellent examples of the consequences of buying into the project of the “neoliberal ‘multi-culti’ diversity” and invites us to engage in modes of refusal. Perhaps now that Latinxs are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., we may accept the challenge of engaging difference to transform the institutions of knowledge in which we work, learn, and live. We may strive for inclusion into the club until Latinxs are considered as normative as white U.S. Americans. Or we may opt to take the longer road to explore ways in which all disciplines interrogate their blindness to situated knowledges. It is not enough to replace a white-centric knowledge with ethnic-, gender-, or class-centric knowledges. It is time to consider ways of transforming knowledges instead of adding more variables to a never changing disciplinary system. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, I would like to think that through these efforts we may reach an “understanding…of what is not shared between [us], and lessens the threat of [our] difference.” Yet some questions remain: Are we up for this task? and how can we make this happen?
Lena Palacios, Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota
How does the low number of Chicanx/Latinx impact your university, your students, and your own wellbeing?
I can’t address this question without first underscoring the systemic and structural violence in the functioning of the neoliberal and settler colonial university. We must connect the legacy of white settler violence to how the university is currently running on the precarious labor of mostly female adjuncts and adjuncts of color, graduate students, and other casual or contingent workers. According to a 2017 statistical analysis compiled by the American Association of University Professors, contingent employees now make up 70% of all instructional staffing. It’s no accident that the “public land-grant” university is being systematically privatized while its teaching staff is increasingly composed of casual labor. That this happens after Indigenous, Black, and Chicanx/Latinx communities have disrupted the canon, challenged disciplinary knowledge that hides behind the façade of objectivity, and achieved some modicum of success in creating a recruitment and retention pipeline for first-generation students of color is even more troubling. Both Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel and Nancy Mirabal powerfully underscore in this forum how our ongoing struggle to institutionalize Chicanx/Latinx Studies has never been primarily about numbers but about who owns the means of (knowledge) production. Unfortunately, as evidenced by both Maribal’s and Bill Velez’s contribution to this forum, struggles over access and representation still matter.
Given these realities, I increasingly encourage all of my first-generation and graduate students of color to build a legitimate “alt-ac” career pathway that will provide them with a living wage and decent health care benefits while at the same time as strive toward entering academia (if becoming a professor is what they ultimately envision for themselves). I am not suggesting, however, that the “alt-ac path” is a viable solution to the problems of the academic labor market. As Jacqui Shine argues encouraging recent Ph.D. students to gain transferable skills (and admonishing them when they don’t) is primarily a shaming tactic and smacks of “bootstrap/doctoral hood ideology of individual meritocracy,” as Ji-Young Um points out in their aptly titled essay “On Being a Failed Professor.” As a junior faculty member who is the primary caregiver to an aging parent and from a working-class background myself, however, I can’t afford not to build up those “translatable skills” and have a solid “Plan B” in the case that a) I don’t earn tenure; b) I do earn tenure but it’s stripped from me due to, for example, political activism in solidarity with Palestine, an anti-racist Tweeting campaign, and/or the oft-cited administrative excuse of budgetary cuts to strip professors of their tenure, or c) I can no longer accept the challenges that come with teaching, mentoring, counseling, advocating for students at a PWI (predominantly white institution) if that PWI demonstrates indifference to me and others like me. I am concerned that my teaching of critical ethnic studies to primarily privileged white students feeds a voyeuristic consumption of Others’ pain, and promotes “faux-solidarity” with the oppressed, as Clelia O. Rodríguez argues.
How do Chicanx/Latinx faculty navigate this and thrive?
I would like to speak to the importance of “being in but not of” the university as advocated for by Fred Moten’s and Stefano Harney’s in their essay The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (2013) which describes the kind of relationship that we might seek to practice in relation to the institution. Moten and Harney write that: “The only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one.” Being a member of this criminalized “fugitive community” means to refuse the terms and conditions that are offered by the academy as our only options or choices, refusing the politics of integration, visibility, and recognition.
Perhaps we need to throw away our imposter syndrome and embrace a newly defined infiltrator syndrome. As we continue to do our work in these institutions, we must, as Gloria Hull and Barbara Smith (1982) wrote in their manifesto for Black women’s studies, “maintain a constantly militant and critical stance toward the place where we must do our work.” In order to survive and thrive in often hostile and toxic environments, I must constantly strive to be engaged in activist scholarship and support student-, staff-, and faculty-led activism. This activist scholarship should exist within while extending beyond the university with a goal of building power and supporting broader social movements. For example, I engage in action research with students and community members in the areas of sexual and gendered violence, police and state violence, prison abolition, and transformative justice/community accountability. This research, and the relationships it cultivates, keeps me grounded, energized, and hopeful.
What do these numbers mean for higher education in terms of actions, goals, and futures?
I don’t think we can afford to tinker with small reforms here and there hoping that we will be finally recognized and respected. These reforms merely serve to mask the ongoing violence perpetrated by the settler colonial and neoliberal university. I think we need to start engaging seriously with “the undercommons” which is another way to think about a politics of abolition; a politics that calls us to dismantle all institutions and systems that profit off of racialized migrant labor, anti-Black racism, and the interconnected environmental assault of Indigenous land and the reproductive assault on Indigenous bodies. We need to refuse to be used by a corporate-backed administration that exploits our labor, dismisses our activist-scholarship, hires and fires us on a whim, co-ops our communities’ knowledge, and tokenizes our leadership capacities.
I’m getting to a point where I wonder if I should tell first-generation Indigenous students and students of color to “run from academia as fast as you can.” I don’t see any coordinated political response from faculty to fight for a radical alternative to the settler and neoliberal university here in the United States. Things are too damn quiet here as opposed to the vigorous student-led (and faculty-supported) movements to transform the university across Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, and in certain Canadian provinces like Quebec. Instead of aligning their political and class interests with students, adjuncts, and other contingent staff, some tenured faculty in the U.S. dream of one day joining the upper-ranks of administration, which leads them to sell-out those at the bottom of the university hierarchy. When tenured professors refuse to support unionization efforts and support other collective formations that challenge campus sexual violence, institutional racism, etc., they position themselves against others lower in the academic hierarchy.
Since there is no concerted movement-building happening at my institution, I am wary of procuring students of color for graduate study who will be featured on marketing materials advertising the university’s neoliberal “multi-culti” diversity when little effort goes into retaining them by supporting them financially, ensuring their long-term holistic health and wellbeing, and promoting their academic achievements. Instead, they’re herded into high-stress and low-pay TA or adjunct jobs that leave them physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and unable to dedicate time to their research and writing projects.
How can we hope to dismantle, rebuild, and ultimately transform the university alongside Chicanx/Latinx students and communities, for example, when we can’t even organize ourselves to defend tenure, to unionize ourselves in solidarity with other contingent workers on- and off-campus, and to fight back against racist and sexist policies? Encouraging Chicanx/Latinx graduate students and by extension, junior faculty of color to join us on board a sinking ship is an injustice if we aren’t fully committed to disrupting business as usual. To conclude, I’ve become more committed to critically questioning institutions that have stolen (and continue to profit from) our collective knowledge, lands, intellectual traditions, reproductive capacities, time, and labor rather than attempting to reform them. Abolition here, to quote Harney and Moten again, means “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons; that could have slavery.” It’s time to either rebuild the university from the ground up or turn our backs on it to realize more radical alternatives and revolutionary futures.
 John Gramlich, “Hispanic drop-out rate hits new low, college enrollment at new high.Pew Hispanic Research. September 29, 2017.
 Almanac 2018. “Full time Instructors, Faculty Members by Gender, Race, and Race or Ethnicity, Fall 2016.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2018.
 Resetting the bar for graduate admissions, William Yslas Vélez, Science,May 5, 2017.