Black underrepresentation in academia is a nationwide issue, including at the University of Georgia. In fall 2019, nearly 60 years after UGA was desegregated, only 5% of full-time faculty that reported their race were Black or African American.
Academia is sometimes referred to as the “ivory tower”: a place mostly populated by white people that can be hard for others to access. Black professors at UGA reflect on their experiences in the ivory tower as both students and faculty members, and detail what work lies ahead for UGA and academia as a whole.
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Being a Black or African American student
Although these professors all ended up teaching at UGA, each had a unique experience with the intersection between their racial identity and educational career.
Joseph Watson Jr., a professor of advertising and public relations, was a student at Harvard Law School in the 1990s. He felt his classmates and faculty didn’t treat him differently because of his identity, but he did face discrimination — he was once racially profiled by a Harvard security officer.
Watson was crossing the open campus at night when the officer stopped him and asked to see his ID. Watson, dressed in khakis and a blazer, showed him his school ID and the officer’s demeanor completely changed.
During his undergraduate years at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Watson made the nearly three-hour drive home to Chicago. He was stopped by police “incessantly” during these trips due to his race, while breaking no laws and driving the speed limit. He still doesn’t like to drive because of those instances.
“Aside from my race … nothing else about the circumstance would have warranted it. If I were Caucasian driving, I would not be stopped,” Watson said. “As a Black man, the police pulling you over, that’s a source of stress and apprehension, and I don’t think other people can relate to that easily.”
“I have heard somebody say to me, ‘Well, I had no idea you felt that way, Paige, I don’t see you as Black.’ And I don’t know what that means, because if you don’t, then you’re not seeing all of me, and if you’re not seeing all of me, what else are you missing?”
– Paige Carmichael, professor of pathology in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine
Racheida Lewis had varied experiences with diversity at the different levels of her education. Lewis, an assistant professor in engineering, went to a majority-Black high school and then a predominantly white institution, Virginia Commonwealth University, for her undergraduate degree. Although it was predominantly white, VCU was “rather diverse” and welcoming, Lewis said.
There was a striking difference between Lewis’ undergraduate years and her graduate experience at the University of Virginia, which was “not the most welcoming place.” During her first week, someone wrote a racial slur on the side of a building, which made Lewis question her safety. She was the only Black woman in the graduate program of her department, and people weren’t as receptive to attempts at conversation from her than they were from white students.
Her Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech, just a little over two-hour drive from UVA, was a “complete 180,” Lewis said. There were resources available for underrepresented students and an active push for more inclusion.
“I was in the engineering education department at that time, and that was very progressive and inclusive. It was probably one of the more progressive departments in the College of Engineering there,” she said. “Everyone in that department understood the importance of making engineering more accessible in some sort of way.”
Ron Walcott cited mentors as important factors in his academic journey throughout his education, which has culminated in his current role as the interim dean of UGA’s Graduate School. In high school, he preferred athletics to academics, but he said his biology teacher challenged him in the classroom, which made him hold himself to a higher standard.
Walcott got an academic scholarship to study at Iowa State University. As a first-generation student from Barbados, he said without that scholarship, he wouldn’t have been able to attend college.
He struggled his first semester in college after starting later than his classmates. Iowa wasn’t a very diverse place, and starting later meant he didn’t go through orientation or the typical freshman welcome activities.
“I’m first generation, so it was pretty traumatizing to leave home confident and full of the hopes of your family members and friends and get there and realize that you were struggling,” Walcott said.
After his first semester of acclimation, he started working in a lab and met more mentors, and made a lot of friends. By the end, his mentors were suggesting he go to graduate school. He got his Ph.D. from UGA, meeting more mentors on the way, and began teaching the same year.
Paige Carmichael’s undergraduate experience at Tuskegee University (then named the Tuskegee Institute), a historically Black college in Alabama, had a large influence on her.
“It’s an experience in which you really get to experience yourself in full,” Carmichael said. “I learned to appreciate that feeling of being one’s authentic self in full a lot, especially when I came to a university that was a predominantly white university.”
Their experiences at UGA
Carmichael is now a professor of pathology in UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where she also completed her Ph.D. She has spent all of her teaching career at UGA, where she began right after her Ph.D. program ended.
Carmichael was the first African American in her department. She has experienced microaggressions (even when she didn’t know the term for subtle discrimination against people in marginalized groups) and learned to code switch. People of color code switch when aspects of their culture or language are viewed as unprofessional or inappropriate.
“I have heard somebody say to me, ‘Well, I had no idea you felt that way, Paige, I don’t see you as Black,’” Carmichael said. “And I don’t know what that means, because if you don’t, then you’re not seeing all of me, and if you’re not seeing all of me, what else are you missing?”
Carmichael said at first she didn’t react to microaggressions and tried to blend in with the accepted majority.
“I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to be thought of as the Black student, I wanted to be just like anybody else,” Carmichael said. “I kept working harder and harder and harder to be what they were accustomed to seeing. I mean, trust me, I did not wear my hair in dreadlocks. That would be too ‘other.’”
Carmichael said her attempts to fit in are ironic now, because she counsels students to find their individuality and a way to be their authentic selves.
The lack of space in academia for people to fully embrace their identities was echoed by Walcott. Recognizing that people come from different backgrounds and experiences is a strength, he said.
“I would think that our good allies would say, I acknowledge your Blackness. I acknowledge that you’re from a different background. We all share a love and passion about a particular discipline we’re in, but I do want you to be comfortable in what you do and how you do it, rather than homogenizing you to what we’ve determined to be the ideal,” Walcott said.
Professors shouldn’t need to leave their identities at the door when they enter the workplace, Walcott said, because they are a strength in approaching problems from different angles.
Michelle Lofton, an assistant professor of public administration and policy, said her experiences at UGA have been informed by multiple identities. She said she’s never been in a situation where someone has treated her differently because of her race, but implicit bias has affected her.
“I’m also very young, and I’m a woman. So it’s hard to also differentiate those components from just being African American,” Lofton said. Her department has been supportive of her, she said, but UGA still has work to do in recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds.
After screenshots of racist messages from members of Lambda Chi Alpha were made public on Monday, Lewis and Lofton said UGA’s response seemed performative.
They said the university needed to do more than make statements about racist treatment of students. Lofton emphasized that there are similar problems in academia and society as a whole, not just at UGA, but there are things that the university can do to address them.
Lofton and Lewis both said they wanted to see UGA commit to broader action against racism instead of investigating events on a case-by-case basis that doesn’t cause any change.
“What you can control at the university is the environment and the way that people interact within it,” Lofton said. “And if some people in the community don’t feel that safe or their voices are being heard, then I feel like there needs to be a mechanism to where that can be voiced and things can be implemented to mitigate that.”
The future of academia
UGA, and all other universities, need to make progress in their treatment of people of color, the professors said.
White faculty members should educate themselves on their privilege, whether it comes from their race, upbringing or socioeconomic class, Lewis said. Being more understanding of the identities and lived experiences of minority students and making their fields more accessible to all is a necessary step.
Advocates should educate themselves and empathize first before seeing how they can help in a genuine way, Lofton said. She said it’s hard for someone to help her when they don’t know enough to understand her experiences to get at the root of where the issues are originating.
The university should also actively recruit students of color early in their educational careers and retain them through supportive policies, the professors said.
Carmichael has taught at UGA since the mid-’90s, and said that a lot of progress has been made in terms of diversity, inclusion and culture. She’s glad that the nationwide movement is bringing more attention to issues of racial justice, which she has been talking about for some time.
Recognizing that certain things impact students from varied backgrounds differently is important, Watson said. Conversations about race, while they may be uncomfortable at times, are crucial to have in order to understand peoples’ lived experiences and educate students on race.
Black students, just like faculty members, are underrepresented at UGA. UGA’s student body is about 8% Black and 67% white, as compared to Georgia’s 33% Black population, according to fall 2019 enrollment statistics and 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
The professors said seeing representative faculty members is important for all students, and particularly those who may want to enter academia.
“Even now in 2020, there are still students that I have that have never been taught by an African American individual throughout their whole education experience … all the way from kindergarten to after four years of college,” Lofton said.
Seeing professors of color helps all students in the classroom, Walcott said. He wants his role as professor and dean to be affirming and inspirational for Black students.
Early in his life, when he saw professors that didn’t look like him, Walcott would think, “I could never aspire to do that, because it doesn’t look like me. I would assume that all professors are cut from a different cloth or they have this uniquely different thing that I don’t have, and I can never be that. And to see a professor that was Black or Brown, I would go, ‘Wow, that person did it.’”
UGA has become “a lot more accepting” in the 30 years Carmichael has taught there, and she said she recognizes the progress that has been made. But she said there is still more work to do.
“I hear about [academia] being the ivory tower. And I’m sure that there are people who are like that, but there are people who are like that everywhere, whether it’s in academia or business or politics,” Carmichael said. “I want academia to become more accessible to people of color.”