Black on the Mountain: The exodus of Black faculty from NAU

Flagstaff's Black voices discussed the community's lack of Black representation among faculty on a YouTube livestream led by Ricardo Guthrie and other Black Flagstaff educators, March 29.

About the author: Ricardo Guthrie has been a citizen of Arizona since 2008, is a parent of a student currently enrolled at NAU and was the first tenured faculty member in the Ethnic Studies program.

Two pandemics currently plague northern Arizona: COVID-19 and institutional racism.

Everyone is keen to address the pandemic head-on, but pleas for addressing structural racism on the Mountain have been ignored. The numbers don’t lie: There is a disparate impact in the hiring and retention at NAU that results in startlingly low numbers of Black faculty on campus. Could this be the result of implicit bias, or is it part of a pattern of structural racism that pervades the United States?

For example, by multiple indices, we can document structural inequalities resulting in more deaths and disparate health for Indigenous, Latinx and Black communities, but statistics compiled over 20 years at NAU also reflects a pattern of disparate impact in the recruitment, departure and resultant absence of Black families, staff and faculty in Flagstaff. The statistics are alarming.

Currently, there are less than 18 full-time Black faculty at NAU; fewer than eight are tenured out of over 1100 full-time faculty. The ratio between full-time white faculty and African American faculty remains 50-to-1. Despite successful hiring of ten full-time Black faculty by the Department of Ethnic Studies (ES) since 2003, only three remain. And, despite increases in enrollment and demand for ES instructors, since fall 2020 three ES faculty of color have been recruited away, and one was laid off — an exodus of 40% of the shrinking ES faculty core in less than one year.

Instead of strengthening retention for Hispanic, Black and Indigenous students, who experience higher push-out rates compared to other groups at NAU, the rapid exodus of Black and faculty of color (BIPOC) means fewer role models for these students on campus.

In addition, at least five Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints by BIPOC faculty have been filed since 2016 with no relief in sight. At this rate, by the time Dr. José Luis Cruz takes office as NAU president in June, he will find far too few racially diverse faculty who understand NAU, remain in Flagstaff and can help cope with the challenges students of color face.

The trend appears endemic to NAU, which ranked No. 387 in diversity among U.S. colleges. ASU ranks No. 114 and UArizona No. 67; even GCU, No. 265, and Brigham Young University, No. 230, have better diversity rankings than NAU.

But why do they leave, and what is the impact on educational and career options of students?

“Campus climate” surveys of students and faculty have been withheld from the public, erasing the largely negative feelings of BIPOC faculty and students that might explain why they leave.

But recruitment to the Mountain is not the problem: NAU has over 40% Latinx, Black, Indigenous and Asian students, but less than 25% nonwhite faculty. 

In a state becoming majority Latinx, NAU’s recruitment and retention strategies for BIPOC faculty and staff are nonexistent. NAU couldn’t have done worse at hiring if they had planned to exclude Black candidates from consideration!  

Most departments have never hired a Black instructor, nor any nonwhite staff. If it weren’t for Ethnic Studies and Applied Indigenous Studies, tenure-track Black and Indigenous faculty would exist in only three of the 12 academic units in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS). The numbers are even worse across the rest of campus.  

Though NAU was recently named a Hispanic-serving institution because its undergraduate student body is 25% Hispanic students, it has relatively few culturally responsive academic courses for Latinx learners. And the newly revised general studies program does nothing to increase the capacity for more culturally responsive programming — in fact, it lowers the bar on what constitutes diversity in education at NAU.

Overall, NAU is an anachronistic public university — mostly white in an increasingly nonwhite region. It is clear from research, and the declining birth rate data for white students, that public universities serving majority-minority populations cannot remain predominantly white institutions (PWI) and expect to succeed. Declining white birth rates ensure that most college-going students will become nonwhite, but NAU has failed the test of retaining instructors to reflect these demographics. 

Finally, challenged by the task of retaining nonwhite role models on a PWI campus, NAU fails to make counteroffers to retain BIPOC faculty, as revealed this year when three Ethnic Studies faculty, who were LatinX, Native American and Asian American, departed — receiving offers that the university didn’t even bother to match. 

What is the impact of BIPOC faculty leaving NAU for other environs? It results in extreme white environments in which implicit bias, discrimination and micro-aggressions escalate, leading to rapid turnover of human capital and vital resources that our students need for a globally informed, racially diverse educational experience. Black female students, in particular, simply don’t see themselves reflected in the faculty ranks. There are only two Black women tenured at NAU. And, according to research, this creates disparate outcomes for students, residents and faculty of all backgrounds. 

COVID plagues our city, but structural racism plagues our university and our public school system. Can we afford to lose more Black faculty on the Mountain?