LMC teacher leads charge for more diverse hiring
By Lou Fancher
Ever since Martin Luther King Jr. asked the question -- and for decades before his 1965 "How Long, Not Long" speech celebrated a protest march and indicted a nation -- people have wondered if equal rights for all Americans in the workplace, education and society will ever arrive.
Los Medanos Community College professor and Academic Senate President Silvester Henderson says the laws are clear, but faculty hiring at community colleges in California is clouded by comfort.
"You don't hire according to race, but 71 percent of community college students in the state are students of color. Only 39.58 percent of full-time faculty are people of color; 60.42 percent are white," Henderson says. "Title 5 (the California Department of Educations Codes of Regulations) says community colleges must be equal opportunity employers. People talk diversity, but they hire their comfort,"
Henderson added that it's not racism, though. "It's cultural comfort that creates an unintentionally racially charged environment."
The "comfort" obstructs diversity during and even before hiring, Henderson posits, noting he is speaking from his own viewpoint and not of the district's
Even so, the longtime LMC professor sees reasons for hope as district leaders recently have formed a new equal employment opportunity committee to draft fair hiring practices -- amid statistics that still cause him concern.. "I'm appreciative that at least our district has begun to address this issue, but without a state mandate, I don't know how we'll ever achieve equal. As long as we have a sugary, 'collaborative with the illness of the system' system, we'll not have change."
Responding to the peril and opportunity created by Proposition 98's $62.3 million budget to increase the number of full-time faculty within each community college district in California, Henderson hopes words and numbers on paper will become actual progress. "If within the new hires, at least 40 percent are people of color. I'd feel we're moving in the right direction."
Such a move would follow Contra Costa County population and student enrollment figures provided by communications director Timothy Leong. In demographics comparing 1990 and 2014, the white population in the area fell from 70 percent to 45 percent while the Hispanic population rose from 11 percent to 26; Asian went from 9 percent to 16; and African-Americans remained stable at 9 percent. Enrollment numbers were similar: white students fell from 62 percent (1990) to 31 (2014); Hispanic enrollment increased from 11 percent (1990) to 29 (2014), and the percentage of Asian students jumped to 16.
Contra Costa Community College District's governing board and 11-year Chancellor Dr. Helen Benjamin says the student population has undergone great change in the past 20 years and that enhancing the diversity of employees is a priority. This year's budget is enough to fund 21 new hires across the district's three colleges; with retirements, equity, and other funds supporting an additional 36 positions, she expects 57 new hires for the 2016-17 academic year.
"The state's goal has been to get more full-time faculty. They want a ratio of 75 full-time and 25 part-time. Very few districts have this ratio."
The county district's current faculty ratios are 54 percent full-time, 46 percent part-time.
But simply adding full-time faculty -- despite their participating in more campus activities, serving on more committees and becoming inherently more invested in students' educational lives -- experts say isn't enough to negate the impact of a lack of diversity. Despite student services support and equity programs, Benjamin says, "We look at the number of students who are successful, (who) graduate with AA degrees. Ethnic makeup shows a gap between students of color and white and asian students."
Contra Costa College Vice President Tammeil Gilkerson, recently served as the district's Diversity, Inclusion and Innovation Officer. "Studies have shown that having a diverse faculty has closed the achievement gap by 50 percent," she says.
Benjamin describes a number of steps the District is taking: enlarging the pool of candidates; recruiting beyond the Bay Area; hosting and attending employment opportunity workshops; and reaching out to professional organizations and to graduate students at 4-year and community colleges, conferences, and more. "We put ourselves out there any way we can," she says. "It's a matter of educating people."
Hiring practices, Benjamin and Henderson agree, are key. Hiring committee members receive equal opportunity and bias-awareness training every two years.
For Henderson, the greatest obstacle remains fear. "What's not happening is a real conversation. It's fear and change, an emotional problem. If you hire 40 new faculty and they're all white, it's normal. If you hire all people of color, you'd have a concern. I say, take the conversation to larger platforms, diversify committees, demand that the state faculty that is the legislative body (take action) state wide."
Benjamin says the indicators of progress will be obvious. "When we see more students succeeding, those are measurable achievements."