When Rebecca Martinez teaches her students about poverty, she brings a perspective to the subject that few other tenure-track professors at the University of Missouri can — the actual experience of being poor.
Martinez grew up as a second-generation American in suburban Orange County, Calif. Her father, who was chronically ill and often out of work, struggled to support his family until his death when Martinez was in high school. Her mother made flowers and collected a small Social Security check to make ends meet. Yet she insisted her daughter, the youngest of her five children, go to college.
Martinez was a good student — she says she was the only kid in her third-grade class whose reports included a bibliography — and was accepted at the University of California at Irvine, where she continued to do well. But it wasn’t until a new professor arrived on campus that she recognized the range of possibilities before her.
“He was Chicano, and I thought, ‘I never had a professor who was like me before,’” Martinez recalls. “So I took the class — it was on immigration — and I loved it. It was about my own family’s history, and that was enlightening.”
The professor became her mentor, allowing Martinez, who did not own a computer, to work in his office at night. He encouraged her to apply to graduate school and later became her PhD adviser.
So when you ask Martinez, an assistant professor in Women’s & Gender Studies, about the importance of a diverse faculty, she points out that it was her own exposure, however small, to diversity on a college campus that helped her reach her goals.
“I can be a role model, not just for minority students, but for all students,” she says. “They can see somebody who can speak to them from a perspective they may not be familiar with and they can learn something that they might not be able to learn from somebody else.”
Putting more underrepresented minority faculty in MU’s classrooms has been a priority of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative since it was launched in 2006. This fall, the effort paid a record dividend, when MU welcomed 15 minority faculty — eight Hispanics and seven African-Americans — to campus. That’s more than double the previous high of seven, in 2007.
Moreover, MU hired seven women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields this year — as many as the previous three years combined.
Leona Rubin, chair of MU’s Faculty Council, said increasing diversity will make the university stronger while offering students a broader perspective on the world beyond the campus. “Direct, personal experience with people of different races, religions or cultures facilitates respect and understanding,” she said, “and is essential as the world becomes smaller.”
Roger Worthington, MU’s chief diversity officer, said that for years, the university was only hiring enough new minority faculty members to replace those who were leaving. Since being appointed assistant deputy chancellor for diversity in 2006, Worthington has been working with deans, department chairs and search committees across campus to take a more aggressive approach to recruiting minority faculty.
“One of the things we have tried to overcome is the notion that if you place an ad you’ll get an adequate pool of applicants,” Worthington said. “Placing an ad is a very passive way of developing an applicant pool.”
Worthington has been urging more direct contact with prospective hires. That includes telephone calls, chatting up qualified candidates at conferences and written invitations to specific candidates to apply for a position at MU.
“Sometimes people might know somebody at another institution and they’ll call and say, ‘Hey who are the stars in your doctoral program who are interested in coming out and being faculty? Can we get them to apply?’” Worthington said, “Sometimes people meet talented graduate students at conferences and start to develop relationships with them earlier in their careers.”
That kind of personal outreach helped bring Noelle Witherspoon Arnold to MU from Louisiana State University. Arnold had made contact with academics at MU’s Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis program, in the College of Education, at academic conferences. When program chair Jay Scribner reached out to her about joining ELPA, Arnold did some research and liked what she discovered.
“For me, it was the amount of support,” said Arnold, whose research interests include religion, spirituality and ethics in education. “To have your work valued, I felt that here.”
Arnold also said MU’s commitment to attracting minority students, especially African-Americans, and improving the campus climate for minority groups played into her decision to join the faculty this fall. “When I visited the Black Student Center, it’s just a beautiful facility,” she said. “It may not mean anything, but in many places, something like that would be an afterthought. It caught my attention.”
Indeed, Worthington said that the record increases in minority student enrollment the past few years have helped efforts to recruit minority faculty. “I think the two probably build on each other pretty nicely,” he said. “When faculty are considering MU as a potential place to work and they do a little research and see stories like that, the institution gets a reputation for being a more welcoming place.
“And it can work both ways,” Worthington continued. “As we make advances in minority faculty, hopefully students will take note and want to come here.”
But while the numbers suggest MU’s efforts to recruit more minority faculty are working, it needs to do more to retain those faulty members once they’ve arrived, said Robert Weems, professor of history and a former associate vice chancellor of equity. Weems, author of a 2003 paper published in the Journal of Black Studies, “The Incorporation of Black Faculty at Predominantly White Institutions,” said the reasons why so many black faculty have left MU in recent years — 10 since 2006, according to Worthington — needs to be addressed.
“It’s one thing to recruit a faculty member, it’s another to retain them,” Weems said. “One problem is, I don’t think there has been a systematic effort to ascertain why they are leaving. There’s a reaction to say, well, salaries are low or it’s Columbia. But if it was that bad, they wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”
Arnold and Martinez echo Weems’ concerns about retention. Arnold said that, because there seems to be a healthy dialogue between faculty, staff and students about the importance of a diverse campus, she’s optimistic.
Martinez said the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative and events like the upcoming Diversity Summit, Oct. 20-21 at Memorial Union, is proof of MU’s commitment to creating a healthy, inclusive environment on campus. The high number of minority faculty hires this year is an opportunity, she said, to address what she sees as the low number of black and Hispanic professors who are on the tenure track.
“Having the cohort that we have this year is an important step,” she said. “We have to work on retention and figure out why people leave and why people might not make it past the assistant professor level. But it’s on people’s radars, and that’s important.”
Worthington acknowledges that retention issues have created a “revolving door” for minority faculty. But he’s excited about the increase in new black and Hispanic hires at a time when other universities are competing for top minority talent in order to diversity their own campuses. He believes that the trend here will continue.
“I think this is just the leading edge of our efforts beginning to pay off,” he said.