Confronting a Crisis in the Historical Profession
George J. Sanchez, October 2007
In 2005, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation issued a major report on diversity in doctoral education that concluded that despite decades-long national efforts, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are still significantly underrepresented among recipients of PhDs in the United States. Despite comprising 32 percent of all U.S. citizens in the typical age range of PhD candidates (25–40), they make up only 7 percent of all doctoral recipients. The foundation called the situation a national crisis: "While the next generation of college students will include dramatically more students of color, their teachers will remain overwhelmingly white," with "the continuing near-exclusion of a third of our population from intellectual leadership."1
The American Historical Association has long recognized this growing crisis. In 1996, it adopted a statement on affirmative action that acknowledged that it was "committed to diversity in the historical profession" and called on "institutions to recruit aggressively and hire members from groups that have been historically discriminated against." The rationale for this position was that "this diversification has added to the richness of historical inquiry, and the profession as a whole would be diminished without it." Yet at the same time, it also recognized that commitment to diversity in the historical profession had leveled off considerably, if not decreased. While the percentage of minorities had increased in the 1970s, since 1980 the number of minorities has remained flat.2
Given the growing and continued diversity of the U.S. population, the disparity between the racial/ethnic backgrounds of scholars and teachers of history in the United States and the general public, especially the school-age population, has widened to the point where it must be considered a major crisis for the historical profession. According to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census and the AHA, the percentage of the current U.S. population that is African American is slightly more than 13 percent, yet African Americans make up only 5 percent of the history faculty in the nation. Latinos, who constitute almost 14.4 percent of the current U.S. population, make up less than 3 percent of the history faculty. Their numbers among history faculty would have to nearly triple to be close to representative of the current overall U.S. population, but all the data from doctoral programs indicate that their numbers remain low, if not dropping.3
In the future, this disparity is likely to grow. Current projections of the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the size of the white non-Hispanic college-age population (the age group from 18 to 24 years) will shrink from 65 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in 2020, and then will dip below 50 percent by 2040. Clearly the discipline of history will lose some of its appeal to the next two generations of college students if the racial and ethnic divide between them and their teachers widens. Moreover, the discipline of history is below average compared to the total average of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, especially when it comes to percentages of African Americans and Latinos. For African Americans, the percentage of history faculty is below those for sociology (by nearly half), political science, psychology, English and literature, and on par with economics. For Latinos, the percentage of history faculty is lower than all those disciplines except for English and literature.4 When bright undergraduate students of color consider the fields they might pursue for PhD education, they are likely to choose disciplines in which more progress has been made in diversifying their faculty.
One big difference between our current crisis and that which scholars and departments of the 1970s faced is that the current generation of undergraduate students has many more options for its future. As stated in the Woodrow Wilson Foundation report, "the fact remains that doctoral programs have made significantly less progress in diversifying than have business and government, or for that matter other levels of the educational system."5 Our brightest students of color are often attracted toward law, business, or medicine, not only because of higher levels of remuneration, but also because of the greater diversity they find in graduate education in those fields and in those professions overall. The simple fact is that we have seemed incapable of attracting enough non-whites in our doctoral programs to significantly diversify our history faculties.
One sign of the current crisis in the history discipline is that as the number of bachelor's degrees being awarded to racial minorities has been steadily increasing over the past 15 years, history majors continue to be among the whitest groups at the undergraduate level. Between academic year 1992–93 and 2003–04, the proportion of minorities receiving bachelor's degrees at U.S. colleges went from 17 percent to 27 percent. While this figure was consistently between 6 and 7 percent behind the overall population figures, it did show consistent improvement. The percentage of history bachelor's degrees awarded to minorities in the same period, however, increased only from a low 8 percent to a mere 15 percent (that is, a full 12 percentage points behind the overall average). This put the discipline of history as the whitest undergraduate major in the humanities or social sciences at the national level.6
This is a full-blown professional crisis that is likely to last for generations without significant changes in priorities and practices at every level. We must find ways to attract more racial minorities to become history majors, and most of those who need to do this work for the foreseeable future are non-minorities. We need to encourage our brightest minority undergraduates to consider PhD work, even if they are likely to commit to a discipline and a profession where they will be an obvious minority for their entire careers. We need to expand the training of minority scholars in fields beyond U.S. ethnic history and the study of Latin America and Africa; even if we expand these fields which do tend to attract more minority scholars, the diversification of our history faculties as a whole also depends on our ability to welcome diverse scholars in all fields of the discipline. And we need to recreate our departmental practices to make the history discipline intellectually stimulating, openly inviting, and genuinely supportive of scholars coming from all racial, ethnic and class backgrounds if we are to nurture a new generation of professors who will be successful as historians.
The current crisis has produced certain patterns of survival and enrichment in the scholarly careers of many, if not most, African American, Latino, and Native American historians. This past year, every member of the Committee on Minority Historians of the AHA was either a joint appointment or had their principal appointment in either an American studies or ethnic studies department. If one looks at the wider spectrum of historical training, much of that is now occurring outside of formal history departments, particularly in interdisciplinary programs with a stated commitment to the study of race and ethnicity. For many years, many history departments have hired racial minority faculty from those interdisciplinary programs and departments, and many today are quite active in the professional historical associations, usually along with American studies and ethnic studies commitments. In the future, given the trends in doctoral education in history and the continued need for diversity appointments, more of these interdisciplinary appointments will probably occur. The history discipline ought to think about its relationship with those other disciplines and their professional associations, and how to include and accommodate these appointments if the history discipline wants to increase its diversity.
In addition, many history faculty members, be they trained in history, ethnic studies, or American studies, choose to contribute to their campuses' interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs, either informally or often through joint appointment. For many racial minority faculty members, this is a critical outlet for their own scholarly support, intellectually interacting with faculty members trained in other areas but who study the same racial or ethnic group. For some, it may be the one place on majority-white campuses where racial minority faculty members do not have to be the sole representatives for "diversity." Much the same can be said for scholars of certain areas of the world, particularly Asia, Latin America, and Africa, who find the scholarly exchange in a history department dominated by Europe and the United States. Area studies programs often offer a critical site for scholarly exchange and shared intellectual camaraderie. With history departments increasingly stressing transnational issues and crossdisciplinary exchange, the historical profession has much to gain from scholars regularly involved with this broadening of the typical historian's intellectual worldview.
Though this crisis is certainly here and growing in the historical profession, it does not mean that there aren't certain successes to report in the efforts to diversify the discipline. Compared to the place the profession was at in 1970, almost all history departments in the nation have stopped being exclusively Euro-American, and most recognize the importance of ethnic minority history as well as representing histories from all areas of the globe. It also appears, according to recent data from the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF), that the number of Asian faculty in history departments has grown considerably from 283 in 1987 to 1,436 in 2003, making Asians the single largest racial minority group in the discipline of history.7 In addition, it appears as if history departments in the United States have grown more interested in having members who are not U.S. citizens, as the percentage of U.S. citizens in history departments in this country has fallen from 98.4 percent in 1987 to 88.9 percent in 2003.8 Moreover, certain departments of history have consistently shown a commitment to African Americans in the awarding of PhDs, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates. Between 1973 and 2005, 3.99 percent of all history PhDs went to African Americans, though 56 universities were above that average. Not surprisingly, historically black universities were strongly represented among the top of that list, but so were other history departments at Michigan State University (16.82 percent), Northeastern University (14.29 percent), Temple University (11.97 percent), Northwestern University (10.65 percent), Duke University (9.54 percent), University of Illinois at Chicago (7.86 percent), University of Missouri at Columbia (7.56 percent), Ohio State University (7.06 percent), Princeton University (6.69 percent), University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (6.13 percent), UCLA (5.52 percent), and several others.9
Yet those figures also point to how far the history profession has to go to truly embrace a philosophy of diversity across the board. The remaining 142 universities were below average in the awarding of history PhDs to African Americans, with more than one-third of the reporting institutions failing to award a history PhD to a single African American student from 1973 to 2005.10 The increased hiring of foreign nationals in history departments in the United States has disproportionately affected racial minority hiring, as only 59.7 percent of Asian history faculty, 69.1 percent of African American history faculty, and 73.5 percent of Latino history faculty were U.S. citizens born in this country, compared to 92.1 percent of white history faculty in 2005.11 While the meaning of "diversity" has grown over the past 40 years, it does appear as if the commitment to recruiting, training, producing, and hiring African American, Latino, and Native American historians born in this country has diminished considerably, even though their numbers among U.S. college undergraduates has grown significantly.
To make matters worse, traditional methods of affirmative action utilized by departments over the past 40 years are under serious attack and many have been banned by government mandate, legal reinterpretation, and university retrenchment. Many fellowships that had previously been used exclusively to fund minority candidates are no longer available, or have become available to all. Both the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which had instituted substantial fellowship programs aimed at supporting minority scholars in the pipeline, have redrawn their programs to be open to all who support diversity, and this may lead to a drop in African American, Latino, and Native American recipients. In California, as a response to Proposition 209 banning affirmative action, the numbers of racial minority students pursuing PhDs in history and other traditional disciplines has dropped at many campuses, and led the University of California system to approve at least five new ethnic studies PhD programs to boost overall numbers of racial minorities pursuing the PhD.
What is needed is a new concerted effort to confront this crisis in the historical profession directly and concretely. This crisis is not only a problem for racial minorities in the discipline, but for all historians who value diversity of opinion and background in the profession. It is also no longer about "being nice" to racial minorities, nor simply about one's political position on affirmative action. It is a crisis for survival of the discipline in the United States and its importance for the next generation of U.S. citizens. For all those who believe that historians have an obligation to have a public voice, to motivate the wider public to learn, discuss, and debate history, it is imperative that the historical profession takes seriously its obligation to remain open and available to its changing public. The Committee on Minority Historians of the American Historical Association has produced "A Guide to Best Practices" for achieving "Equity for Minority Historians in the Academic History Work Place" that is a good starting document for initiating and sustaining efforts in this area. But in the end, it will be up to each and every individual historian to bring about an equitable historical profession in the future.
—George J. Sanchez is professor of history at the University of Southern California.
1. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, "Diversity & the Ph.D.: A Review of Efforts to Broaden Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Doctoral Education" (May 2005). The full report is available at: http://www.woodrow.org/newsroom/otherpublications.php.
2. American Historical Association, "Statement on Affirmative Action" (May 1996). This statement is available at: http://www.historians/org/perspectives/issues/1997/9701/9701AHA.cfm. See also Robert B. Townsend, "The Status of Women and Minorities in the History Profession," Perspectives (April 2002), available at http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2002/0204/0204pro1.cfm.
3. "Comparative Perspectives on Minority Faculty." See http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2007/07/comparative-perspectives-on-minority.html.
6. See "It Starts with the Undergrad History Majors." It is available at: http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2007/07/it-starts-with-undergrad-history-majors.html
7. See "The Nexus and Numbers of Gender and Race," available at http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2007/07/nexus-and-numbers-of-gender-and-race.html.
8. "Foreigners and Fellow Citizens" (May 5, 2007), available at http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2007/07/foreigners-and-fellow-citizens.html
9. See "African American Students and Ph.D. Programs" (June 13, 2007), available at http://phdinhistory.blogspot.com/2007/07/african-american-students-and-phd.html.