Learning from HBCUs to Increase Mentorship and Representation of Black Women at PWIs

This post is co-authored with Megan Covington, a master's student in Higher Education Student Affairs at Western Carolina University

Ways to recruit, retain, and increase the academic success of students of color, namely Black males, has been receiving significant attention in diversity literature recently. The attention is deserved as is the increasing attention on the experiences of persons of color at PWIs; however, more research is needed to address the barriers to Black women in the academy. Literature on Black women in the ivory towers describe women as a double marginalized group. The discussion focuses on the myriad of challenges in higher education by members of this dual identity group.

Black women scholars have increasingly brought attention to the often negative experiences of Black women in higher education, including stereotyping and racial isolation, yet little action has been put forth to improve these encounters. The involvement of students from all demographics is imperative to improving higher educational institutions and increasing student success. Furthermore, to promote diversity in higher education, we must investigate the factors that can improve the success of Black women in higher education. Significant sources indicate that Black women are tremendously underrepresented in higher education, especially in senior-level administrative positions, such as deans, associate deans, vice-presidents and presidents.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, just 9.3% percent of executive, administrative, and managerial staff positions were held by Black women, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. A study titled, "Retaining African American Student Affairs Administrators: Voices From the Field," highlighted that lacking administrators of color may affect whether students of color feel welcomed at the University. This indicates that a lack of Black women administrators also negatively impacts retention and persistence of students. As the increasing need to develop multicultural learning environments grows, ethnic minority staff, faculty, and administrators also need to be increased.

To address the underrepresentation of African American women in higher administrative positions, there is a need to increase mentoring and role modeling opportunities. In the article, "The We and The Us: Mentoring African American Women," the authors discussed how Black women's lack of mentorship by senior members limited the type of positions available to them. Having both formal and informal relationships with seasoned mentors allow Black women protégés to gain insight on the effective ways to navigate their educational and career paths. Critical theory indicates the need for Black women to connect with each other to overcome barriers to success in higher education; however, opportunities to do so are minimal. Therefore, initiatives must be created to target Black women and their success in the academy. These initiatives should include creating spaces for fellowship and mentorship for Black women, similar to those found at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

With the absence of the hostile racial climate found at PWIs, HBCUs consistently prove to be effective in creating a nurturing and supportive environment for all students and fostering a space that is not only conducive for learning, but also makes students feel comfortable and satisfied. Because there are more Black women concentrated in one place, HBCUs are also more likely to provide opportunities for Black women to interact with other influential Black women. Therefore, representatives from PWIs could learn from HBCUs how to foster spaces for Black women to interact. Black women need opportunities to empower each other and to provide guidance about the steps needed to be successful in the academy as students, faculty, and administrators. Systematically, these positive interactions will lead to an increase of Black women representation within academia. Through mentoring, more women begin to realize the availability of upper-level administrative roles and their potential to fill them. Additionally, increasing representation of Black women in senior-level administration indicates to students that their respective universities do indeed value Black women and acknowledge the importance of considering their needs in policy. As more mentoring opportunities are created along with an increase in Black women gaining leadership positions, it is conceivable that more Black women will also enroll at PWIs.

Taken together, representation of Black women in leadership positions is important for the diversification of higher education institutions, as Black women administrators often serve as the voice for Black women students, faculty, and staff. Therefore, Black women in higher education should be provided with opportunities to gain mentorship from other more experienced African American administrators. Universities must provide Black women with a comfortable space to promote more interaction with each other. One important consideration is the impact that HBCU environments have on the outcomes resulting from mentoring relationships. Mentoring and programmatic efforts along with an increased understanding of the experiences of Black women in academia are needed to expand representation of Black women in various positions throughout higher education. And in many ways, the academy will be the better for it.