Chaya Crowder, CC ’14, first met political science professor Fredrick Harris when he advised her on summer research her sophomore year.
Crowder said being mentored by Harris, as well as by Dorian Warren, another black political science professor at the time, changed her perception of what was possible for her as a black woman in academia. Now, as a doctoral student at Princeton, Crowder aims to become a professor.
“It never dawned on me that I could [get a Ph.D.] until [I had] a black professor and interactions and conversations with them,” Crowder said. “It became a tangible goal for me. Before having that, it literally had never crossed my mind.”
Students of color at Columbia face many barriers that their white counterparts do not. Seeking advice on how to navigate traditionally white academic fields, these students frequently turn to faculty of color for career and life advice.
While advising students is not an explicit part of their job description, many faculty of color feel compelled to support students whose experiences they can relate to.
“You feel that somehow it is your responsibility if students obviously need your guidance on a particular topic and show also that they chose you as their mentor. You make some effort to accept this extra load even if it is in addition to many many different things,” French professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who also serves as the chair of the department of French and Romance philology, said. “You have to try to do your best.”
These unofficial advising relationships can, in addition to their existing duties, be burdensome, particularly for junior faculty. Additionally, because faculty of color make up just 23 percent of Columbia professors, this increases the workload of these faculty disproportionately to their white colleagues.
“This is a real issue, and that we don’t recognize this effort appropriately,” said Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences David Madigan. “I don’t have a clear idea as to how we should do that, but for sure, this issue is real.”
One of the University’s main system of support for undergraduates, the Berick Center for Student Advising, which serves Columbia College and engineering students, has been criticized by both students of color and white students as inadequate.
The burden of mentoring relationships on faculty of color also exists because most students, including students of color, tend to utilize their official advisers solely for short-term academic tasks such as class registration and fulfilling Core requirements. According to a University spokesperson, CSA does not operate as the sole source of advising for students, as undergraduates also have access to resident advisers, counselors, and faculty.
Students of color interviewed by Spectator generally did not reference specific problems with CSA; rather, they felt their interactions with advisers are limited to the logistical side of student life. Barnard History and African studies professor Celia Naylor says her Columbia students have shown appreciation for the advice they receive from CSA advisers, especially advisers of color.
“My adviser is a person of color and I feel like that really helps me feel validated in a lot of my issues,” said Kyoko Hirose, CC ’21 in an interview in October. “Having that baseline understanding that the person across from me understands at least a little bit of the background that I’m coming from promotes safety and security.”
However, when seeking adult mentors who can relate to their specific experiences, white students have access to more resources, given that the majority of faculty are also white.
The first step in providing more mentors for students of color lies in increased faculty diversity, a task the administration is well aware of and has taken steps to address. While the University has increased its commitment to faculty diversity periodically, the number of faculty of color in Arts and Sciences has remained roughly the same for the past six years.
“Students naturally hope for a college experience that includes a reasonable representation of faculty members who look like them, speak their language, and even share their life experiences,” Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Dennis Mitchell said.
Faculty of color said that they provide a unique, crucial resource to students of color, mentoring them about career tracks, graduate schools, activism, and the particular challenges that come with navigating a historically white institution.
“Students tell me that they feel that I give them more time than other professors and have a better understanding of the challenges that they face as students of color who may also be, for instance, women, queer, immigrants, undocumented, and first generation college students,” English professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner said.
Despite the University’s stated mission to uphold values of inclusion and diversity, many students of color still feel that finding their place in the community can be challenging. Close relationships with faculty of color can help alleviate those difficulties.
“I am a first-generation college student. I’m a black man from a traditionally economically depressed area, I have a certain profile, and it was difficult for me to engage with peers as a result, so I found that I sought companionship, if possible, from ... faculty,” Lorenzo Gibson, CC ’16, said.
In devoting time to connect with students, faculty members, specifically junior faculty, struggle to balance teaching and administrative responsibilities while also facing pressure to pursue research and get published. This already intense workload is compounded by time spent mentoring students, which is not taken into account when considering them for tenure.
History and sociomedical sciences associate professor Samuel Roberts, a junior faculty member who is currently on leave, values his relationships with students, but admits they take time away from his personal career advancement.
“When I go for full professor, no one cares. That’s not part of the deal. No one is going to ask me how many hours I spent mentoring. When we are made to carry an outsized segment of the labor, then, yeah, it does have effects and costs,” Roberts said.
Harris believes that part of the reason junior faculty of color face an added strain is because junior faculty frequently teach bigger introductory courses made of primarily younger undergraduates. These courses make junior faculty more accessible to students who are looking for guidance from their professors, especially those closer to their own age.
Faculty of color, like all faculty at Columbia, have taxing schedules. As such, building and maintaining advising relationships with students of color exacerbates these already high demands. However, these relationships remain unrecognized by the University in any official capacity.
“I would never say to an African-American candidate for a professor position, ‘One of the things we expect you to do is to provide more mentoring for African Americans,’” University President Lee Bollinger said. “That’s not a part of the official expectations for all the obvious reasons. Usually it happens voluntarily.”
Though it is true that professors of color opt whether or not to take on these extra mentoring relationships, some faculty of color have expressed that they feel an urgent sense of responsibility to act as resources for students of color.
“Many of us do this ‘work’ because we cannot imagine not doing it; we want to do it,” Naylor said. “Some of the advising can be quite time-consuming and emotionally involved. There is no way to quantify what we invest of ourselves emotionally and physically.”
Though it can place a strain on them, faculty of color still seek to act as mentors to students of color since the roles they play in their students’ lives are critical.
“I can’t [overstate] how much professors influence people and their career paths. And seeing professors of color, seeing black professors specifically, definitely made a huge difference on the path that I took,” Crowder said.