I don’t see professors that look like me

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Photo Credit: Maggie Lazaroski | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.

This September, I became the first tenured African American professor in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics Department at UT. In many regards, I feel like a unicorn. I had a significantly meaningful career in the U.S. Air Force and NASA before coming to UT, and I got hired as an associate professor without tenure. This meant that I had two years to prove myself to decision-making faculty and administrators that I looked like a duck, walked like a duck and quacked like a duck. 

I am notably different from the other faculty in my department, beyond the European clothing, the piercings and the ink. I am focused on transdisciplinarity, I have a broad vision for the impact of my work and I am focused on making connections with disparate organizations and fields. When I came to UT, I wondered if this would be valued by my peers, but it was made clear to me that the areas that I was going to be evaluated for tenure were (a) papers published by me and my research group in distinguished peer-reviewed journals, (b) amount of funding I could bring to UT to underwrite my research program, (c) how well I could teach as evaluated by my students, (d) the extent to which my research students were making progress toward getting three letters after their names and (e) full professors at peer institutions who believe me to be on a path that might one day approximate their awesomeness. This meant that I had to take my global and collaborative mission of improving the human condition through space safety, security and sustainability and fit it into these five buckets that reward those behaving as individuals. This was non-trivial. 

For my entire career, I have felt like I’ve had to demonstrate my ability to do much more than my peers in order to have an equivalent position. When I began as an undergraduate student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, I didn’t see Black faculty, but I didn’t care. I was too concerned with getting through the program and earning my bachelor’s degree. Interestingly enough, I was discriminated against starting with my academic advisor, who told me that I should study something else because I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer, and my department chair telling me that he’d only pay me at the rate of one hour for every two that I’d work on a NASA Space Grant. I went to my classes, participated in student organizations, did internships, worked part time to cover my expenses, presented original work at conferences and was still looked at by engineers as “doesn’t belong.” 

I wanted to go to grad school but my GPA and graduate school entry exam scores weren’t the type that got you into this echelon of academe. My late doctoral advisor at CU-Boulder, George H. Born, met me at a conference I presented at during my undergrad days. Apparently, he was in the front row and was impressed by me. Moreover, I publicly destroyed one of his Ph.D. students in the Q&A session after their presentation. George came up to me and said, “Young man, I’ve never seen someone pick apart one of my Ph.D. students like that, and your work was impressive. I want you to be one of my students at CU Boulder.” I actually submitted a grad school application to UT and never heard back. So, I went to Boulder, where George gave me the opportunity to prove myself to myself (and assigned a graduate student to be my mentor … the same person I raked over the coals previously: there is a lesson here). 

I successfully made it through grad school, went to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sending stuff to Mars and got the three letters after my name. My academic experience was one that made me feel that the academy was not for me, although George told me that it was a dream of his to one day see me become a professor. Academia felt like an unreachable thing for me, meant for much smarter folks, an epitome of impostor syndrome. I just needed to be grateful for my dream job at NASA JPL. 

The truth is that in order for there to be more diversity in the faculty ranks, a pipeline dedicated to growing and grooming these folks needs to be implemented. It needs to start in elementary school and reward cultural and intellectual diversity along the way. This already exists for non-minorities, beginning in their home and childhood. Many Blacks lack this inherent pipeline. Many of my Black students do poorer than their counterparts, and when I’ve attempted to determine causality, I see that most of them are doing triple duty by volunteering for every organization possible, working to make ends meet and then trying to get through classes, just passing. I see myself in them, wishing I had someone to help me understand where my energy was working against me and my goals at that phase in my life. They’re focused on getting through undergrad and then getting a job. They don’t even believe grad school is for them, so becoming faculty is unobtanium. I want to help them establish a strategic roadmap and be evidence that becoming a professor at a top Research I university is in their future if they so desire. 

To be sure, the path to the academe as a career is extremely difficult and fraught with opportunities for failure, but it is nonetheless reachable for Blacks without the need to sacrifice excellence. Part of the solution lies in not looking to Blacks as being replacements for retiring faculty. We’re different!

Jah is a professor in the department of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.