Penn prof called out her racist dad; now she's taking aim at faculty hiring
Marybeth Gasman made an awful disclosure standing before the crowd at Indiana University."My father was a racist, the worst kind," said Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania education professor, whose work has focused on historically black colleges and universities. Gasman went on to tell the crowd attending her talk that June day in 2014 that through her late father's ugliness, she discovered her passion.
Marybeth Gasman made an awful disclosure standing before the crowd at Indiana University.
"My father was a racist, the worst kind," said Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania education professor, whose work has focused on historically black colleges and universities. "He hated African Americans, even though he never met an African American."
Gasman went on to tell the crowd attending her talk that June day in 2014 that through her late father's ugliness, she discovered her passion.
"It seems odd, but my father is the reason I do what I do," she said, "why I live a life dedicated to social justice."
Now, Gasman has taken her work to a larger stage, aiming at the dearth of minority professors at the nation's universities.
Last September, the 48-year-old Michigan native wrote a blunt opinion piece for the Hechinger Report, which was later reprinted in the Washington Post, criticizing colleges for failing to employ a more diverse teaching force. The problem isn't too few candidates or lack of "quality," she said. It's a lack of will.
"We simply don't want them," she wrote.
The admission from a tenured professor at an Ivy League university struck an immediate chord. She received more than 7,000 emails and dozens of phone calls, many from minority professors or teaching candidates who thanked her for saying what they have felt. An African American woman told her she had applied for over 200 faculty jobs without success, wondering if her doctorate was worth it. Ten people sent their resume, looking for help finding a job.
"They were gut-wrenching, beautiful, heartfelt," said Gasman, in her 14th year at Penn. "They poured out their whole life to me in these emails."
She answered every one of those, she said.
Others came from white academics who have witnessed racism at their schools. Some told her they sent her piece to their provost, demanding change. About 500, she said, were critical of her assertions. Some were nasty, calling her names and demanding she be fired.
Much of the hate was directed at African Americans, which she found particularly disturbing.
Faculty diversity has long been a thorny issue. Complaints about lack of diversity recently have surfaced at several local colleges, including Chestnut Hill College and Community College of Philadelphia.
As of fall 2013, 79 percent of all full-time faculty nationally were white, according to the most recent numbers available. Only six percent were black and 5 percent Hispanic.
Gasman acknowledged that too few minority candidates exist in some disciplines, such as engineering and physics. But that's not the case in fields such as education and the humanities, she said.
"And we still don't have great diversity on these faculties," she said.
Colleges should be creating their own pipelines by encouraging more minority students to go into higher education, she said. And they should look to historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions, she said.
She sees those making the "quality" argument as indicative of systemic racism. "Quality" candidates to them, she said, are those who graduated from elite schools or were mentored by someone prominent in their field, opportunities often more available to the affluent.
Penn, she said, has improved faculty diversity under President Amy Gutmann. "But it needs to be better," she said.
More than three-quarters of the faculty are white, while only 3.8 percent are black and 3.6 percent Hispanic, according to 2015 data on Penn's website. Slightly less than a third are women.
Gasman said much of the blame lies with faculty hiring committees at the nation's colleges. They're rarely diverse, lack training in issues such as implicit bias and tend to want to hire those who look like them, she said.
In January 2014, Gasman started the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. The center, mostly funded by grants, is working on a project to get 90 more Latinos to become professors.
It's also about to embark on a new project, spurred by the presidential election, to get more students at minority colleges registered to vote and to canvas in their communities to get others registered. The project will target five battleground states and seek to have the colleges become polling sites.
"I can't tell anyone how to vote, nor would I ever want to," she said, "but you have to make sure people know it's beneficial for them to vote."
The center employs seven staff and 10 researchers who are mostly graduate students. Of the 17, four are white and the rest are black, Latino, Asian and Indian. Many are graduates of minority institutions. Most were the first in their family to go to college, and they are big fans of Gasman, who has been their teacher.
"You can just feel the passion and commitment that she has toward the research she does," said Andrew Martinez, 26, a research associate who is Puerto Rican.
Paola "Lola" Esmieu, 28, associate director for programs, admires that Gasman has turned her research into activism.
"She's fierce. She's bold. She's fearless," said Esmieu, whose parents are from Guatemala. "She speaks up in a way that others don't."
Pam Grossman, dean of Penn's Graduate School of Education, called Gasman "a leading public voice" in her field.
"Her op-ed this past year generated what we all hope for — open discussion around the issue of faculty diversity," she said. Her work at the center, Grossman said, "provides a strong example of how higher education can address these challenges proactively."
Born in Escanaba, Mich., Gasman, one of 10 children, grew up on a small farm in a nearly all white community. Her family was poor. Her father worked in a lumber yard; her mother cleaned houses.
She went to St. Norbert College, a small liberal arts school in De Pere, Wis., on a scholarship and federal Pell grant for low- income students.
After earning her bachelor's in political science, she went on for her master's in higher education and doctorate at Indiana University, where she said she gained her first real exposure to minority students and faculty.
One of her professors gave her the book, The Education of Blacks in the South by James Anderson. She was inspired by stories of ordinary African Americans fighting an unfair system and decided on her speciality. She has visited 101 of the nation's 105 historically black colleges, she said.
Her op-ed piece for Hechinger grew out of a forum sponsored by the New York Times last summer where she told the audience her theory behind few minority professors.
"I got a standing ovation," she recalled.
A Hechinger editor in the audience asked her to write a piece. She dashed it off in nine minutes.
"I had that in my head for a long time," she said.
Because of her father, she has hope that people can change.
While at a nursing home in Tennessee, her father for became friends with African Americans for the first time, she said.
"He realized ... there are black WWII veterans, black people who play dominos, black people who like John Wayne movies," she told the audience at Indiana University.
"His redemption equals my optimism."