The University of Hawaii has made progress diversifying its faculty over the past several decades, but the faculty at its flagship campus are still disproportionately white compared with the majority Asian-Pacific Islander student body.

At Manoa, the university’s research campus, about 60% of tenured faculty are white compared with less than 24% of the student body, according to data from fall 2018. Just about half of UH Manoa faculty are white across both tenure and non-tenure track positions.

“The big contrast with the student body is really quite depressing and has been a problem for decades,” says Amy Agbayani, emeritus assistant vice chancellor for student diversity at UH.

While white faculty still dominate, other communities are still underrepresented.

Less than 6% of UH Manoa’s faculty is Native Hawaiian, compared with about 15% of the student body. Less than 3% of UH Manoa’s faculty are Filipino, compared with just under 10% of the student body. The percentages are even lower for tenured faculty.

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus with students walking along the ‘Mall’ during change of classes.
UH Manoa officials say they are committed to diversifying the faculty to better reflect the student population. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

But Manoa’s faculty are still far more diverse than many comparable institutions. On the mainland, white faculty are vastly overrepresented in numerous fields.

Some Asian communities are overrepresented among UH Manoa’s faculty as well. About 8.5% of the students were of Japanese descent in fall 2018 compared with more than 13% of the faculty. Chinese students comprised about 7% of the student body and 11% of the faculty.

UH Manoa Provost Michael Bruno says the university has been working to improve diversity in faculty recruitment by having broader representation on search committees and making job postings more inclusive.

“I feel very strongly that there has been strong buy-in over the last couple of years to make those changes,” he said, adding that most deans are passionate about diversity.

But he acknowledged the university could still do a better job of actively recruiting.

“We have continuing work to do, we are not there yet and in some domains we are not close,” he said. He emphasized that he believes it is an important issue for UH to address.

“We don’t just teach,” he said. “We look to inspire and mentor our students and students need to see more faculty that represent them that perhaps have life experiences that reflect their own.”

Historic Gaps

Agbayani remembers complaining about lack of faculty diversity at UH back in the 1970s. She quickly decided that she would be more effective focusing on diversifying the student body instead.

“I personally gave up on faculty diversity because it was too hard,” she says. “It’s very, very hard to make a dent in faculty hiring and it’s not just Manoa, it’s every campus.”

A 1986 report criticized UH for the lack of representation of Native Hawaiians both in the student body and among teaching positions. Back then, only about 1.5% of all faculty at UH Manoa were indigenous to Hawaii.

The university has made progress since then. Now about 4% of UH Manoa tenured faculty are Native Hawaiian and the percentage is about 6% for all faculty jobs.

The percentage of white faculty has also steadily dropped. In 1999, about 62% of all UH Manoa faculty were white. By 2013, that figure dropped to 56%. In fall 2018, it was 49.7% — just under half.

“There’s a history of overrepresentation of white faculty from the early days of the university’s creation and it’s taking us over a century to remedy that,” says Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘ōpua, an associate professor in the UH political science department.

The ethnic makeup of the faculty matters to students because “it shapes the way you think of what your possible future can be,” she says.

Even though she believes UH has a lot to improve upon, she said it’s exciting to see that there are now Native Hawaiian faculty in multiple departments. She credits the progress to decades of organizing.

Feeling Supported

Students have noticed the difference. Noemi Caacbay, a Filipina graduate student in public health, is a first-generation college student who grew up on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.

It was tough for her to leave home and move to Hawaii for school. But finding Filipina mentors at UH through her work at the SEED program and her Filipino literature minor is a big reason why she’s decided to stay for graduate school and pursue a Ph.D.

“To see them succeed it’s like, ‘Oh, you are just like me and you did so I can do it,'” she says. “Seeing someone from your same background doing what you want to do encourages you.”

Jacob Aki, who graduated with a Hawaiian Studies degree at UH in 2016, says he really appreciated how diverse UH faculty was when he moved to Washington, D.C., to get a master’s degree. There, he was often one of the only people of color in the classroom and his professors were nearly all white.

As an undergraduate, he met students and teachers from across the Pacific through the East-West Center and felt supported.

“As a Native Hawaiian student, I felt more comfortable going to my Native Hawaiian professors or my Pacific Islander professors because I knew they could relate to me and I knew they understood the background I was coming from,” he says.

Need For More Progress

But not everyone feels seen.

Mikayla De Peralta is a junior at UH who moved to Hawaii from California. She’s been surprised that most of her instructors in the art department are white, including those teaching classes on the history of art in Japan and Hawaii.

“It was kind of interesting but I also found it odd,” she said. “I thought I would be exposed to more of a diverse faculty.”

Elise Dela Cruz-Talbert is a Native Hawaiian student pursuing a PhD in public health. She often sees research on Native Hawaiians being done but the researchers are most often not of Hawaiian descent. 

I look up at the people who are teaching me and don’t see people who look like me,” she says. “It can also often feel like though I’m relegated to being a cultural advisor instead of an expert in my field of epidemiology.”

Rosie Alegado is a professor of oceanography at UH Manoa — both the first Native Hawaiian to be hired into tenure-track position in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the first Native Hawaiian person to be tenured in Oceanography.

She wishes UH took into account the amount of time and effort faculty from underrepresented backgrounds spend on mentoring students from similar backgounds.

Those need to be appropriately evaluated and rewarded when it comes to tenure,” she said.

In the meantime, Bruno from UH Manoa says he has spoken to deans about recruiting students from Hawaii coming up through Ph.D ranks on the mainland. That hasn’t always worked.

“We had a couple of instances over the last couple of years where we identified Native Hawaiian Ph.Ds …  aggressively recruited them only to lose them to another university,” he says. 

He believes addressing the gap is a “long game,” one reason why the university has focused on enrolling more students from underrepresented backgrounds. Still, there’s room to improve.

“The university needs to be far more present in the high schools and in the grammar schools so they can see us and hopefully see and be inspired by faculty who share their background life experience,” he says.

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