05/12/2016 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

A Healthier Black Community Starts With More Researcher Representation at Universities

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News stories about Blacks and health are often disheartening. Along with the usual health disparities in HIV+ rates, obesity, diabetes, and life expectancy, research has also shown that some medical students think black patients feel less pain than white patients, that black patients are less likely to receive vital medicine for their mental health diagnosis, and other disturbing findings that further perpetuate the inequality in health outcomes for black Americans.

Student protests at various colleges and universities across the country have also been in the news for the past several months. Institutional diversity offices and funding for diversity initiatives have been eliminated. Students at University of Missouri, Clemson University and University of Tennessee have openly expressed their disappointment in lack of racial sensitivity and diversity at their schools.

While these two topics may not seem related, they do have something in common. The lack of representation of black and other minorities in academia is problematic and has far reaching implications on the type of research that is conducted, especially intervention research pertaining to the health of black people.

At universities all across the country, black academics are doing work to improve the health outcomes of black Americans. From applying a strengths based approach to discovering positive health outcomes in minority communities, or tackling the causes of obesity in inner city black girls, researchers are dedicated to uncovering the barriers that make optimal health harder to achieve for African-Americans.

What makes black and other minority health researchers so valuable is that most often, they study health issues that affect their communities. Being members of the communities they are studying gives them a nuanced understanding of the barriers and strengths a community faces when looking to achieve positive health outcomes. However, barriers at our nation's colleges and institutions often make a challenge for them to become life-long successful researchers.
Black professors account for about 5 percent of full time faculty in higher education, though Blacks are 12 percent of the nation's population. Latino and Native Americans are also woefully underrepresented in academia. Low representation could very well mean that there are not enough researchers of color to study the social, cultural, and political reasons that health disparities continue to exist.

Combined with low representation are the competing demands on the time of academics of color. They are often called to be on committees and other acts of service that can take away from valuable research time. Also, academics of color are more likely to formally and informally mentor students of color. While this is a good thing, because research shows students do better on campuses that have higher representation of minority professors, this demand still takes time away from research. This makes it even more important to increase the number of minority professors in academia, as more professors can share the duties of service and mentorship to students of color.

Another barrier for black academics is the decreased value of their research in the eyes of the majority group. Academics of color have reported that their research unsupported by their peers, who sometimes question the value of it. This leads to another problem in academia - the struggle for academics of color to gain tenure. Since tenure committees usually consist of other professors within the department, the chances of gaining tenure are less when the department doesn't value the scholar's research.

These barriers make it hard for researchers of color to justify staying in academia, especially when their skills are marketable and often more profitable in the private sector. Unfortunately, when these researchers leave academia, they often abandon the ideas and curiosity that would have driven research projects that could improve the health of the communities they so desperately wanted to help.

Though these barriers seem daunting, there are steps that universities can take to increase the number or black and other minority professors at their institutions. First, universities need to take into consideration the unique viewpoints and contributions that academics of color bring to their campuses and reward them for it. In light of the fact that our country is moving towards a minority - majority racial composition, the work of researchers of color grows increasing important for analysis health and health interventions in minority communities. Also, as the numbers of young minorities increase, they will need the support and encouragement of minority professors as they begin their college careers. The content of work and mentoring these professors provide should be taken into consideration during the tenure process.

When I hear news about student protests it reminds me of my time in college. At the predominately white institution that I attended, I and other students of color relied on minority professors for moral support. Many of them had similar feelings and experiences that we had while they were students. Also, their research and the content covered in their classes taught us about ourselves and how we relate to the world as people of color. My current work with New Connections, where we support underrepresented researchers makes me even more cognizant of the value these professors add to academia and how it extends beyond the classroom. Supporting scholars of color, and diversity initiatives that bring more of them into academia, has the potential to make a real difference in health outcomes for blacks and other minorities in America.