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Steven Nelson, professor of art history at UCLA and director of the African Studies Center (photo by Peggy McInerny)

Steven Nelson, professor of art history at UCLA and director of the African Studies Center, recently tweeted that he is a member of a rare and exceptional group: one of six full professors in art history, who are black, in the United States. Hyperallergic arranged a conversation with him to understand the context of his tweet and why he thinks that’s the case.

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Seph Rodney: Hi Steven. Can you tell us what made you start thinking about how many black professors of art history there are?

Steven Nelson: It was when students began tweeting with the hashtag #blackoncampus. Seeing this conversation unfold made me start to wonder about what it was also like for me to be black and on a college campus.

SR: You’ve told me that you are one of about six or seven black full professors; how do you know?

SN: Last year when I was promoted to full professor I started making a list. I made two lists in fact. One was of African-Americans in art history, and the other was of people of African descent. With both lists, the total is about 13. I say about, because there may be art historians in other departments that I have missed.

SR: So are all the ones you’ve counted in art history departments, as opposed to anthropology or Islamic Studies?

SN: All but one are in art history.

SR: Why make these lists?

SN: I began to think about why there are so few and came to realize that the process of being promoted is laden with bias — but structural, rather than personal, bias. Once you talk about promotion to tenure, we are promoted by people not within our discipline. Then there is the perception that art history is a white field and a privileged endeavor. Also, many people who enter the professoriate do not go beyond the rank of associate professor. There is small numbers of people of color hired anyway, and even a smaller pool end up being full faculty.

SR: Why do you think so many end up stuck at the associate level?

SN: Because of the publishing. The publishing is significant. And people of color are more burdened with service work, work that is not acknowledged or credited when it comes time for promotion.

SR: How do you feel about this?

SN: Well. It really depends on the day of the week. I’m sometimes just glad I made it through. Then it pisses me off that more people of color haven’t achieved this, and that more people aren’t concerned. My question to others is, “why aren’t you helping?”

I’ve had a total of four black students — two men, two women — in 15 years of teaching here. The two women dropped out for various reasons. One of the men is now an assistant professor; the other is finishing his degree. Black students may well want to pursue art history, but will be discouraged if they get the sense that colleagues and professors don’t value their presence.

SR: So is the field mostly male students?

SN: No. As in art history more generally, most of the African American graduate students are female. The same stands true for junior and mid-level faculty. However, of the seven full professors who are black, five are men. Of the two women, one is not in art history. That clearly says something about the intersection of gender and race in promotion processes. The situation is even worse for Latinos. A lack of student diversity in art history combined with the problems of the winnowing done by the professoriate creates this situation.

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of female students that Professor Nelson has taught; it has been correctedThe final paragraph has also been edited to more accurately reflect the conversation between the author and the interviewee.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

21 replies on “Why Are There So Few Black Full Professors of Art History in the US?”

  1. This is interesting but the reader doesn’t have a basis to think the professor’s headcount is reliable or know how he conducted it. Are professors’ ethnicities public record and what database offers this information? Maybe he can explain his figures?

      1. Come on…. “not wrong” is not at all equivalent to “right”? or even “accurate” or “meaningful”…..

    1. Once you reach a certain level in this small profession–and once you’ve done enough service to the profession as Dr. Nelson has–you pretty much know who is out there. I mean, you know the people, and you know the numbers.

      1. The headline says “full-time professors” and then in the body text is “full professor” (a click-bait switcheroo). You can’t count both and get the same number. Knowing anecdotally the first would be harder than the second. Less prominent schools do not require professors to be as active / publish or perish, etc. You’d need a database to know those folks and “black” isn’t going to be a search field.

        1. Corrected. That was an editorial misunderstanding of the sensitivity to that distinction. And stop using the term “click bait” when you clearly don’t know what that means.

  2. It’s pretty obvious looking around at any major/mainstream campus that Dr. Nelson’s #’s are more or less right on approximations …
    Could it be partly that academia (epitomized by art hist in a # of ways) is such a thankle$$ prof – and that careers move at snail’s pace in any case? For sure it’s partly exposure …

  3. I would be curious to learn how diversity in art history faculty compares to other liberal arts disciplines.

  4. Would it be productive to list of the names of black art history professors? There is power in standing up to be counted, no? And I can think of one female art history professor full-time who is superb. She is everywhere on campus, working in many capacities and with many students, and always adds a broad(er) perspective to the crit and conversation. These individuals should all be celebrated not just this one. But can I name her? Doesn’t feel like I can but that probably says more about me and our historical moment.

    1. The professor is talking about “full professors” not “full-time professors”. Yeah, the title of the article is a switch.

      1. I just looked up my friend and I’m sure she is “full-time”…. The more I think about this article I think Hyperallergic has done a disservice by not requiring fact-checking of this number. Is it lower? Is it higher? What are the details, nuances?

        1. Aaron, I think you’re expecting something from this article that is not intended. These stats don’t exist (this country doesn’t even document the ethnicity or race of people being killed by police, never mind a national database of professors and they’re background).

          This is the beginning of the conversation that came from a tweet and starting to dig into it. These conversations ignite people doing more research. Steven is sharing his informal research, and we should be happy he’s interested in exploring this.

          And Harper, for his part, is always critical of diversity issues, etc. He’s borderline right-wing reactionary, so I’m going to ignore those. I’m not surprised he’s weighing in here and trying to stoke the flames. That’s what he does.

          1. I’m going to peace out after this comment but for what it’s worth, my commentary on diversity is really about pulling out the complexity of the issues (and I do this in a confrontational way, often). The difference between a full professor and a full-time professor is not difficult or complex, but what African-American representation should look like, ideally, in an art world that is more international than “American” (even inside America) is actually complex. The “diversity” articles typically ignore complexity and opt for moralizing and so forth, as if that will get anyone anywhere. It’s a disservice most of all for those who need change.

          2. Thank you for the great comments I look forward to from you. I guess when you’re dismissive it really irks me and comes across as condescending to the author and others. I know you’re a very intelligent person and actually look forward to your comments.

        2. Dear Aaron,

          Thanks for this. As Hrag has pointed out, this article wasn’t intended to determine the veracity of Professor Nelson’s claims. I merely wanted to bring his experience to greater light and extend the conversation begun with his tweet. I think what he has said about the process of promotion is enlightening, and certainly adds to our understanding of what happens in academia. I’m sure that if you look him up (he’s at UCLA) Nelson will be willing to share with you his research findings.

  5. But how many of these jobs ever come open for black art historians to fill? I doubt that the job market is any better for that specialty than for any other in academia. Many of those jobs got filled years before institutions really cared much about equal representation.

  6. Questions of motivations effecting “diversity” must be directed to BOTH actors – universities and the young scholars.

    Studying Art History is considered to be rather useless preparation to earn a living. Therefor, historically most students were those who were not expected to be a primary provider – Upper middle class White women. Upper middle class Black women, took financial issues more seriously. And took less risks when choosing a field of study.

    I am not American – but I will share my foreign experience, with art students from lower class or cultural periphery:
    Few dared to study in an art and design school, and the academy accepted even less. Yet if anyone was “crazy” enough to study there – they went the full monty; Studying Fine Art, and not the more “practical” design majors.

    Therefor I would assume that there are far more African American PROFESSORS OF ART – studio art, than there are professors Art History, writing ABOUT art.

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