In 2010, Maria Hernandez Ferrier was inaugurated as the first president of the new Texas A&M University campus in San Antonio. To celebrate the inauguration of a Latina college president, one of the few in the nation, a group of Latinas, including many local professors, took part in the formal procession. This group of women received special recognition, both during the ceremony and in the media. The city’s main newspaper, the San Antonio Express News, noted, “About 60 local Latina women who hold doctorates attended the ceremony in full academic regalia to support Ferrier and to show their numbers in the academic community.”
Why the success of Latino faculty and students is critical.
Latina faculty are rarely visible in this way. Only 4 percent of tenured or tenure-track female faculty members in the United States are Latina (78 percent are white, 7 percent are African American, and 7 percent are Asian American), and only 3 percent of female full professors are Latina. The gathering of Latina faculty at Ferrier’s inauguration illustrated the potential for a critical mass of Latinas to come together in one place to support one another in the academy. Dressed in full academic regalia, they represented the possibility of access to privileged positions in the professoriate. Indeed, some wide-eyed passersby who saw them lining up in the procession asked, “So, are you all really professors?” They were proof that Latinas, and Latinos more generally, can and do make it to the academy, despite their generally limited access to higher education opportunities, particularly baccalaureate and postbaccalaureate degrees.
Demographic TransformationAlthough Latino enrollment in higher education has increased as the US Latino population has grown (Latinos now outnumber African Americans), more often than not Latinos begin their college education in community colleges or less selective four-year institutions—institutional types with lower persistence and completion rates in general. Moreover, the broader political, economic, and social climate in the United States has become increasingly hostile for Latinos as new policies opposed to immigrant rights, affirmative action, and ethnic studies programs have emerged. After the Arizona legislature passed a law (currently being challenged by the federal government) to broaden the capacity of state personnel to detain and request identification from any person perceived to be an illegal immigrant, several more states, including Alabama, launched initiatives to increase surveillance of immigrants and deny them public services, including K–12 and higher education. Affirmative action policies have been banned in some key states where Latinos are concentrated, leading to drops in application and enrollment rates at flagship and selective public universities.
Even when they are accepted to a university, Latinos are often denied opportunities to connect with their cultural backgrounds and to communicate in Spanish. Ethnic studies programs and courses, including Chicano studies, sometimes struggle for support and legitimacy. Arizona’s legislature has gone so far as to ban the teaching of ethnic studies in K–12 schools. This challenge to ethnic studies has been particularly targeted at Chicano studies, despite evidence that Latino students who participate in these programs actually have higher educational achievement than those who do not and high school graduation rates on par with those of their white counterparts.
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