Students study at the library at De Anza College in Cupertino before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

At a time of renewed focus on race and equity across academia, the nation’s largest higher-education system is saddled with a byzantine and failing strategy to diversify its teaching ranks to more closely reflect its student body.

California’s 115 community colleges, serving a diverse student body of more than 1.2 million full-time students, rely on a little-known system of state fines to improve racial and ethnic diversity among faculty.

However, the fines are generated only when the colleges, which are organized into 73 districts, fail to employ enough full-time professors. The fines, which totaled $1.2 million in 2019, are charged to the districts based on a formula established in state law to favor full-time faculty.

Known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Fund, the money is then doled out equally to each district — regardless of its size or the number of colleges within its boundaries. Most districts avoid the fines and pay nothing. What’s more, it puts the twin goals of having a diverse faculty and enough full-time faculty in conflict: One cannot get funding unless the other falls short. The colleges, which employ 18,000 full-time professors, also enlist 41,000 part-time faculty.

While faculty diversity has improved over the last two decades, the system’s faculty do not reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of its student body. Nearly 60% of community college faculty statewide are white, while 71% of students are from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, including Latino, Black, Asian and Native American.

As a result, the state’s strategy to promote faculty diversity is more of a mirage than a robust effort, and does little to accelerate the hiring of professors from diverse backgrounds, an EdSource investigation has found.

The funding system is “a joke to the districts,” said Debbie Klein, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. It isn’t “taken all that seriously.”

While a 2015 revision to the 1988 state law known as The Community College Reform Actprovides money for “promoting equal employment opportunities for faculty and staff,” there’s no funding expressly to promote faculty diversity. The state Legislature sometimes allocates extra funding that it considers discretionary.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. (Photo courtesy of California Community Colleges)

Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said the fines are the only “ongoing source” of state funding for staff diversity, yet he also acknowledged that the funding mechanism just doesn’t work. The fines don’t generate nearly enough money to solve the decadeslong need for diversity, EdSource found.

Districts also are not required to spend any additional money on diversity programs, although Oakley said he hopes that they do. The state money derived from fines in the EEO Fund “is the floor, not the ceiling,” on spending meant to create diversity, he said.

Lawmakers chose to use the fines to fund diversity programs, Oakley said. Maintaining full-time faculty and generating money for faculty diversity “does not need to be tied together if the Legislature decided to fund (the program) differently. Ongoing stable (state) funding is the best solution.”

Faculty diversity matters

Experts say and research shows that the lack of faculty diversity impedes students academically.

“Faculty diversity has benefits for all students; however, increasing faculty diversity may be particularly helpful in reducing academic disparities for students of color,” a 2019 studypublished in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education found.

Achieving faculty diversity is a decadesold issue that has challenged colleges nationwide and in California, including the community colleges.

A California Postsecondary Education Commission 1994 report, for example, called for the colleges’ workforce that is “reflective of the demographic composition of the state” by 2005. The study concluded that a diverse faculty would have an “educationally sound impact” on community college students.

Daisy Gonzales, deputy community college chancellor. (Photo courtesy of California Community Colleges)

Diversity “is really the future of teaching and learning,” said Deputy Community College Chancellor Daisy Gonzales. “You cannot teach the most diverse population in the nation, which is California students, when you don’t have the right culturally competent faculty, staff and administrators,” she said, referring to the need for professors who can relate to the students’ experiences.

Jesus Cendejas, the student trustee on the board of the San Luis Obispo County Community College District, said he “feels a sense of erasure and uncomfortableness” as a Latino student where the faculty is 79% white.

Latino students make up 34% of the district’s enrollment, but only 14% of faculty at the district’s three-campus Cuesta College.

Jennifer Martinez-Licea, 23 attends Long Beach City College, where she said most of her professors have been white. At the one-college district, 60% of students and nearly 18% of full-time faculty are Latino.

“I feel like it’s important to have at least one professor that you can relate to, that you can speak to if you are having any issues,” Martinez-Licea said. “It’s kind of harder to go to ask for advice, if they can’t really understand you.”

Not much for diversity

As a result of the community college’s highly decentralized system, faculty hiring is handled by the system’s 115 colleges which are organized into 73 districts. Each of the districts is run by a locally elected board of trustees. In an interview with EdSource, Oakley recently underscored that it is up to the trustees to monitor whether colleges are meeting their diversity goals. They should “scrutinize every single hire that happens,” he said.

Last year, Oakley issued a call to action “against structural racism” in the community college system following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It included reviewing campus police tactics, asking local boards of trustees to update equity plans and districts to audit classes with a goal of creating “inclusive classrooms and anti-racism curriculum.”

There are “certainly better ways to fund” diversity programs than the fines, he said in an interview. “I am not a big fan of creating penalties that fund work that we should be doing regardless. It creates the excuse that there aren’t enough funds.”

The fines can hit individual districts hard, such as the $465,450 penalty on the Rio Hondo Community College District in Whittier when it had fewer full-time faculty than required by state law.

When the fines are combined and dispersed equally to the college districts, there isn’t enough money to make an impact, community college leaders interviewed by EdSource said. Small, rural one-college districts receive the same amount of funding as the massive Los Angeles Community College District, which consists of nine colleges serving over 200,000 students.

In 2020, the fines were supplemented by $2.5 million in state aid that officials emphasized is discretionary. The districts got $50,000 each, state records show.

The funds can be used to further faculty diversity, such as recruiting or devising a plan to diversify hiring. The money can also be used to diversify non-faculty staff.

It appears that there will be no money available for 2021. Oakley ordered that the fines be deferred during the pandemic after receiving what he said were many requests from the districts to do so because of financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic

As for new money, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 proposed state budget does not include any diversity funding for community colleges, said Chris Ferguson, a finance department education budget analyst.

More diverse student body

In California, faculty diversity has increased across all systems in recent years but so has the diversity of the students. At the University of California, 67% of the system’s professorial ranks identified as white in 2019, as did 58% at the California State University while white students make up 21% of UC’s student body and 22% of CSU’s.

At California Community Colleges, the percentage of white faculty has dropped 14 percentage points — from 73% to 59% — in the last 20 years, while the share of white students has dropped from 41% to 23%.

But the goal of recruiting a faculty resembling the diversity of the student body remains elusive.

Within every community college district in the state, the percentage of Latino students exceeds the percentage of Latino faculty, sometimes by more than 50 percentage points: At West Hills Coalinga College in Fresno County 68% of students are Latino while only 7% of faculty are Latino.

At the same time, in all districts, the percentage of white faculty exceeds the percentage of white students, data show.

Systemwide, there are more Black faculty (at 6%) than students (at 5%). But the picture is much different in local areas, where six districts with single colleges report they have no Black full-time faculty members despite double-digit percentages of Black students, such as Palo Verde College in far eastern Riverside County with 10% Black students.

Twenty-six districts report no full-time Native American faculty, including two with the highest percentage of Native American students: Mendocino County Community College District and the Redwood Community College District in Humboldt County.

New funding needed

But hiring diverse faculty is arduous, officials said, when colleges can’t legally recruit for a specific race or ethnicity due to the ban on affirmative action in hiring that voters approved when they passed Proposition 209 in 1996 and reaffirmed when they rejected Proposition 16 in November.

It takes money to advertise for, recruit and bring in qualified candidates, who may also be wooed by four-year schools, officials said. Community colleges have the added challenge that many are in remote areas of the state. Districts don’t have dedicated staff to write and enforce diversity plans, Deputy Chancellor Gonzales said, noting that the funds doled out to the districts aren’t close “enough to pay for a full-time position. You have to integrate (diversity) planning into everything that we do.”

While state law mandates that districts have an Equal Employment Opportunity plan, districts are required only to answer three yes or no questions annually on a community college form on whether they adhere to it.

The formula that fines the districts is tied to what is known as the faculty obligation number. It requires the districts to maintain a stable, year after year, ratio of full time faculty. When a district fails to meet the obligation, it is fined an amount equal to the cost of what it would take to fill each vacancy.

Lawmakers chose to use the fines to fund diversity programs, Oakley said. “It does not need to be tied together if the legislature decided to fund (the program) differently. Ongoing stable funding is the best solution.”

Despite the shortcomings, Oakley said “without other funding, I could not support uncoupling the two.”

Because the requirement keeps full-time faculty employed, any discussion of changing it draws immediate concerns from the faculty association..

Klein, the association leader and an anthropology professor at Gavilan College in Santa Clara County, called full-time faculty requirements “the elephant in the room” because the association doesn’t want to ease up on the full-time faculty requirement. Bargaining is done at the district level with the association advocating faculty interests.

‘We have to do better’

“We have to do better” at achieving diversity, said Martha Garcia, president of both the Imperial County Community College District in the Inland Empire, and its sole campus, Imperial Valley College close to the Mexican border. The college has the highest percentages in the state of both Latino students (91%) and Latino faculty (42%).

Martha Garcia of Imperial Valley College. (Photo courtesy of Imperial Valley College)

Garcia, however, said the 49 percentage-point gap is still too wide. In some academic disciplines, she said, finding racially and ethnically diverse job candidates can be difficult.

For example, her college has been searching for professors of astronomy and geography, but had few applicants of color in an otherwise white-dominated applicant pool.

Math, English and computer science are other disciplines where applicants tend to be largely white, she said. While the faculty make the hires, she meets with all job finalists and so far has endorsed their selections.

Still, she said, achieving faculty diversity is difficult and the state Equal Opportunity Fund money goes quickly. Advertising in academic journals is expensive, she said. “It’s costly targeting,” she said. “If we really want to address (diversity) across the system, we need adequate funds. Small districts really need the help.”

Some see solutions

Oakley said new strategies are needed such as connecting recent college graduates interested in becoming college faculty with faculty mentors. He recently announced such a program for graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The program aims “to diminish the existing equity gaps and meet our diverse student population’s needs.” Oakley said.

Other solutions are grounded in the need for more funding to recruit and hire more faculty.

Joseph R. Williams, a member of the community college system’s Board of Governors.

“I’ve been asking, ‘Why don’t we have conversations about new revenue?’” said Joseph R. Williams, a member of the state-appointed Board of Governors of the community college system. He is also an elected trustee of the San Bernardino Community College District.

Since community colleges train students for the workforce, he suggested that corporations and large employers could help fund faculty diversity and recruitment programs.

Williams also said he thought districts could do more to attract faculty by promoting the social status of college professors in the local communities they serve.

“Treat them like kings and queens,” he told EdSource. “Elevate their social life by making them feel a part of the community. Let them eat free at a restaurant every Tuesday. Incentivize a nice housing package. Just pilot some things and see. If it doesn’t work, then let’s go back to the drawing board.”

At the November Board of Governors meeting, Williams asked what it would take to reform the state law that affects faculty hiring and diversity funding.

Oakley replied that it would take a lot of his and his staff’s time to lobby state lawmakers for systemic reforms to the fine system and the faculty obligation number.

“There is finite capacity in the chancellor’s office to take on very large, very controversial changes,” Oakley replied. “That doesn’t mean we should shy away from it.”

* EdSource reporter Larry Gordon contributed to this story.

* Story originally published by EdSource.