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College grants tenure to a Black professor after 196 years

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Louisiana’s oldest college is celebrating its first lifetime appointment to a Black faculty member, and discussing why this racial milestone took nearly two centuries to accomplish.

“I think that’s the million-dollar question. It’s something I know will be highlighted and discussed” at Centenary College of Louisiana’s event Thursday honoring the now-tenured associate professor Andia Augustin-Billy, college spokeswoman Kate Pedrotty said.

Racism is why this took 196 years, said school archivist Scott Brown. “Structural and institutional and systemic racism has been present ever since the college was founded, largely by enslavers,” he said.

This history is undeniable, but it’s also in the past, said Christopher Holoman, president of the Methodist-affiliated college in Shreveport.

Augustin-Billy, known on campus as “Dr. A-B,” pronounced “ah-bay,” is an award-winning teacher of French and Francophone Studies who leads Centenary students on trips to Paris and Haiti, where she grew up as the daughter of missionaries.

She also teaches African and Caribbean literature and postcolonial, women, gender and sexuality studies to a student body described as 18% Black or Black and another race. That’s slightly ahead of the national percentage of college-aged Blacks: 16.7% of U.S. residents age 18 through 24 in 2018, according to U.S. Census figures.

Zuri Jenkins, a Black senior majoring in international business, French and English who serves with Brown on the Diversity Committee, said she was both surprised and unsurprised when she was awarded tenure in February.

Surprised because she’s seen the school pushing for diversity — but then there’s Centenary’s history: It was not only built on slavery but admitted only white men for years thereafter, Jenkins said.

Centenary also was among the last in Louisiana to integrate, admitting its first Black students in 1966. Louisiana State University admitted its first black law student in 1950 and its first African American undergraduate in 1953. Louisiana Tech integrated in 1965 and Louisiana College, a small Baptist school, in 1967.

The first two African Americans to win tenure at predominantly white schools did so in 1947 and 1952, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. But according to National Center for Education Statistics data, dozens of universities and colleges have not reported having any tenured Black faculty members from 2012 to 2020.

All but three of those schools had fewer than 3,000 students. Centenary is among the smallest, with current enrollment at 523 and 54 full-time faculty members. Two full-time and one of 27 part-time faculty members identify as Black or African American, Pedrotty said.

African Americans made up 13.3% of college students nationwide in 2019, but only about 6% of faculty members, according to U.S. Education Department data. A study of 2003 data showed 47% of white full-time faculty held tenure, compared to 38.3% of Black full-time faculty, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported.

Disputes over tenure for Black faculty focused this year on the University of North Carolina, which offered an endowed journalism professorship to Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones only to have tenure talks stall after a board member questioned her nonacademic background and a powerful donor objected. She eventually was offered tenure but took a position at Howard University.

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