In today’s New York Times, Tony Dungy challenges colleges and universities to hire more African American coaches. He lays much of the blame for there being few African American coaches at the feet of boosters and alumni, suggesting that they have so much power that they convince the presidents and athletic directors not to hire candidates the boosters/alums would not support. On this point, I think most of us would tend to agree: boosters, and especially big-money contributors, have inordinate influence over collegiate athletics, including on the hiring and firing of coaches.
But equilibrium involves both supply and demand. Coach Dungy is probably correct that demand for African American head coaches is reduced by the biases of boosters, alumni, and others. But what of the supply of candidates? Coach Dungy lists five individuals he recommended for jobs with NCAA institutions. Three of them took NFL jobs and have been successful. But how many individuals applied for the openings? How many guys would choose to be head coach at a college, possibly a small one or one with little emphasis on football, over being a position coach or coordinator for an NFL franchise? My point here is not that there isn’t racism in the selection process that denies African Americans equal opportunity to be head coaches in Football Bowl Subdivision institutions. It is, rather, that before charging anyone with such behavior that we look deeper into the process so we know how to fix it. Telling people to do the right thing presumes they are doing the wrong thing. Maybe they are, but maybe they are not.
Those of us involved in recruiting for academic positions have faced exactly this question. Consider that between 1993 and 2006, the percentage of doctorates in economics awarded to minorities (African American, Hispanic, or Native American) was over 10% only once. Over those years, the percentage going to African Americans was over 5 only three times. The percentage of African Americans in the US population is more than double that. The number of African Americans earning doctorates in economics each year is generally between 20 and 25. The October 2008 Job Openings for Economists had something like 550 records. Many of them were not in the US, and some may have been duplicates, some were for senior positions. (I don’t know how the number of records translates into the number of separate job openings for new ph.d’s. However, the November JOE had another 558 records, some of which may have been duplicates from October.) If 400 of the records are separate US based entry level jobs, and all the African Americans newly earning their doctorate get one of them, then 375 positions, about 94%, went to candidates that are not African American and African Americans are a much smaller percentage of the newly-employed doctorate holding economists than they are of the general population. And all without anyone necessarily doing anything wrong.
The most effective responses to the small number of African American head football coaches are different if the root cause is racism than if the root cause is few candidates applying for the jobs. If racism is the cause, admonishing university administrators to do the right thing is appropriate, though its effectiveness is unclear. If the problem is at its heart a paucity of candidates, then finding ways to increase the number of candidates is the best approach.
Thanks to David T. for correcting my usage of alumnae where alumni belonged.