Attracting Black faculty also means changing negative perceptions of Pittsburgh


The task of attracting more Black faculty to the University of Pittsburgh creates its own set of challenges, but John Wallace and Lori Johnson-Osho also have to sell people on the city of Pittsburgh itself.

But Wallace, vice provost for Faculty Diversity and Development, and Johnson-Osho, director of Faculty Diversity and Development, said they are dedicated to helping change negative perceptions of Pittsburgh and encouraging Black people to live in the city.

During the University Senate’s Spring Plenary on anti-racism and equity on April 7, Wallace said U.S. citizens in the past year have struggled with more than just the COVID-19 pandemic, citizens also have had to deal with “COVID-1619,” Wallace said, referring to the year enslaved Africans first set foot in the country. 

Pittsburgh also hasn’t been immune to the aftershocks from civil unrest in 2020, Wallace added.

Just a year before, a study conducted by Pitt researchers pointed out, among many findings, that Pittsburgh’s Black residents face major disparities in multiple facets of society. The study led Pittsburgh-based author Damon Young to declare the city as “the worst city in America for Black people.

That title has merit, Wallace said, pointing out that Junia Howell, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of Sociology, concluded that if Black residents were to pack up and leave the city, their income, life expectancy, and employment and educational opportunities would immediately increase.

Pittsburgh is among the lowest-performing major metropolitan areas in the country for employment issues, maternal mortality, cardiovascular disease and more, Wallace said.

The report also found that Black babies in Pittsburgh had a mortality rate that was six times higher than white babies. Black women and other women of color also earn about 54 to 59 cemts for every dollar a white man in Pittsburgh makes.

With these statistics in mind, Wallace and Johnson-Osho see Pittsburgh as a city full of opportunity, where Black people willing to seek it out will be able to see the impact of their work firsthand.

Johnson-Osho said that Pittsburgh gives people the opportunity to “be a big fish in a small pond.”

“You can make moves here,” Wallace added. 

Pittsburgh has all the tools and resources it needs to address the various issues affecting its Black communities, Wallace said. The University of Pittsburgh, in particular, takes these issues very seriously and is tackling them through community engagement.

Wallace described Pittsburgh as a “small big city” with all the benefits of a city, including a philanthropic community and world-class museums, theater and culture.

Black people in Pittsburgh have made major historical contributions to art and music, Wallace said, including playwright August Wilson. The August Wilson African American Cultural Center in downtown Pittsburgh also hosts art and social events.

“There’s a tremendously rich history here,” Wallace said.

Wallace added that high-level government officials in the city are accessible, including officials in the Pittsburgh Public School District or Department of Health and Human Services.

And the city leaves a lasting impression on its residents.

“Pittsburgh doesn’t quite leave you once you come here,” Johnson-Osho said. 

Additionally, when compared to other major metropolitan areas, Pittsburgh offers families a lower cost of living, she said, with affordable homes and friendly communities.

The city offers the potential of a comfortable lifestyle when compared to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C., Wallace said. Affordable homes in these places “aren’t even on the agenda,” Wallace said. 

“(When) you come to Pittsburgh … you make a decent salary, you can absolutely have a house and a car and take a vacation, so your quality of life can be actually pretty good,” he said.

There are other challenges outlined in the Pitt study to bringing Black people to the city and retaining them.

Pittsburgh’s Black communities can be very close-knit, Wallace said, which can make it difficult for outside people to feel included.

According to U.S. Census data, 23 percent of Pittsburgh’s citizens are Black, while 66.8 percent are white. At Pitt, 3.2 percent of faculty are Black.

With the city’s overall lack of diversity, “there is a level of intentionality that you have to bring with making connections, especially with the Black community.”

At a recent Senate Budget committee meeting, Johnson-Osho said there are several reasons that Pitt lags in diversity hiring. “One is that it's a pipeline problem, the number of people from underrepresented groups, receiving Ph.D.s, especially in the STEM area, is too small. It might be a hiring problem, there's implicit bias, a lack of effort and commitment and structural racism that keeps institutions from hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds, and also it's a retention problem more faculty from underrepresented groups are less likely to get tenure, and they are more likely to leave the institution.”

However, Pitt can serve as an intellectual home for Black faculty looking to interact with others interested in their areas of expertise. Wallace and Johnson-Osho said that when Black researchers and activists do come to Pitt and Pittsburgh, they can see tangible results in their work.

They are already working on multiple initiatives designed to celebrate, attract and retain more faculty of color to Pitt, including joining 18 other universities nationwide in a national program working to increase diversity in the STEM fields and new pages on Facebook and Twitter highlighting faculty work.

Recent academic findings that suggest that Black faculty and Black doctors, in particular, can improve health disparities and attract more Black students to the region are helping to drive their efforts.

Wallace, referring to a 2020 study, added that the presence of Black doctors cuts infant mortality rates for Black babies.

And additional Black faculty can lead to an increase in Black student enrollment for Pitt. Those Black students will be positioned to address some of the issues in Pittsburgh’s Black communities.

However, Wallace said he doesn’t want to “dupe” people into coming to Pittsburgh. Life in the city isn’t for everyone, Wallace said.

“Pittsburgh is a place where there's builders and settlers, and if you're a settler, Pittsburgh is not for you,” Wallace said. “But if you're a builder, you want to come, you want to make moves, you want to make a difference, you want to take an idea and there's something that you want to do to positively impact the community, then Pittsburghers are on your team.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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