Dr. Donna Y. Ford and Black Excellence

Donna Y. Ford, PhD, is a Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. She is an amazing professor, and inspires me daily to become the best, most considerate, and culturally competent educator I can be. To read more about her research, check out her page on Vanderbilt’s website.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do.

“I am a professor and an endowed chair here at Vanderbilt University. My work focuses mainly on three areas, with a consideration of the intersectionality between them. First, I look at why Black, Hispanic, and low-income students are underrepresented in gifted programs and advanced placement classes. My second area of focus is looking at why those same three groups are overrepresented in special education categories. Finally, I look at how we can help educators to become culturally competent and address stereotypes and biases to deal with discrimination in schools around the country.”

What inspired you to work in this field?

“What inspired, and inspires, me is very personal. I have a personal experience dealing with discrimination in gifted education, and I have loved ones who have dealt with issues in special education and disciplinary actions. In preparing my own son for school, I didn’t want him to face the same discrimination I did. There are so many reasons I work in this field, but it all started personally and slowly became a professional interest.

The ongoing injustices we see in the American education system seem to be increasing, rather than decreasing, and I wish that educators—teachers, counselors, medical professionals, legal professionals—were doing better. But we are doing worse, especially in the last couple of years. That keeps me inspired to continue such important work.”

What is your greatest achievement?

“Defying the odds as a Black woman who grew up in poverty. Achieving what too few people of color get to do. But not just defying the odds—surpassing achievements of other groups, mainly white and high-income groups, who should be successful and are expected to be successful. I take a lot of joy in knowing that I have done better than others who are so much more privileged than I am.

It also brings me joy to be a role model to others who have similar, or slightly different, backgrounds to confirm that they, too, can do well in spite of what the world has thrown at them. It is an oxymoron to say that you are high-income, white, and resilient in your success, because you do not face the barriers that others face. You should, and are expected to, do well given your economic and racial privilege. We need to be careful in the use of the word “resilience,” reserving it only for those who have truly struggled.”

What do you see that needs to change most on Vanderbilt’s campus?

“I came here to Vanderbilt as a full professor. I was not an assistant or associate professor, I came in as a full professor and an endowed chair with, at that time, a temporary 3-year appointment. Even though I have faced discrimination, mainly from students or from people who didn’t know I was a professor, it is not the same discrimination that assistant and associate professors of color face. Peabody College merged with Vanderbilt in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2004 that they hired their first full, Black professor—and that was me. The first Black professor to get tenure at Peabody was Rich Milner in 2008, only 11 years ago. Through the lens of the faculty, the biggest thing that needs changing is the challenges that professors of color face in acquiring promotion and tenure here at Vanderbilt.

When it comes to students, the challenge is faculty recognizing that we deserve to have a place here on campus. Classes on diversity, culture, language, and class divides should be required, not only in Peabody, but throughout the university. You all as students should feel that the degree you worked for, and certainly paid for, is not just valuable but invaluable—so that whenever you get out into the world, you are glad you went to Vanderbilt, because it prepared you to work in whatever profession you have chosen. This is not just at Vanderbilt, this is a national issue. It is a national crisis that universities, regardless of the discipline, do not prepare their current and future professionals to be culturally competent.”