The shadow business secretary, who includes higher education as part of his brief, made the comments today during a speech in Brixton marking Black History Month.
Mr Umunna referred to figures showing that just 85 of the UK’s 18,510 professors are black.
“This is shocking and unacceptable,” he said. “Education is supposed to be the key which unlocks the door to opportunity and yet for black people seeking to reach the higher echelons of our universities the door appears to be shut.
“For young people looking at education and academia, isn’t the danger this lack of role models tells them – this is not the place for you?”
Mr Umunna continued: “We need to act. Because we know that if we do, we can help build a platform that gives all of our people, of every colour and creed, the chance to realise their aspirations and succeed.
“So this is what I will do if we are elected next year and I am appointed to be the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. I will be holding our universities’ feet to the fire on the unacceptable lack of diversity in their leadership and their senior staff.
“This will be an important part of my engagement with universities and higher education representative bodies: challenging them and helping them to step up.”
Mr Umunna’s comments follow a speech at last month’s Universities UK conference by Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, in which he noted that “only 17 per cent of v-cs and 22 per cent of professors are women”.
Mr Clark told the audience of vice-chancellors and senior managers: “I will do everything I can to support you in driving forward measures that will open up universities to those whose representation does not reflect still their full talent and potential.”