Faculty Diversity: We Still Have a Lot to Learn

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 18, 2013

Many years ago, when I was an assistant professor, I was offered a position at an Ivy League institution. This particular college had experienced an exodus of black professors and was in desperate need of an infusion of color. As a biracial woman, I fit the bill. But there was a problem. I was a creative writer, and the department already had more than enough of those. It was a stipulation, then, that I shift my focus to literary analysis and eschew creative writing altogether. I was advised that I would never again be able to teach creative writing, nor would my creative-writing publications count toward tenure.

I had sense enough not to accept the position. I was being asked to place my career in jeopardy to increase the racial diversity of the institution. The assumption of risk, therefore, was almost entirely mine. That episode taught me an important lesson early in my career: If the desire for diversity is the primary motive for hiring, however well meaning it may be, minority faculty members should proceed with extreme caution.

By the 1990s, I was serving as associate dean for curriculum, outreach, and diversity at Virginia Tech, and trying to discover why it was that faculty members of color were at greater risk of failure when it came to promotion and tenure. As I traveled around the country speaking about diversity and online learning (in the early days, some of us were concerned that underrepresented minorities were being left behind), I encountered administrators who admitted they had hired members of minority groups because of incentives to do so, even though they believed that some of those they hired were not prepared to compete for tenure.

It would be easy to assume we've all moved beyond such crude attempts at diversification since then. Unfortunately, that's not the case. In fact, many administrators and departments are struggling more than ever as they compete for a tiny pool of candidates.

The result of decades of effort to increase faculty diversity, particularly when it comes to underrepresented minorities, has been disappointing. Although most presidents, provosts, chancellors, vice presidents, and deans use the word "diversity" more often than they use a Kleenex in the height of allergy season, that doesn't necessarily mean they know how to create a welcoming climate for minority members on their campuses.

This is where diversity officers are supposed to lead the way, and some are very effective. But one simple fact is often forgotten: Cross-racial dialogue is a difficult skill to master, and there is relatively little training in academe for those who have to engage in it. Add to this the often limited budgets for diversity efforts on campuses, and the quest for a more diverse faculty can seem hopeless.

Yet faculty diversity is something we desperately need in education. So as we gear up for another hiring season, we simply must be more creative and holistic in our approaches, and learn from what has and hasn't worked in the past. To do that, colleges should consider that:

  • Establishing a supportive climate before a new faculty member arrives goes a long way toward increasing retention. We should ask ourselves: What kind of support does the candidate need to succeed here? Can it be put in place before she arrives on campus? These same questions should be asked whether a faculty member is white, brown, or black, gay or straight, is or is not physically challenged, is a woman or a man. The answers will depend on many factors, including a clear-eyed assessment of the prevailing culture in the department and the university as a whole.
  • Mentoring can be a good way to nurture and support junior professors, but finding mentors adept at cross-cultural communication isn't easy. When I served as chair of English at Virginia Tech, we established mentoring teams for all junior faculty members. It meant that more senior faculty members were invested in the junior faculty, and therefore actively engaged in the future of the department. Remember that minority faculty members don't have to be mentored by other minority professors; in fact, some of the most effective mentors I've known have been white males, eager to advocate for minority faculty members. This kind of service should be recognized and rewarded so that more faculty members play key roles in retention.
  • Protecting junior professors must always be a priority, but this is particularly true for minority and female faculty members, who almost invariably have burdensome service obligations. Members of minority groups are often invited to serve on college-level committees as soon as they arrive on campus. The requirement for diversity on such things as search committees is a grand idea in theory, but it becomes onerous if minority professors are required to serve repeatedly. In a typical week, a minority faculty member may have to deliver a presentation to a multiracial group of students, attend search-committee meetings, pose for campus publicity photos, mentor minority students from a variety of majors, and speak at a gathering designed to foster racial harmony on campus. She will also be expected to bring in research dollars and publish. Oh, and teach well, too. Juggling so many different obligations is one reason that some minority faculty members have trouble conducting research.
  • Developing so-called pipeline initiatives, programs that nurture the development of minorities years before they enter the job market, is often an effective recruitment tool. Sometimes such programs provide professional-development opportunities for minority high-school or college students in hopes that they will later apply for positions. At other times, they are closely linked to hiring goals. For example, minority or first-generation A.B.D.'s may be invited to join the faculty on a provisional basis, provided with professional-development opportunities, and offered tenure-track positions when they get their degrees.
  • Hiring in "clusters" provides new professors with a built-in support group. Often a lone black faculty member is hired only to leave in search of a more diverse community. "Cluster hires" of two or three minority faculty members into a single department or program is something I began advocating for about 20 years ago. It takes a commitment from all levels of administration to bring this about, and a determination from the department to make candidates feel truly welcome, but it can have beneficial results. There is safety in numbers, and those of us fortunate enough to be in departments where there is more than one underrepresented-minority faculty member often thrive. It has delighted me to see how often majority faculty members are willing to engage in honest dialogue, willing to seek out and embrace difference.

Obviously, we're going to have to work more strategically than we have in the past to raise our grade when it comes to minority recruitment and retention. We're going to have to ask each other for forgiveness ahead of time for the many mistakes we will make as we try to communicate cross-culturally. We have a lot to learn, and success will depend on our creativity and determination, tolerance and empathy. It's a hard task­—but by no means an impossible one—as long as we work on it together.

Lucinda Roy is a professor of creative writing at Virginia Tech. Her latest book is No Right to Remain Silent: What We've Learned From the Tragedy at Virginia Tech (Harmony Books, 2009).