How and Why We Built a Majority-Minority Faculty

Professors tend to replicate themselves, and diverse hiring committees tend to replicate their own diversity

James Fryer for The Chronicle

July 24, 2016

I n the summer of 1989, the law school at the University of California at Davis added three new faculty members: two Latino men and an African-American woman. I was one of the Latinos, and I didn’t know until I read it in the local paper that the new arrivals were the only people of color on a previously all-white faculty.

I wasn’t surprised. At that time, the faculty at every top-tier American law school was overwhelmingly white and predominantly male. There was nothing unusual about the situation on my new campus, nor about the law school’s apparent intention to diversify.

What has proved unusual is that we succeeded. Today I am dean of the law school, and our faculty diversity is broad: gay and straight, white, Latino, African-American, and Asian. On a faculty of 36 tenured and tenure-track scholars, we have Filipino-, Iranian-, Indian-, and Algerian-Americans, as well as Korean-, Japanese-, and Chinese-Americans. With our most recent hires, we now have a faculty that is 47 percent female and 56 percent minority.

Unfortunately, that is still far from the norm at American law schools. It appears that we are the only law school among the top 30 in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings to have a majority-minority faculty. Indeed, except for law schools affiliated with historically black institutions, or those in Puerto Rico, we are not aware of any other American law school with a majority-minority faculty. At a time when diversity is an elusive goal — from Harvard to Hollywood — it is worth noting how we got here.

Law schools tend to rely on elite credentials in hiring professors. Some of those elite credentials are rarely found among many minority candidates.
In short: We got here one hire at a time, through sustained effort over many years. It wasn’t easy. As a public university in California, we are bound by Proposition 209, passed by the voters in 1996, that bars the consideration of race or gender in hiring decisions. We don’t have quotas, and we have never had special positions reserved for minority or female professors, but we have always had diverse cohorts of applicants. Our commitment to diversity has reinforced itself over time, as the hiring of top scholars of color has helped recruit other minority scholars and students. Here are some of the factors that helped us along the way.

Support from the higher-ups. My experience as a law student crystallized my thinking about diversity in legal education. I had grown up in California, where I got used to seeing people of all stripes. When I got to Harvard Law School, I found a homogenous population of students, faculty, and community. The minority representation was small, and the lack of socioeconomic diversity was like nothing I had ever seen.

Years later, when I took the job at Davis, the students were a little more diverse than at most law schools, but the faculty was still nearly all white. However, I was pleased to find a strong interest in changing that. One of the things I’m most proud of now is that our faculty is actually more diverse than our students, which is unheard of for a law school.

Much credit goes to Rex R. Perschbacher, who strived during his 10-year tenure as dean to ensure the hiring of excellent scholars from a mix of backgrounds. Having a dean, as well as a chancellor and a provost, who conveys to the faculty that hiring excellent and diverse faculty is a top priority has proved crucial to our hiring success.

The law-school dean and associate dean at Davis traditionally have participated in meetings of the faculty-appointments committee. They help to provide institutional memory, ensure a robust and diverse pool of candidates (and finalists), and guide successful searches.

Diverse appointment committees. Search committees including women and people of color can help minimize the potential for implicit biases — a major impediment to diversity in hiring. Faculty members tend to replicate themselves, and diverse faculty members tend to replicate their own diversity. When candidates see a mixed group of people on the hiring committee, that tells them something fundamentally important about the character of a law school.

Not long ago, I put together a search committee and was surprised when someone pointed out that everyone on it was Asian-American. I had been seeking only to appoint the best available people. Fortunately, all of our faculty members have been attentive to the diversity of our applicants. If you don’t interview people from mixed backgrounds, you’re not going to hire them.

Diverse shortlists. It’s not easy to identify and interview a mixed pool of top candidates. Each year, relatively few faculty candidates of color can be found in the national pool. Data from the Association of American Law Schools about candidates who participated in its formal hiring market in 2015-16 show that women made up only 39 percent of the pool; blacks, 8 percent; Asian-Americans, 7 percent; Latinos and Latinas, 5 percent; and Native Americans, 1 percent.

Law schools tend to rely on elite credentials in hiring professors. Some of those elite credentials — even if "race neutral" — are rarely found among many minority candidates. For example, law faculties often covet former Supreme Court clerks, but few minorities have the opportunity to serve in those positions. Only a handful of people of Mexican ancestry, for example, have ever served as Supreme Court clerks.

More generally, law schools must take care to avoid reliance upon elite, overly restrictive hiring criteria that artificially narrow the pool and disproportionately disqualify people of color.

The population of the United States will only grow more diverse. A positive, peaceful future for all of us requires that we, as educators, embrace that diversity and make it a powerful weapon for good.
To help identify promising scholars of color, we have networked with fellowship programs that develop such scholars. In the past two years, three of our hires — an African-American woman, an Asian-American man, and a Latina — had participated in a mentoring program for minority candidates at Duke Law School.

Retention of minority faculty. A fair and transparent tenure process is crucial to recruiting all candidates but especially important to minority scholars. Junior faculty members of color have heard horror stories about law schools’ mistreating people during the tenure process, and may be worried that something like that could happen to them. Having a structured, impartial, and relatively open tenure process helps recruit excellent entry-level candidates (who tend to be more diverse than midcareer and senior candidates).

To that end, we assign every junior hire a tenure committee — perhaps better called a "mentoring" committee. It’s made up of three faculty members who shepherd the candidate through the promotion process. The committee reports to the entire faculty each year on the candidate’s progress toward tenure, which usually helps us avoid unpleasant surprises. Candidates feel that they have a say in the process, and that it is fair and transparent.

Sensitivity to the concerns of minority faculty members on hiring and promotion is critical. Failing to keep these scholars has a ripple effect that makes it difficult to recruit and retain other candidates of color.

Law schools also can show their commitment on this front by funding and sponsoring the conferences of minority scholars, such as that of critical Latina/o theory or the Conference of Asian Pacific American Law Faculty (held this year at our law school).

Climate matters. The city of Davis, Cal., is a welcoming place, but applicants are often aware that it is not as diverse as other parts of the state. As part of our recruiting process, we have answered questions about the location of the nearest Hindu temple, set up a meeting between African-American alumni and an applicant who wanted to know what it’s really like for black people in the community, and answered numerous other questions from minority candidates about life here. Often the most important thing has been to let applicants know we take their concerns seriously.

The population of the United States will only grow more diverse. A positive, peaceful future for all of us requires that we, as educators, embrace that diversity and make it a powerful weapon for good.

Kevin R. Johnson is dean and a professor of public-interest law and Chicano/a studies at the law school of the University of California at Davis.