The Demand for Diversity

February 04, 2009

Many new assistant professors prefer — and indeed, expect — a diverse workplace. They desire diversity of thought and ideas as well as of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic background among their students and colleagues.

In our first two columns about what pre-tenure faculty members want and need to be successful in academe, we focused on their desire for clarity in tenure policies (The Chronicle, September 19, 2008) and on the importance they place on collegiality in their departments (The Chronicle, November 4, 2008). Now we turn to diversity, and specifically to race and ethnicity. In our faculty surveys and interviews for the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (Coache) at Harvard University, we've found that an institutional commitment to diversity is integral to creating a welcoming and supportive culture for new faculty members.

But it's not enough to list diversity as an institutional value in a mission statement or a strategic plan. As one assistant professor we interviewed said, "My institution needs a commitment to diversity that is seen and felt on the campus and not just read in a document." Said another, "My institution remains steeped in the old boys' network and its associated trappings. Attempts at diversity seem superficial. The university needs to bring its culture regarding gender, race, and sexual orientation into the 21st century."

At Coache, we measured a number of variables to assess the workplace satisfaction of early-career academics. One of the factors most highly correlated with success was the issue of institutional "fit." The survey data suggest that your chances of earning tenure and your decision to stay at an institution are affected by the opportunities you have as an assistant professor to collaborate and interact with senior mentors. As one unhappy survey respondent wrote, "This place is racist, sexist, and tremendously homophobic. I've stopped going into the office and I hardly talk to anyone. The rewards and benefits given to my white, married male junior faculty colleagues with families and me are very different. I don't feel like I fit here at all."

Our findings show that minority faculty members expressed less satisfaction with nearly all of the climate variables we measured — including the issue of fit — as compared with their white peers. Of the 8,500 pre-tenure faculty members that Coache has surveyed, 17 percent of those in underrepresented minority groups said a lack of diversity was one of the two worst aspects about working at their institutions, surpassed only by compensation, cited by 19 percent. We found more agreement between minority and white faculty members on the issue of whether they considered the tenure process to be clear and reasonable.

Those findings, taken together, suggest that it is not a lack of understanding of the tenure process that is working against the advancement of minority faculty members, but rather the institutional culture, a key component of which is a true commitment to diversity.

Colleges and universities share common challenges in attracting and retaining assistant professors who are female or members of minority groups, especially in fields where they are underrepresented. Successful diversity campaigns require financial support and leadership. As one administrator explained, "It's about the message and the money." We offer here several strategies that institutions might consider to recruit and develop a diverse faculty.

Offer visible leadership. The promotion of female and minority scholars to leadership positions reinforces the message that diversifying the faculty ranks is a campus priority. Prior to accepting a position, many faculty of color seek to identify a network of potential mentors. "When I was evaluating whether or not to come to this institution," a minority faculty member said in an interview, "I needed to feel that there was a community of women of color who were professional and tenured, so I asked, 'Who's the highest-ranking woman? Who's the highest-ranking, African-American person in the administration? Who are the minority full professors?'"

Clearly define for search committees the meaning of "diverse applicant pool." Provosts should provide each search committee with a list of actions it must take to recruit a diverse pool. They should also identify who will be responsible for carrying out each step and create incentive systems, such as offering money to departments that identify a top candidate from an underrepresented minority group.

At Bowdoin College, for example, the dean's office helps departments seeking to attract a diverse pool of candidates in many ways, such as suggesting new places where they can advertise the position and contacting graduate schools to identify potential candidates. Deans also organize debriefings after each search to determine what worked well, and what didn't.

Recruit actively. Department chairs, search-committee members, and other senior professors in the hiring department should personally reach out to prospective female and minority candidates and invite them to apply. At conferences, faculty members should seek out graduate students who may be potential candidates and review conference programs for promising young scholars and prize winners. Senior scholars can show interest in newcomers to the profession by attending their research talks and inviting them to the campus for a visit or to attend a colloquium.

Tap into the network of minority scholars. One institution's graduate students are another's junior faculty members. Use directories — such as the Emerging Ph.D.'s Yearbook, published by the Leadership Alliance, or the alumni directory of the Meyerhoff Program — to identify promising scholars of color. Some research universities have created postdoctoral programs for minority and female academics as a means of addressing the pipeline problem. Kenyon College, for example, has created a dissertation/teaching fellowship to encourage minority scholars to consider pursuing a career at a small college rather than at a university.

Create target-of-opportunity hires. Those are controversial, but they get the job done. The idea is for the provost's office to finance additional faculty lines to hire top minority prospects. Institutions can also use the money to hire the spouses and partners of minority hires. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill relies on opportunity hires and cluster hires, financed through the provost's office, to attract faculty members of different backgrounds to the university. Brown University's target-of-opportunity hiring program seeks to attract prominent or promising scholars who are also from underrepresented minority groups (as well as women in the sciences) and encourages departments to consider hiring those candidates even when a tenure line is not open.

Educate search committees. Discuss tactics with search-committee members for developing a broad and deep pool of applicants and combating unconscious bias. Duke University's vice provost for faculty diversity and development meets with search committees to discuss ways to find candidates of color who may have been overlooked, and how the committee can market the institution's strengths, such as flexible work arrangements and cross-disciplinary research opportunities, to attract diverse talents. At the same time, committees should be honest about the institution's drawbacks — whether that means location, demographic makeup of the campus, or cultural issues — during the search process. Recruiters should explain what actions the institution has taken to deal with those areas of concern.

But as has been said, time and again, recruiting is only one piece of the puzzle. Institutions also have to make their new recruits feel comfortable and welcome once they've been hired. And that is especially important for female and minority scholars in fields where they remain in low numbers. Some suggestions:

Ensure equal-opportunity mentoring. "It can be pretty isolating when you're the only one," said one female assistant professor we interviewed, "the only woman, the only junior faculty member, the only African-American, whatever your particular 'only' is. Sometimes you just want someone like you to talk to."

Relying too much on an informal mentor system can mean that women and faculty of color are inadvertently overlooked. They may struggle to find "someone like them," someone with whom they share a natural affinity or feel comfortable approaching. That's why formal programs remain important, especially ones that focus on people who've found few opportunities to develop informal relationships with senior colleagues — at least until a greater number of female and minority scholars extend the benefits of informal mentoring to all. The University of Virginia's Excellence in Diversity Fellows program offers minority tenure-track faculty members small grants, networking opportunities, and support for teaching, research, and publishing. Black assistant professors who belong to the Black Faculty Caucus at Duke University meet on a regular basis with their black senior colleagues.

Showcase their work. Deans and department chairs can support the development of an intellectually diverse community by setting aside money for research groups, speaker series, and colloquia that showcase the work of diverse groups of scholars. Departments might invite scholars from other institutions, or include academics from a range of departments in an effort to promote interdisciplinary connections across the campus. One physics chairman described his efforts to increase the number of women in his department: "I set up a 'Women in Science' lecture program where I invite distinguished women to visit; we partner with the department of women's studies. Women visit, give a lecture or host a colloquium, and then spend a couple of days meeting with students and faculty."

Understand that culture is personal. A senior faculty member offered this advice to administrators on how to make their campuses feel welcoming: "You need to be on the phone. It's not like you've got a thousand black faculty members on campus. You can pick up the phone and talk to all of them probably in an hour's time span. Just say 'How are you doing? Is there anything you need? Are there any issues?' It's not just recruiting. It's creating an environment where black faculty members feel that this is a welcoming environment and they want to spend their entire career here."

Some department chairs and administrators recognize and reward faculty of color who carry additional service burdens — sitting on extra committees and advising more than their share of students — activities that cut into the time they could be devoting to research and teaching.

As long as minority scholars remain a small segment of the faculty population and continue to leave academe at rates greater than white faculty members, there is no excuse for neglecting faculty of color by overlooking the many small, but meaningful interactions that lay the foundation for a culture that's welcoming to all.

Next up in this series, we will delve into another aspect of workplace satisfaction highly valued by assistant professors: flexibility in their schedules and career paths.

Cathy Trower is research director and Anne Gallagher is assistant director of Harvard University's Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. Coache is a group of colleges and universities committed to gathering data that academic administrators need to recruit, retain, and develop their faculty cohorts.