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From: Vimal Patel
Subject: Race on Campus: How a Science Department Diversified Its Applicant Pool
Welcome to Race on Campus. In 2003 a National Bureau of Economic Research study found that résumés with white-sounding names got 50 percent more callbacks than did résumés with Black-sounding names. With that in mind, Yale University’s department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry is anonymizing part of its faculty-application process. That means no names of candidates, institutions, journals, or labs on applications. Our Vimal Patel explains how it works.
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Revamping the Search Process
As far as he can tell, Enrique M. De La Cruz is the only tenured professor in Yale University’s department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry from an underrepresented racial group. Ever.
It’s an uninspiring track record that De La Cruz, now the department chair, would like to improve. The department, which started in 1969, has never had a Black tenured professor, De La Cruz says.
Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students are heavily underrepresented in the doctoral programs that feed into De La Cruz’s department. In 2019, just 2 or 3 percent of doctorates in biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology were awarded to Black students, according to federal data.
The department’s last faculty search, last year, drew 169 applicants, including 31 women and only three people from underrepresented racial groups. So professors knew they had to revamp their search process if they wanted a shot at a more diverse department. For this year’s search, they made a series of reforms that led to a more diverse applicant pool. Whether that translates into faculty hires is still an open question.
Research over the years has indicated that racial bias plays a role in job searches. A famous 2003 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that résumés with white-sounding names like Emily and Greg attracted 50 percent more callbacks than did similar résumés with Black-sounding names like Lakisha and Jamal.
To combat that bias, some academic departments, and even the National Institutes of Health, have experimented with anonymized applications. De La Cruz’s team is giving them a try this year.
Under the plan, candidates were asked to submit applications without their names or those of their institutions, the journals that published them, or the labs where they worked. Staff members not on the search committee ensured identifying material had been redacted.
Wendy Gilbert, one of four members of the search committee, says anonymization empowers committee members to champion candidates with confidence, without worrying about charges that applicants in the initial pool were advanced because of their identity. “If people suspect that what you’ve done is favor people based on their personal identity,” she says, “then you’re going to subject your candidates to a higher standard of scrutiny” later in the search process.
Turning over the anonymization process to applicants — rather than having a departmental staff member handle it — also goes a long way toward showing candidates that they belong at Yale, even if they didn’t earn their doctorate from a selective institution or weren’t published in the most prestigious journals, the search-committee members say. The applicant’s research and individual actions become the focus of attention.
De La Cruz, who is Latinx, says anonymization improves the confidence of the applicant. “As members of underrepresented groups,” he says, “we’re always second-guessing whether we deserve what we’re awarded. The anonymization process eliminates that self-inflicted esteem issue one carries with them forever. Because we can look these candidates straight in the face and say, ‘No, you didn’t get this because you’re Hispanic or Black.’”
DEI Statements and Outreach
The search also required diversity, equity, and inclusion statements from the applicants. Those, too, were anonymized, which posed a challenge. One’s personal identity, especially as a person of color, is often important to making the case for how the applicant approaches diversity. It was also a time-consuming process for the Ph.D. students and postdocs who were charged with ensuring that identifiable information didn’t slip through in the statements.
Those concerns emerged too late in the process to make changes for the search, says Andrew Miranker, head of the search committee. In the future, he says, the DEI statements will be allowed to include information about each applicant’s identity, and will be administratively coded so the committee can score them without knowing which application they belong to.
The department also trained undergraduates, mostly standout juniors and seniors, to scour the internet for talented candidates. The students, who were paid for their work, zeroed in on research-grant winners, conference presenters, and award recipients to find potential applicants who might be a good fit. They turned over their list to De La Cruz, who has been keeping his own list for years. De La Cruz personally reached out to many candidates and invited them to apply.
The search resulted in a significantly more diverse pool of candidates than last year’s. Of 194 applicants, 22 self-identified as members of underrepresented minority groups, and 62 were women. De La Cruz was so impressed with the candidates that he won approval from higher-ups for two hires. The department made offers to two candidates, both women, one of whom identified as a member of an underrepresented racial group.
The candidate of color declined the offer, opting for a peer institution. The other offer remains open, and search-committee members are optimistic the candidate will accept. It wasn’t the precise outcome the committee had hoped for, but the search, Miranker says, wove diversity into its fabric, and received positive feedback from the applicants.
“We Zoom-interviewed, I think, 14 candidates, and then had so-called onsite interviews for about five of them,” he says. “Possibly every single one of them brought up this search, how we were doing it, and how empowering it was for them. We even had a candidate in tears at the idea that they were being evaluated on what they did, and what they were capable of, and their vision for a laboratory.” —Vimal Patel
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Correction (7/14/2021, 10:40 a.m.): A previous version of this newsletter misidentified Enrique M. De La Cruz as one of two tenured professors in his department from an underrepresented racial group. He is the only such professor in his department.