Those four usual suspects prompt questions, detailed below, that don’t have simple answers. Still, thinking through the complexities is essential to moving forward with a strategy to diversify.
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Those four usual suspects prompt questions, detailed below, that don’t have simple answers. Still, thinking through the complexities is essential to moving forward with a strategy to diversify.
Is the pipeline problem a myth?
Ever since colleges started to actively recruit professors of color, in the 1960s and 1970s, academics have made the same arguments: We’re trying our best, but there just aren’t enough scholars in underrepresented groups for us to hire. As a result, peer institutions end up poaching the same small group of star professors from one another, less-resourced colleges can’t compete, and there’s no net gain in representation.
The academic pipeline, from undergraduate study to graduate school to postdocs to tenure-track positions, is often held up as the biggest barrier to progress on diversifying the faculty and senior administrative ranks. For many reasons — among them, obstacles at the elementary and secondary level, economic disparities, and lack of mentoring — Black, Latino/a, and Native students don’t get through that pipeline at the same rates as white and Asian students do.
So from a purely numerical standpoint, it’s true: There are fewer scholars in underrepresented groups than there could be. The annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, conducted by the National Science Foundation, shows that, in 2019, 7.2 percent were Hispanic or Latino/a, 5.5 percent were Black, and 0.2 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native.
That’s in stark contrast to the undergraduate population, of whom 20.9 percent are Hispanic, 13.3 percent are Black, and 0.7 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native. Student diversity is projected to increase even more over the next few decades.
So is the pipeline really the chief obstacle to diversifying the academic work force? Among the dozens of scholars interviewed by The Chronicle, no clear consensus exists. Most say the answer is complex: There is a pipeline problem for particular groups in certain academic fields, and yet some institutions also blame the pipeline when they haven’t made meaningful progress themselves.
Research by Daryl G. Smith, a senior research fellow and professor emeritus of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University, suggests that colleges are missing out on talented young scholars from underrepresented communities. Smith has devoted much of her career to debunking the idea that there’s a low supply of scholars of color. She has found that, among other problems, most institutions remain fixated on hiring graduates of so-called top Ph.D. programs, which excludes many promising candidates.
An analysis by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources showed that people of color who become assistant professors aren’t promoted to associate and full professor as often as their white peers are. Another study, of biomedical Ph.D.s, found that female and underrepresented scholars were 36 percent less likely than were white male and Asian scholars to say they were highly interested in an academic career, citing not only more fulfilling job opportunities in government or private industry, but also unwelcoming campus climates.
A few institutions are trying to create their own pipelines. Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology has created a new postdoctoral fellowship program made up mostly of scholars from underrepresented communities, and the college plans to hire its first cohort of postdocs into tenure-track jobs in 2021.
Why Do Diversity Efforts Often Fail?
Look at the history of racial-diversity efforts in higher education over the past 50 years, and an eerie familiarity starts to set in. People of color across higher ed have a lot to say about why the academy repeatedly falls short on its promises to diversify. Seven themes stand out.
- Efforts to increase racial diversity are often treated as add-ons, instead of addressing the structural barriers that hamper the progress of people of color.
- From hiring and tenure decisions to classroom evaluations, bias often rears its head.
- Recruitment of people of color is improving, but retention is lacking.
- Backlash can hamper college leaders.
- In addition to backlash, apathy often stands in the way of progress.
- Colleges don’t make racial diversity a true priority.
- Too many higher-ed leaders see diversifying an institution as something that can be accomplished — a plan with a beginning and an end.
The City University of New York’s Graduate Center recruits future faculty members starting at the undergraduate level, giving 30 students a yearlong primer on graduate education. Many “Pipeliners,” as they’re known, enroll at graduate schools across the country, but a few always go to CUNY’s Graduate Center.
Pandemic-era cutbacks, including the suspension of admissions by more than 130 doctoral programs, could thwart well-intentioned efforts to hire more faculty of color. Yet academics of color and higher-ed experts still argue that most colleges aren’t doing enough to broaden their networks. “We reinvent ourselves over and over again,” says Shirley M. Collado, president of Ithaca College.
Lori White, president of DePauw University, agrees — and sees alternatives. “There are definitely diverse faculty members in places where some schools never look,” she says, especially if they don’t consider historically Black colleges and other minority-serving institutions to be their peers.
Does diversity training help?
Diversity training is a hot topic, as students and others often pressure colleges to require it, while the Trump administration barred any training that “perpetuates racial stereotypes and division.” (President Biden rescinded the order on his first day in office.)
As for the effectiveness of diversity training, here’s what research says about whether it changes opinions and elevates more underrepresented people into leadership roles.
A 2019 study found that diversity training could be effective — for some people. A team of researchers led by Edward Chang, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, found that, among 3,000 people at one company who voluntarily went through training, those who were less supportive of women beforehand began to acknowledge their own biases, and recognized that discrimination was a problem. But the training didn’t meaningfully change the behavior of male or white employees.
Other studies have found that diversity training can make matters worse. Two sociologists, Frank Dobbin at Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev at Tel Aviv University, examined the effects of diversity training at hundreds of American colleges and companies. They found that, five to 10 years later, there weren’t more women and people of color in management positions or tenured-faculty jobs. In some cases, there were fewer. “Training can’t change stereotypes,” Dobbin says. He points out that other studies have found that some people become even more prejudiced after diversity training — especially if it’s mandatory.
Some methods of educating people about bias might work better than others, says Kathleen Wong(Lau), chief diversity officer at San Jose State University. A program could open with narratives from students or employees about their experiences, and data that spell out the problems, before moving into “a framework to process and understand,” easing into topics like systemic racism, she says. She thinks colleges should also give faculty and staff members opportunities to practice talking about race and bias in a structured, facilitated way.
Colleges can’t rely on a single session to solve all of their problems, not least because research has found that any positive effects tend to decline over time. Still, a program can be a good starting point, says Chang: “The most important thing that diversity training can do is communicate things about the organization’s values.”
Can a diversity task force drive real change?
After protests or racist incidents on a campus, the near-universal institutional response is to create a task force. College leaders can point to it as a sign that they’re taking action. But the routine is familiar: A group of faculty, staff, and students comes together. A few months later, it makes recommendations. Campus officials pledge to start carrying them out, in announcements filled with platitudes and lacking specificity. Often the task force’s report goes up on the proverbial shelf, never to be heard of again.
William B. Harvey, a researcher and administrator, described this phenomenon in a 2016 Chronicle essay as “the time-worn academic pattern of delaying response to change by creating committees, task forces, and study groups to analyze the issues, in hopes that students will turn their interests to other matters rather than holding administrators and faculty leaders accountable for their inaction.” Too often, task forces become a way for institutions to tackle diversity issues on the side, instead of disrupting day-to-day operations, says Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.
But working groups can be effective if they have a specific focus, says Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. For example, in 2015, Emory University responded to student protests by creating 13 different working groups, one for each demand the students had made.
Academic Impressions, a professional-development firm that works with colleges, came up with eight characteristics of successful campus task forces, including that they are free of campus politics, have adequate resources, and can ensure follow-through on any recommendations, reconvening annually to hold leaders accountable.
When White, the DePauw president, was vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, she was part of a commission for diversity and inclusion that she believes worked well, because there was money behind the recommendations.
White is now spearheading a liberal-arts college alliance with the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. “It really stemmed from this question — I’m a new college president, and the first thing people think I’m going to do is create a task force,” she says. Now the center has a few alliances in which campus leaders can share ideas for how to make their efforts on diversity and inclusion meaningful.
When is it legal to use race in hiring and promotion?
Ever since colleges started trying to hire more racially diverse professors and administrators 50 years ago, officials have contended with an evolving web of legal considerations. State and federal laws and court rulings on affirmative action, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, have tied colleges up in knots.
One fundamental point is this: Under the U.S. Constitution and federal civil-rights law, public and private colleges can’t discriminate on the basis of race, including in hiring and promotion. “It is a violation of Title VII to make a hiring decision based on race,” says Josh Richards, a higher-education lawyer. “We can’t say, ‘I am hiring Candidate X over Candidate Y because they are a minority candidate and Candidate Y is not.’” Rather than explicitly using race as a decision-making factor, institutions must ensure that their affirmative-action plans value many different forms of diversity and don’t harm certain groups.
Judicial and statutory limitations don’t mean that colleges should avoid ever considering race in hiring and promotion, says Jerry Kang, a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles and former vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion there. The key factor is nuance. Racial quotas and programs that restrict participation to particular groups of people aren’t legally sound. But here are four strategies that are:
- Connect efforts to hire more diverse employees to institutional missions, policies, and programs. Colleges can link faculty-diversity goals and incentives to achieving better outcomes for a diverse student body. One common approach, Richards says, is having departments and offices draft diversity-recruitment plans that identify aspirations for their work force, such as reflecting the student body or local community, or remaining competitive with peer institutions.
- Ensure that hiring decisions are ultimately based on qualifications, not background. That means clearly stating the criteria for a particular job and how a successful candidate can meet them.
- Get creative with job criteria. At UCLA, which is barred from considering race in hiring, “we are focusing on actual contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Kang says. While such criteria aren’t racially based, they tend to favor candidates from underrepresented groups who may have prior experience to highlight.
- Focus on broad diversity strategies that aren’t tied to individual hiring decisions. For example, take steps to expand the diversity of applicant pools, so there’s a statistically greater chance of hiring more diverse people, Richards says. Colleges can also make it a priority to hire in certain disciplines and for expertise in a particular research or teaching field.
Diversity in Practice
There is no perfect model for how to diversify a campus. Some colleges, however, are bolstering their commitments to racial equity and testing ideas for change. Many of the ideas — cluster hiring, search-committee training, postdoctoral programs — aren’t new. What’s different is that campus leaders there are tackling racial-diversity issues more decisively, carrying out several strategies at once, and sustaining their efforts over time. And they are seeing some success. Here are just a few examples of institutions that are seeing growth in the diversity of their faculty, staff, leadership, or governing boards, and are taking steps to improve the campus climate.
Bring racial equity into every conversation.
When Thuy Thi Nguyen became president of Foothill College, in 2016, she named racial equity the top priority for the two-year institution in Los Altos, Calif. Not just equity. Racial equity.
While other aspects of equity are also important, Nguyen wanted to focus on race. The college’s diverse student body demanded it. Increasing the number of faculty and administrators of color, says Nguyen, is essential to closing the achievement gap.
Leading that kind of transformation at a community college isn’t easy. Foothill can’t just hire 50 new faculty members right away; typically, the college has to wait for retirements. And amid the pandemic, community colleges are losing enrollment. Another challenge is California’s affirmative-action ban: Public colleges there can’t consider race in hiring decisions at all.
But first, Nguyen had to get the rest of her campus on board with her ambitious plans. So she started with research and data. “Faculty diversity in particular closes racial-equity gaps, up to half,” she says, citing a 2014 study by Robert W. Fairlie, a professor of economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz. And as of 2014, the college’s senior administrative ranks were 86 percent white, and the faculty was 65 percent white, while the enrollment was only about one-third white.
Armed with those arguments, Nguyen got to work. Today she leads a team in which five of nine current cabinet members and eight of 10 deans are people of color. The faculty can take longer to change, but 41 percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty members are now people of color, compared with 35 percent in 2014. Among adjuncts, the number of instructors of color has increased by five percentage points, to 36 percent. The classified staff at Foothill, 45 percent white in 2014, is now 31 percent white, nearly matching the college’s student body.
A major part of the strategy has been reforming faculty hiring, and while Nguyen set the tone, faculty members and the human-resources staff led much of the change. One move was simply to shore up an existing requirement under state law that search-committee members go through equal-employment-opportunity training. The focus of the training has shifted from how to follow procedures to promoting racial equity in the search process and encouraging more candidates to come forward, says Carolyn C. Holcroft, Foothill’s faculty professional-development coordinator. She hopes tenure committees will eventually have to go through a similar program.
More broadly, Nguyen’s leadership has brought an “unrelenting focus on equity,” Holcroft says. It’s now a part of day-to-day operations and meetings, she says. If a committee is discussing a policy change, for example, the group will quickly turn to how it might affect students of color. Many faculty and staff members have also gone through a training, called Beyond Diversity, that coaches people on how to talk about race effectively.
Foothill College’s Actions
- Made racial equity a priority across the institution.
- Sharpened already-required training for search committees.
- Tapped a faculty member for a full-time professional-development role.
- Hired five new professors of color in 2020 despite pandemic-related cuts.
Five of nine current cabinet members and eight of 10 deans are people of color.
Holcroft, who works in the Office of Equity and Inclusion, sometimes gets pushback because its work is so focused on race. It’s not that the office doesn’t care about other forms of inequity, Holcroft says — it’s that she and others are fighting to keep race at the center of the conversation, so people don’t shift to talking about more comfortable topics, like gender. She explains to colleagues that, while it’s important to eliminate barriers for women in STEM, women of color in STEM have an even harder time.
“Over all, it does feel like there have been shifts for faculty of color on campus,” says David Marasco, a professor of physics who has been at Foothill for 17 years. As a person of color, he says he brings a “healthy skepticism” to campus-diversity efforts. But some colleagues, he says, seem less consumed by the stress of working in a predominantly white space, and more willing to spend the time and effort to solve hard problems, because they see the institutional commitment.
Help faculty members reimagine their searches.
A decade ago, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County had a problem with faculty hiring.
The university’s Advance program, supported by the National Science Foundation, had prompted some departments to revamp hiring processes, write more-inclusive job postings, and craft diversity plans for hiring and recruiting, which had to be presented to the provost and dean before starting a search. The changes resulted in more women being hired in the sciences.
But when it came to scholars in underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, something still wasn’t working. The diversity-recruitment plans mostly ended up as a box to check. Departments would copy and paste the same plans for different searches, changing only a few words.
Search committees would post on job boards and share the opening with existing networks, and that was about it. “There was this resistance,” says Autumn Reed, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs. “‘Well, we’re trying, we did this and this and this, and we still don’t have any diverse applicants.’”
So UMBC adopted a peer-educator program, based on a model called Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence, or Stride, created at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Now a half-dozen Stride fellows, who are paid a small stipend each year, work directly with search committees and departments.
In the 2011-12 academic year, the university’s tenured and tenure-track faculty was 9 percent Black, Latino/a, or Native American. In 2020-21, the share was 15 percent.
The key to Stride’s success is that it’s faculty-driven. While professors often view top-down administrative directives, rules, and required training with skepticism, they tend to be more open to changes when the ideas come from their own colleagues, Reed says. The Stride fellows are also not diversity experts, she says. They’re just faculty members helping other faculty members. They all speak the same language.
Stride fellows have frank conversations with hiring-committee members about how to retool their searches. They bring job ads from peer institutions and show colleagues how the university’s competitors are marketing job openings. They have committee members critique old UMBC listings. The fellows also try to help committees understand that they should be continuously recruiting, not just when a faculty position is open.
In computer science, the pipeline of scholars from underrepresented groups is admittedly narrow, says Nilanjan Banerjee, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering and a current Stride fellow. But the department at UMBC wasn’t advertising widely enough, and its evaluation rubric was pushing out some candidates of color, he says. For instance, if candidates didn’t have degrees from institutions like Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the homes of two leading departments in the field, they were often screened out. Now, instead of relying on the ranking of a candidate’s Ph.D.-granting institution, search committees dig deeper into CVs.
When candidates meet the computer-science faculty, they don’t see a lot of diversity, Banerjee says. So during the interview process, the Stride program will connect candidates with the university’s affinity groups, like the association for Black faculty and staff, to help them feel more welcome.
- Enlisted faculty peer educators to advise departments on searches.
- Advocated against less-inclusive practices, like interviewing at conferences.
- Converted 12 of 18 recent postdocs into tenure-track hires.
- Empowered deans to pause searches if candidate pools aren’t diverse.
The share of Black, Latino/a, and Native American tenured and tenure-track faculty members increased from 9 to 15 percent in nine years.
In addition to revamping the hiring process, UMBC is creating some of its own diversity through a postdoc program with intensive mentoring, which so far has converted 12 fellows into tenure-track faculty members there.
Much of UMBC’s recent success is due to the fact that faculty-diversity efforts are being led by faculty members. It helps, too, that UMBC is in a diverse region, and that the university has earned a national profile for graduating students of color, especially in STEM fields, over the past couple of decades. Still, meaningful change takes leadership — like that of Freeman A. Hrabowski III, one of the longest-serving college presidents. These days, UMBC deans don’t simply sign off when departments submit the same old diversity-recruitment plan. If they’re not happy with a department’s plan or the diversity of an applicant pool, the deans can pause the search.
Cultivate a diverse board.
When Michael Rao became president of Virginia Commonwealth University, in 2009, he could clearly see the increasing racial diversity among the students. But the university’s Board of Visitors didn’t reflect that. “The board that hired me — really kind, great people — was not diverse,” Rao says.
A lot of things are within a college president’s power, but changing who’s on the board at a public institution is not one of them. In Virginia the governor appoints all of VCU’s board members. So early on, Rao hired Matthew A. Conrad as executive director of government and board relations. Conrad had worked in the governor’s office and knew how to navigate the murky world of board appointments. The key, he says, is finding commonality.
VCU policy limits members to two four-year terms, which makes it easier to bring in new voices. Resources from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, he says, can help outline the competencies of current members and identify gaps in demographics, experiences, and professions. Conrad and his staff proposed candidates and built rapport with Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth, Kelly Thomasson Mercer, who manages the governor’s board appointments.
One name put forward was Keith T. Parker, now the board’s rector, the top post. Rao met Parker, a Black alumnus and former head of Marta, Atlanta’s transportation agency, at a 2015 event at which he was given an award. More than half of the university’s board members are now people of color.
Racial diversity is critical, says Parker, to reflect the demographics of the campus and the Richmond area. So is having different perspectives, a collaborative mind-set, a willingness to listen, and a passion for helping the university.
G. Richard Wagoner Jr., a former chief executive of General Motors, has been on the VCU board since 2013. The current group is not only more diverse; it also has added people who aren’t from the business world and who bring other strengths. That makes for smarter and faster decision-making, he says. “You don’t have to go out and survey if you have better representation around the table.”
The more-diverse board has led to different conversations, such as how many of the university’s private contracts were going to minority-owned businesses. The board has conferred closely with Rao on senior administrative hires, discussing the types of leaders that VCU needs and encouraging the president to broaden the candidate pools. “Nowhere did we say, ‘Mike, you must hire a person of color’ for any of these positions,” Parker says. “Instead, it’s been, ‘Make sure that you’re including great people, and that you’re casting a wide net.’”
And last fall the board voted to remove all Confederate names and references from VCU’s campus — no small feat for an institution located in the former capital of the Confederacy.
- Assessed gaps in the board’s demographics, experiences, and professions.
- Built relationships with the governor’s office.
- Actively involved the dean in recruitment and retention efforts.
- Recruited specific candidates among alumni and university supporters.
More than half of the university’s board members are people of color.
The review process had begun in 2017, right after the deadly white-supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. The board took its time to make sure VCU had a thoughtful plan, says Parker, and Carolina Espinal, a board member who leads a strategic-communications firm in Washington, D.C., helped devise talking points.
“Candidly, having a board that is very much in touch with our student population was very, very helpful,” says Rao. Parker recalls a meeting with the president and VCU’s African American Alumni Council. The alumni said they were struck that the board had a Black rector and the university a president who shared their concerns. “It was a really meaningful moment for us,” Parker says.
Make faculty diversity the clearest of priorities.
In 2018, Donald B. Pope-Davis took office as dean of Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology with a clear mission: to diversify the college’s faculty. Two years later, the college’s percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty of color had risen to 30 percent, up from 23 percent. “Our students today can’t walk through our halls and not see a person of color,” Pope-Davis says.
Like many academic units, the college had repeatedly professed its commitment to social justice and inclusion. But the number of faculty members of color didn’t line up with that promise. In his first few weeks, Pope-Davis asked colleagues how they were trying to combat the problem, and many lamented that they couldn’t find people to hire.
Then the dean drew a line in the sand: The college isn’t practicing what it’s preaching. So he moved resources around, devised a plan to recruit some of the top education scholars nationwide, and created a two-year postdoctoral program designed to convert fellows into tenure-track hires.
Now that there are more faculty of color, they’re sitting on tenure and promotion committees, having different conversations, and making different decisions, Pope-Davis says. He believes biased attitudes and negative comments aren’t tolerated as much as they once were because more people of color are in the room.
To make retention a priority, the dean meets once a semester with each department’s faculty and staff members, and does one-on-one check-ins each semester with all new faculty hires — not typical for a dean overseeing hundreds of employees. He tells them to hold him accountable for promises he’s made. He asks about their families and how he can help make life in Columbus better for them. “I want to make it as hard as possible for people to leave Ohio State University, because of that personal connection,” he says.
Pope-Davis believes his job is to move resources around in support of racial equity, even when the decisions get tough. He hears colleagues at other institutions say: My budget just got cut, so I can’t do that. His response: “So did mine.”
Lori Patton Davis wasn’t looking to leave her post as chair of the department of counseling, leadership, and policy at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. But Noelle Arnold, the associate dean for equity and diversity charged with carrying out the Ohio State college’s faculty-diversity plan, reached out to her.
Pope-Davis made a compelling pitch: that Patton Davis could put her research — which focuses on Black experiences in higher education — into practice. “The dean never danced around any of it,” she says. She never got the sense, she says, “that it would be an issue for me to address issues of race.”
Ohio State’s Actions
- Recruited star professors of color to the College of Education and Human Ecology.
- Created a two-year postdoc program to prepare fellows for tenure-track jobs.
- Actively involved the dean in recruitment and retention efforts.
- Changed evaluations and department policies to improve the campus climate.
In two years, the share of tenured and tenure-track faculty members of color increased to 30 percent from 23 percent.
Now, as chair of the college’s department of educational studies, Patton Davis is eager to mentor assistant professors, revise policies to account for “hidden forms of service,” and ensure that public scholarship is rewarded in the tenure and promotion process.
Cultivating a diverse faculty from within is also an important part of the college’s approach. That’s how Rhodesia McMillian ended up on campus. McMillian, who earned her Ph.D. in elementary- and secondary-education policy from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2017, was working as an associate director there and looking for a tenure-track role. A postdoc, which would mean giving up a full-time job and taking a pay cut, was not what she had in mind.
But this postdoc is different from most others, McMillian says. She wasn’t hired to support a professor’s project; she’s doing her own research. It’s been like a “professor internship,” she says. Each postdoc has a mentor or a team of mentors who are paid for their work. At least three people, McMillian says, have offered her feedback on each of her grant proposals so far.
- National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education
- National Center for Institutional Diversity, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
- National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, University of Oklahoma
- University of Southern California Race and Equity Center
- ACE Fellows Program, American Council on Education
- Justice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
- La Academia de Liderazgo, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities
- Millennium Leadership Initiative, American Association of State Colleges and Universities
- Committee on Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
- Consortium for Faculty Diversity, Gettysburg College
- HSI Pathways to the Professoriate, Rutgers Center for Minority Serving Institutions
- National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity
- State Doctoral Scholars Program, Southern Regional Education Board