Effective Communication Could Be Key to Increasing Faculty Diversity

Joanne Dowdy — a professor in KSU’s College of Education, Health, and Human Services — leads a class in teaching, learning, and curriculum studies in White Hall.

No single factor is to blame for the dearth of historically underrepresented minorities in higher education faculty. The problem is complex; it is as much about the long struggle for economic and political equality as it is about institutionalized discrimination. Therefore, no single solution exists, and the process of creating a faculty more representative of the populations higher education serves could be painstakingly slow. 

Two universities in Ohio are becoming more thoughtful about how they approach recruiting, hiring, and mentoring faculty members and are paving the way for more faculty of color to join their ranks.

[Above: Joanne Dowdy — a professor in KSU’s College of Education, Health, and Human Services — leads a class in teaching, learning, and curriculum studies in White Hall.]

At Kent State University (KSU), Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Mandy Munro-Stasiuk admits that the university has work to do to improve the diversity of its tenure-track faculty population, which currently sits at 5.6 percent people of color.

Mandy Munro-Stasiuk
Mandy Munro-Stasiuk

“We’ve been aware of this [disparity] for quite some time, and it’s something that the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion has been trying to improve,” she says. “Over the last year or so, we’ve ramped up our efforts, and our goal is to increase that number to 14 percent to be more representative of our undergraduate student population.”

In fact, this venture has already seen success; 16 new faculty members of color — which KSU defines as African American, Latino, or Native American — were hired in the past year and will begin this fall.

In addition to KSU’s hiring Munro-Stasiuk and Ruth Washington — executive director for faculty and graduate student retention, inclusion, and success — to specifically focus on recruitment and retention, much of what seems to be working at the university involves effective communication. Job placements include strategic language to attract as many candidates as possible; faculty focus groups and exit interviews serve to reveal issues they face; and asking faculty members what they need and prefer in a mentor.— rather than assuming — produces more successful relationships.

Ruth Washington
Ruth Washington

To supplement its HR listing, KSU appeals to a wider audience through ads that bring the town of Kent, Ohio, and the university community to life.

“Research proves that if you include phrases that show your commitment to the success of faculty and students, you more than double the number of applications, and the pool of candidates becomes more diverse,” says Munro-Stasiuk.

“The wording is so important, and sometimes you only have one chance to catch someone’s eye as they’re scrolling through job listings,” adds Alfreda Brown, vice president for the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at KSU. “It’s important to say who we are and what we stand for.”

Similarly, having broad language that enables a wide pool of candidates to apply can garner more diverse potential hires.

Alfreda Brown
Alfreda Brown

Donna Davis Reddix, faculty diversity officer at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, oversees a number of checkpoints during the faculty hiring process at CWRU, starting with job placement.

She makes sure that an ad’s wording does not narrow the search by requiring candidates to have specific experiences.

Reddix also reviews the applicant pool list and looks for racial, gender, and ethnic diversity. If that is not present, she suggests ways committees can expand their searches, such as other outlets for posting jobs, and ways they can network with faculty at other universities. She says CWRU’s Office for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity (OIDEO) works like a consultancy for departments looking to hire faculty from underrepresented groups. She provides the same oversight for search committees’ lists of finalists.

One other important aspect of Reddix’s job is providing unconscious bias training for faculty search committees, an increasingly common practice for colleges and universities. She says that before committees can hold interviews, all members must complete training on

Donna Davis Reddix
Donna Davis Reddix

interrupting bias, which she provides twice a month and by appointment.

“The Faculty Senate just approved a resolution that all members of the senate are required to go through training within the next two years, which I’m really excited about,” Reddix says.

The training takes three hours and covers microaggressions, bias, and protected classes. “It’s not meant to solve all the problems of discrimination and bias in three hours, but it does open up a discussion on the issues,” she says.

CWRU President Barbara Snyder and her executive staff have all gone through the training.CWRU

“There’s been a great domino effect across campus,” Reddix says.

Similarly, at KSU, chairs and deans of departments, as well as student leaders, have taken part in unconscious bias training. The administration hopes to have faculty members complete training within the next year.

“We are conscious of the need to change the climate of our campus to make it more inclusive,” says Munro-Stasiuk. “We’ve made a huge effort around making people aware of their biases and things they might say to new faculty that are microaggressions. … Awareness is the key; if you make people aware that something they say can be perceived as offensive, they’ll stop saying or doing it.”

At KSU, faculty focus groups have also helped improve communication on campus. Munro-Stasiuk says DEI arranged the focus groups to gain an understanding of the major issues diverse faculty members face.

“It confirmed what we already knew, but it was good to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak,” she says.

From their discussions, they learned that faculty of color at KSU were particularly concerned with the amount of time they had available to conduct research — a critical component in the tenure process. Many minority faculty members said they felt overcommitted, having been asked to serve on multiple committees because of their racial or ethnic background.

To counter this issue in faculty search groups while still allowing for diverse committees, DEI advises colleges to consider seeking out diverse faculty in similar departments or asking the division for help in identifying allies on campus who have an understanding of diversity issues or experience working with underrepresented populations.

These “champions of diversity” can be particularly useful in eliminating conversations that could remove certain candidates from the applicant pool. Munro-Stasiuk gives as an example a committee that may be considering disqualifying a candidate from California because it assumes he or she would be unwilling to move to Ohio. Learning to recognize these types of conversations and assumptions is part of the unconscious bias training DEI conducts for faculty search committees.

Once new faculty members are hired, KSU is intentional about giving them the tools to succeed. Washington serves as a coach to enhance mentoring, helps professors identify funding resources, assists with internal and external collaboration, and arranges social events.

Brown says throughout the year, DEI brings cohorts of faculty together — regardless of department or discipline — to meet other individuals from underrepresented groups and get out of their silos.

“What’s important is acclimating new faculty so they can see who’s here who is like them,” she says. “It’s important to build relationships and make sure they’re intentional.”

Similarly, KSU advises departments on best practices for pairing mentors and mentees in a deliberate way. “Just because they’re a person of color doesn’t mean they want a mentor who is a person of color,” says Munro-Stasiuk. “You need to sit down and talk about these things.”

Cassandra Storlie, a Latina faculty member in KSU’s School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences
Cassandra Storlie, a Latina faculty member in KSU’s School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences

At CWRU, Reddix also works to form relationships with diverse faculty members.

“They know they can come talk to me in my office and that [the OIDEO] has an open-door policy,” she says. “I think the fact that we’ve been able to cultivate relationships has helped with retention.”

The OIDEO also hosts a diversity faculty workshop for those going through the tenure process and for faculty who already have tenure. Reddix says participants are able to ask questions they may have been hesitant to ask and hear about leadership opportunities and administrative roles available to them once they’ve gone through the tenure process.

Both schools use faculty surveys, which can be useful for gauging employee satisfaction and screening for issues that can be resolved. Likewise, both KSU and CWRU conduct exit interviews as a way to improve retention.

“For those who do leave, there is not one defined reason,” Reddix says. “Some people leave to be closer to family or mentors, and to be honest, some feel that other academic institutions would be more conducive during the tenure process, so they decide to take that leap.”

“Do I think we’re doing a good job? Yes,” Reddix adds. “Do I think we’re at the top of the list? I wouldn’t say that. I think we can always do better. We’re working to enhance our reputation and achieve our goal of increasing diversity.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.