Efforts to Improve Faculty Diversity Are Increasing, But Much Work Remains

As students across the country have taken to public spaces to express their frustration over college and university’s disregard for diversity issues, they have in the process shed light on a systemic issue pervading higher education: the lack of minority faculty members.

As of 2013, 79 percent of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions were white, with Asians making up the second largest demographic group at 10 percent, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. To combat the dearth of minority faculty, some student groups have even demanded that their institutions meet specific quotas.

Yet conversations around this issue have revealed that quotas, at least in the short term, are highly unrealistic; they are also not required or advocated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency responsible for enforcing federal employment discrimination laws.

Most institutions require faculty candidates to have a higher degree — a criterion that is mandatory for those seeking the tenure track — but data show that African Americans and Hispanics, in particular, are underrepresented in both master’s and doctorate programs. Specifically, in 2010, only 12.5 percent of all master’s degrees and 7.4 percent of all doctorate degrees were awarded to African Americans; in that same year, 7.1 percent of all master’s and 5.8 percent of all doctorate degrees were awarded to Hispanics.

That the pipeline, or lack thereof, is an immense barrier toward increasing the number of underrepresented faculty is widely acknowledged. President of James Madison University (JMU) Jonathan R. Alger, JD, says that the data affirm the need for earlier, intentional outreach to young people.

“You don’t wait until someone’s in the job market; you’ve got to rewind and go back much earlier to ensure you’re producing competitive candidates who will be interested in and well-positioned for these careers,” he says. “… To make an impact, you need focused attention in the short term, but you also need to take a long-term approach. That’s true for institutions individually, but it’s also true for all of us in higher education.”

When it comes to the topic of diversity in higher education, Alger brings a breadth of experience. He began his career working on student diversity issues in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Following that, he served in the legal offices and was involved in diversity efforts at the University of Michigan, where he was on the legal team that brought two affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court; he served as general counsel and chair of the diversity task force at Rutgers University; and from 1996 to 2000, he worked specifically on issues of faculty diversity with the American Association of University Professors.

At JMU, Alger oversees all diversity efforts, and when it comes to increasing faculty diversity, his experience tells him to focus on the methods and their results. Inclusivity, he says, should always be the goal.

“It’s not just about numbers,” he says. “It’s also about processes as well as outcomes. When you have a lot of people at the institution who really care about these things and are willing to talk about [them], people can see that; I think they can sense the sincerity and the institutional commitment.”

Alger says that continuous learning and evaluation should be practiced not only in the classroom, but at the institutional level as well.

“If we’re serious about assessment, then we ought to be looking at it in everything that we do, including our hiring processes,” he says.

Isolation in Rural Communities
Examinations of minority hiring at institutions of higher education reveal just how complex the issue is. And many are quick to point out that the problem extends far beyond the pipeline, with no single issue to blame for minority underrepresentation.

“There are still structural and systemic ‘–isms’ that — whether conscious or unconscious — need to be broken down,” says Nancy Aebersold, executive director for the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC).

HERC is a nonprofit organization composed of more than 700 colleges, universities, hospitals, research labs, and government agencies that share a commitment to hiring the most diverse and talented faculty, staff, and administrators. As a membership-based organization, HERC has the advantage of being able to examine efforts by its institutions, determine which ones are working, and share best practices with other members, Aebersold says.

Many of HERC’s members are located in rural areas, a fact that Aebersold says can greatly affect the hiring process. “Location makes a significant difference, especially if [an institution] is in a rural region or a predominantly white region,” she says.

Because these institutions and the communities in which they are located are often largely homogeneous, attracting diverse candidates can be a challenge. Indeed, Gustavus Adolphus College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college in St. Peter, Minn., struggles in this area.

“The experience of being a professor is really different if you’re the only African American on campus or one of three,” says Paula O’Loughlin, associate provost and dean of arts and humanities at Gustavus. O’Loughlin is in the process of transitioning into the position of provost at Coe College in Iowa.

As a member of the LGBTQ community, O’Loughlin says that in her previous position as a professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, she was continuously asked to speak with prospective faculty members who were also LGBTQ. It was this experience that inspired her to develop a structured program at Gustavus to connect current and potential faculty, giving them the opportunity to have honest conversations about aspects of both the university’s and community’s culture.

While all prospective candidates are paired with a current faculty member — usually of a similar background, race, ethnicity, or religion — O’Loughlin says the initiative is particularly helpful for individuals from underrepresented or marginalized groups.

“We don’t have a lot of people from those communities,” she says, “but by being very open about that and about what that experience is like, and encouraging people to share that experience, we are being inclusive in the process.”

Aebersold says that proactive efforts to welcome diverse employees to campuses, especially those that are predominantly white, provide candidates with a direct link to the local community, which can be even more helpful should an individual be offered a position.

“If the [person] decides to accept the position, it gives them an immediate connection to someone who shares a similar background as them to address issues of isolation,” she says, “because that’s one of the greatest barriers to retention.”

Casting a Wider Net
Although they can be overlooked as a minor detail in the faculty search process, job descriptions and their wording play a large role in candidates’ decisions of whether or not to apply to a given institution. These postings can depict campuses as places of inclusivity or exclusivity, Alger says.

In addition to being careful to not discriminate in job postings, he recommends considering the institution’s mission — and its current and future needs — in order to write thoughtful descriptions that may appeal to minority candidates while at the same time fulfill the college’s mission.

“For example, looking for individuals who have experience working with diverse students, who can demonstrate that they have experience or expertise with diverse pedagogical techniques. That is not a race-based criterion; that’s not saying you have to be of a particular racial background or gender in order to do that,” he says, “but that you are looking for candidates who can actually demonstrate that. Why? Because it’s directly relevant to your mission as your institution becomes increasingly diverse and as you try to prepare [students] for a diverse workforce.”

Often, Alger says, job requirements can be too specific. By determining what skills and experience are essential to the role and focusing on those, schools can open themselves up to more diversity. He says that in higher education, there’s a temptation to hire applicants who resemble the person who previously filled the position. However, by broadening criteria and contemplating the definition of merit, institutions can cast wider nets.

“People tend to look at things like how many publications [a person’s been published in], or they’ll only look at graduates from a small number of specific graduate programs — which might be the places they went or where their friends went,” Alger says. “So what happens is nobody [who] went to an HBCU or somebody who publishes a different kind of work [may not] end up being seriously considered.”

“Many times, people automatically jump to saying you have to have a number of years of experience,” he adds, “which might end up being sort of arbitrary because people bring all sorts of life experiences to these positions.”

Some critics have argued that by aiming for more diversity, schools have settled for less than qualified candidates in order to appease students and constituents. However, Alger and Aebersold agree that the majority of institutions seek quality first and foremost.

“Excellence is primary, I think, for all academic departments,” Aebersold says. “They want the best people in their field; however, there are people who are both excellent and diverse.”

Rather than the need to balance applicants’ race or ethnicity with their expertise, Alger says that diversity and excellence often go hand in hand.

“Sometimes there’s a false dichotomy where people pit diversity against excellence,” he says. “I think part of the key to making a real change … is to send the message at every turn that [your institution] values diversity as an important contributing factor to academic excellence. In other words, saying that diversity and excellence are not competing or contradictory concepts.”

Providing Better Resources
Search committees can also hinder the hiring of minority candidates.

Typically made up of random faculty members, these committees often lack the training and resources that are critical in both the search and hiring processes. Because these employees have a plethora of other responsibilities and time constraints, Alger says that the easier an institution can make the process for them, the better the results.

“You have to provide as many resources, as much help to them, as you can to break some of these [hiring] patterns so that every search committee doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “You can provide resources on where to advertise, as well as different forms of outreach and networking they can do.”

As with any situation, position, or organization, bias has a way of creeping into processes and decisions. To overcome this problem, Aebersold advocates for implicit bias training for search committee members, which she says an increasing number of HERC member institutions are beginning to mandate.

In addition, the EEOC recommends that employers participate in anti-discrimination training, such as specific courses it offers.

“Various kinds of discrimination can be committed without the perpetrator — or his or her supervisor — being aware of anti-discrimination laws or how to deal with violations,” says EEOC spokesperson James Ryan. “With discrimination … prevention is the best cure.”

Hurdles on the Path to Tenure
Recruitment, though crucial, is only the first step in an ongoing effort for colleges and universities to have the best and brightest faculty. Ensuring a safe, welcoming, and supportive campus environment for them once they arrive is key to reducing turnover and closing the revolving door that many campuses experience.

Providing mentoring is one way colleges can do this. Alger believes that all new employees, not just those from underrepresented groups, benefit from mentorship. At JMU, the New Faculty Academy pairs new hires with senior faculty members for a yearlong experience during which mentors help their mentees build relationships on campus and learn to manage the stresses that come with working in academia.

“I think everybody needs mentoring, but especially individuals who didn’t grow up in academic families,” Alger says. “The assumption that you’re just going to know how to navigate the system, most people just don’t have that experience without having some [guidance].”

Furthermore, being very intentional about hospitality efforts and providing resources on the campus and surrounding community ensure that new employees feel welcome, he says.

These efforts can also help minority candidates on the long, arduous path to achieving tenure, which can take upwards of seven years.

“It’s not enough to recruit people and get them there; it’s also equally important to consider what pathways and opportunities are available to them,” Aebersold says. “Retaining excellent and diverse faculty can be achieved through creating an inclusive campus climate, supporting their research and publications, and connecting them with mentors on campus so they have [everything] in place that would make them eligible and ready to advance up the ranks and become a full professor.”

While tenure brings job security and the increased ability to challenge administration, it’s a privilege not widely enjoyed by minorities.

As more and more colleges rely on adjunct professors to save money — nearly half of all faculty in postsecondary institutions in 2013 were part-time — minorities have begun to make up a larger number of contingent positions. According to the American Federation for Teachers, 73 percent of all minority faculty members are in contingent positions. This type of employment offers little opportunity for career development or advancement and typically includes temporary, part-time, seasonal, and contract work.

Students, in their recognition of the need for diversity at all levels of higher education, are calling upon institutions to do more. And while their rallying call has been heard by administrators across the country and colleges are beginning to devote more time and resources to addressing the issue of faculty diversity, there is much more work to be done, says faculty diversity expert Caroline Turner, PhD.

Turner is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University, Sacramento, and a professor emerita in higher and postsecondary education and Lincoln professor of ethics and education at Arizona State University.

“There are numerous programmatic attempts and a lot of attention now [being] given to the importance of faculty diversity, but institutions still basically conduct business as usual,” she says. “Institutional processes and practices must be transformed to encourage and nurture the talents of a diverse faculty body. Otherwise, similar practices yield similar outcomes. In other words, steps are being taken toward increasing faculty diversity, but giant leaps are needed.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.