The Missing Piece in Diverse Faculty Hiring: Professional Development on Implicit Biases

Pauline Kayes

In an article published in The Hechinger Report in September, Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them — we simply don’t want them.” Gasman’s blunt assessment is supported by the lack of progress in diverse hiring over the last 15 years, with statistics showing that whites still comprise 80 to 90 percent of all faculty members and administrators.

So, what is blocking progress on diverse hiring in higher education? Gasman’s answer: “Faculty search committees are part of the problem. They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department.”

Adding to the complexity of the problem is the lack of professional development for search committees on how implicit biases shape expectations, perceptions, and decisions about hiring — what John Dovidio, the Carl I. Hovland Professor of Psychology and dean of academic affairs of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University, characterized in 1997 as “aversive racism.” This is because the myth that members of search committees — by virtue of their academic degrees, achievements, and reputations — do not taint the search and hiring process with their biases is still firmly entrenched in academic culture. It is also believed that search committees always magically select the “best” and “most qualified” candidate regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.

The viewpoints of Gasman and Dovidio make it clear that all those involved in the search and hiring process, especially search committees, need comprehensive training to identify implicit biases that stymie or lead to the rejection of culturally diverse and minority candidates for academic positions. Moreover, a train-the-trainer initiative should also be in place to ensure that as many people as possible involved in the search and hiring process receive this kind of training. The overall purpose of this model is to minimize these obstacles in order to achieve real success in recruiting, hiring, and retaining faculty, administrators, and staff of color.  More important, it empowers everyone involved to make the hiring process more inclusive, proactive, and accountable.

A major advantage of this approach is that it is comprehensive and thorough — not just a single-shot workshop or seminar, but rather regular, uniform training across an entire campus that addresses the missing piece of the diverse hiring puzzle in higher education.

Often, programs for increasing the number of faculty and administrators of color are undertaken because of a climate study or student demands. However, results are limited because addressing diverse hiring only once, for example, is insufficient to build the kind of momentum necessary for long-term changes in the composition of faculty and administration. Just as training on computers was essential for people to move into a new age of information technology, knowledge of multicultural education and intercultural competence is key to negotiating a new era in human resources.

One useful theory around why search committees are unable to make advancements is Milton Bennett’s “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity,” which can be used to understand the nature of overt and covert resistance to diverse hiring. His model is an effective tool for determining the levels of intercultural sensitivity of faculty, staff, and administrators who participate in decision-making in the search and hiring process. For example, search committee members “in defense” about cultural differences might equate diverse hiring with incompetence, affirmative action, and special treatment, while those “in minimization” would prefer to emphasize cultural similarities and favor someone like them who “fits in.”

Another essential factor in the functioning, deliberations, and decision-making of a predominantly white search committee is ethnic, racial, and cultural identity. Both Bill Cross’ “Stages of Nigrescence” and Janet Helm’s “Stages of Racial Consciousness” are useful for analyzing the relational dynamics between search committee members and candidates of color. When institutions are aware of crucial theories such as these for assessing the stages of cultural identity and racial consciousness among their employees, they are more likely to design effective professional development for diverse hiring. When that professional development is approached correctly, we should expect to see a steady increase in the number of personnel from historically excluded groups who empower diverse employees to participate fully in institutional decision-making and include diverse faculty and staff fully in every aspect of university life.

There are three paradigms I use to analyze why so many colleges and universities fail at recruiting, hiring, and retaining diverse faculty members and administrators. The first is “Five Dimensions of Faculty and Staff Diversity,” which provides new insights into the relationship between education and scholarship, community connections, climate and culture, representation and voice, institutional transformation, and the hiring process.— all of which are illustrated by video interviews of faculty and administrators of color.

The second paradigm is “Four Frameworks on Differences,” which assesses institutional and departmental cultures with respect to differences such as employee groups, departments, disciplines, teaching styles, and research methods; this is in addition to differences related to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.

The final paradigm is “Individualism/Collectivism/Intercultural Competence.” This examines not only how cultural orientations affect daily relational dynamics, interactions, perceptions, and judgments in the academic workplace, but also how intercultural competence skills can rectify discriminatory search and hiring practices, deliberations, perceptions, and decisions.

These paradigms support Gasman’s and Dovidio’s theories, and they challenge higher education to address, as Gasman said, “the five things no one will tell you about why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color.”

Transferring belief in this work is thought to be the overriding challenge for all diversity advocates. Yet, even armed with the findings of employee assessments and climate research data, colleges and universities will still need to build and implement customized strategies that work in their respective institutionalized culture. There will be some people who will never change — because of denial and defense — but to move even half of your organization forward toward addressing implicit biases in the search and hiring process will result in concrete change.●

Pauline E. Kayes is the president of DiversityWorks Inc., a comprehensive diversity education company. For more information, visit