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A more diverse college faculty matters for everyone

By Marybeth Gasman

I have interviewed over 100 university provosts, deans, and department chairs across the country at some of our best-known public and private research universities about their hiring processes and how they build a diverse faculty. As I listened to these leaders, I often heard the same explanation: “I tried to find faculty of color, but I just can’t find any, anywhere.”


Most frustrating was the frank admission that the faculty hiring process is exclusionary, focuses on pedigree above all else (where you earned your Ph.D. – and only a few institutions matter – and who your Ph.D. adviser was) and reproduces sameness: 75% of faculty are white. Many of those I interviewed knew there was a problem with the hiring system, but said, “There’s not much I can do about it. It’s not going to change.”

These hiring issues in universities are not unique. The same explanation was used in 2020 by Wells Fargo CEO Charles Scharf when he stated, “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” Yet there are strategies that university leaders can use to hire a diverse faculty – and it’s important that they do achieve this goal for the sake of their students, for the diversity in perspectives that help lead to much-needed innovative ideas, and for realizing the “American dream” of giving everyone a fair shot.

One of the most effective approaches to hiring a diverse faculty is to confront the typical excuses that derail candidates of color. These include search committees assuming that candidates of color are not in the pipeline, that candidates of color will not take a job based on location, and that the institution cannot meet the salary requirements of candidates of color, given their belief that these individuals are being pursued in a bidding war.

One administrator explained to me, “Faculty will say [even though] we are in a large city, ‘brown people aren’t going to come here. Our data show that.’” But, he shared, the data tell him that when he makes an offer to people of color they will come. Most importantly, he noted that his institution is beginning to realize that members of underrepresented groups can see themselves at an institution when they receive an invitation to apply for a position. Showing a sincere interest in candidates makes a difference.


Daryl Smith, author of Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education, says academic leaders have told her that one reason they can’t attract a more diverse faculty is that they can’t afford to pay the high salaries that they command. Leaders told me the same thing. Many often say, “They won’t come here, we can’t afford them, and they won’t stay.”


In response, Smith decided to construct a study around individuals who had received prestigious national fellowships. She identified 300 people of color and interviewed them, eventually finding that these people were not getting 10 job offers in the wake of their fellowships, as many administrators had thought. They were getting far fewer, and if they were in math and science, they had even less opportunity.


Moreover, with regard to “bidding wars,” a 2017 national study, spanning six disciplines and focused on selective public universities, found that white men continue to have the highest salaries among faculty. Black and Latino faculty have the lowest salaries, earning between $10,000 and 15,000 less than their white peers, depending on the academic discipline.


The lack of diverse representation in the pipeline for faculty positions is another common explanation for continuing to hire white faculty. However, some of the university leaders I talked with work hard to push back against this notion. When faced with either bringing in a colleague of color or no colleague at all, faculties found colleagues of color by looking outside of their academic friend circles, which were almost entirely white. They were even able to find more people of color to hire the following year and have since diversified their departments.


The most effective leaders expect faculty hiring committees to consult pipeline data, put in the work to identify a diverse pool of candidates, and do not allow faculty to replicate themselves year after year.


Systemic racism hurts all of us and makes us weaker both intellectually and as a nation. When we know there is a problem and don’t act, we let racism win and make it even harder to overcome. The leaders I talked with didn’t see themselves as racist, but in failing to act in the face of systemic racism, they are upholding a racist system that excludes people of color and limits opportunity.


Note: Op-ed was originally published at MarketWatch.com.

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