Divided We Learn

OPINION: Faculty diversity? ‘When the guy in the white coat isn’t white, or a guy, every time’

Ways that campuses can increase the number of teachers who look like their students

Academics have talked a good game about increasing campus diversity.

In the wake of campus protests over issues of racial representation three years ago, some schools committed millions of dollars toward ending the paucity of black faculty.

An article in The Hechinger Report last week, though, looked at new data on diversity and found that the needle hasn’t moved much. Schools that have been “promising for years to improve the diversity of their teaching ranks have made almost no progress.” In the 10 years ending in 2016, in fact, the proportion of annual faculty hires who are black fell slightly, from 7 to 6.6 percent.

If you’re serious about doing better, it takes more than talk, good intentions or even funding. Here are two ways to move toward a more diverse faculty, and with it a campus culture that works for all of us.

Related: After colleges promised to increase it, hiring of black faculty declined

First, we need to acknowledge that there is a shortage of minority candidates. There were, for example, 6,300 doctoral degrees awarded to African-American students in 2015, and there are 4,627 degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States. Each institution could hire one of these Ph.D. graduates per year, if they all went into teaching. (Only about half do.)

But when someone asks, “Why aren’t you hiring minority candidates?” and you start to answer “We can’t find any,” stop yourself. That’s the reflex answer, and an understandable one, but it’s glaringly insufficient.

Yes, we need more students of color pursuing Ph.D.s, and some great programs are tackling that — the Sloan Foundation’s Minority Ph.D. Program, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, the Doctoral Scholars Program at the Southern Regional Education Board. Others start further down the education continuum, helping underrepresented K-12 students do well in college and thereafter.

This doesn’t let universities off the hook, though, because plenty of great minority candidates aren’t being recruited. Given all the talk about the pool being limited, colleges should be falling over themselves to hire these candidates.

But I see far too many promising minority Ph.D.s scrambling for positions, and not due to any mismatch in demand. No discipline or institution in the country is currently over-represented by minority faculty. For perspective, about 12 percent of college students nationwide are black, while less than half that percentage of faculty are.

Second, we need to admit to the biases we all carry. Unconscious bias can trap us in our comfort zones. It’s no surprise that students of color often feel their institutions don’t see them, or hear them, or look like them, because it’s simply human to be comfortable around people who look like you. This goes for faculty too, so universities need to get out of their comfort zones as well. It should be mandatory for members of hiring committees to take a course in unconscious bias.

Many schools searching for eligible candidates get stuck on pedigree and place, relying on prospects and referrals from the same institutions year after year, disregarding wellsprings of talent. How many know that 1,000 minority doctoral students gather each fall, for instance, at the Compact for Faculty Diversity’s Institute on Teaching and Mentoring? “Can’t find them?” asked Donnie Perkins, lead recruiter for The Ohio State University, at one such conference. “Look to your left, look to your right. Here they are.”

Where does your university recruit from? What might that say about unconscious biases? Do the self-searching to find out whether your network is self-limiting.

Bias can slip into a committee’s composition as well as its actions. It might not be possible to place a minority faculty member on every committee — and tokenism is to be guarded against here as elsewhere — but faculty are role models for candidates as well as for students. Put yourself in a candidate’s place and ask, “Is this a welcoming place? Would I feel at home here?”

Related: Colleges’ promises to diversify face one challenge: finding black faculty

Another part of a true welcome is a campus visit that doesn’t feel like an alien visitation. Be attuned to hospitality, as minority candidates often experience its opposite, microaggressions: subtle, possibly unconscious indicators that they don’t belong. Ensure that prospects talk to people who put the university in a good light.

Show off your expertise in working with diverse communities. Sell your setting. Get the local community involved in the welcoming and hiring process (they’re the same). Your school’s in a small town? Facilitate a meeting between the candidate and the mayor.

All of this will help our faculties look more like our student bodies, which every year look more like America. And what will success look like? It’ll be when the guy in the white coat isn’t a guy, or white, every time. When it’s a woman (not the woman), and she has dreadlocks, and, seriously, no one even notices.

This story about university faculty diversity was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Ansley Abraham is the founding director of the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, which aims to increase the number of minority students who earn doctorates and choose to become faculty members at colleges and universities.

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Ansley Abraham

Ansley Abraham is the founding director of the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, which aims to increase the number of minority Ph.D. students and help them… See Archive

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