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New Approach to Diversity

April 20, 2007

Which is more important -- that a department have all of its disciplinary subfields represented or that it diversify its faculty? That's the question being posed at Colgate University in an attempt to change how hiring committees have considered questions of diversity -- and posing the question may be having an impact.

Lyle Roelofs, dean of the faculty, has been asking the question. Roelofs said that individual departments make the hiring decisions -- "departments know how to judge quality" -- but that as part of broad discussions about diversity at the university, he has tried to suggest some new ideas. Traditionally, he said that there has been a broad consensus (even if no formal policy exists) that the top factor to consider in a faculty hire is excellence in teaching and research, followed by match of candidates with the subfield specialties needed, then followed by diversity concerns.

After a series of efforts, Colgate has seen the percentage of minority faculty members rise to about 20 percent, with the percentage of women topping 40 percent. But as a small liberal arts university in a rural setting, Colgate has a hard time holding on to minority professors -- and so needs to keep hiring them as well as trying to encourage more of them to make their careers at the university. Roelofs has asked departments to flop the second and third criteria. Excellence will stay on top, but diversity would generally trump subfield choice.

"There are going to be appropriate gains for us if we can be more diverse," Roelofs said. "When you have a more diverse faculty, there emerges a greater diversity in curriculum. Greater value is placed on difference. So why not think about each hire and say, 'in this situation are we better off thinking about how we need someone on 18th century reflection of Shakespeare, or have a broad description to maximize our opportunities on diversity?' "

Roelofs credited the thinking of a previous dean of the faculty at Colgate -- John Dovidio, now a professor of psychology at Yale University who studies diversity and prejudice issues -- with influencing his thinking on the issue.

Dovidio said that the Colgate approach was significant for several reasons. One is that it leads a faculty to weigh what it is really willing to do to broaden its pools. "People who claim they want diversity but at the same time are unwilling to change the way they have done things in the past can't get to diversity. You can't just wish for a diverse faculty or diverse student body without things changing," he said. "If you have a university that has a predominantly white faculty, it's that way for a reason. If you continue to do the same things over and over again, you will have the same faculty members."

An emphasis on subfield discipline, he said, "sounds legitimate and historically persuasive," but can be "an excuse." The purpose of having subfield representation is to have a certain breadth in a department, he said. So is the purpose of having a diverse faculty, so why should the former be presumed to be more important?

Another reason the Colgate approach is significant, Dovidio said, is that it can move discussions of diversity away from what he considers a false discussion of "excellence." Many white Americans, Dovidio said, assume that "being excellent and being black aren't consistent" (and the same for various other minority groups). By leaving excellence as the top priority, Colgate is reframing the debate, Dovidio said. "Affirmative action doesn't mean taking lesser quality people -- it means stepping back."

The request that departments think about diversity has generally won faculty support, in part because it has come as a request, not an edict, and with the understanding that there may be cases where subdiscipline does matter enough to be key.

But some faculty members do have concerns. Stanley Brubaker is a professor of political science who is currently on leave and so has not been involved in the discussions, but who has in the past questioned whether the university has enough diversity of political thought.

"My understanding is that the law and university policy would be that diversity should be something that tips the balance and is not a primary consideration," Brubaker said. Of subfields, he said that "it is very important that a department has a coherent curriculum that emphasizes what's important in the discipline and it should not be diverted from that by other considerations."

It will take time to see the impact of the philosophy being tried at Colgate, but the early results are encouraging to Roelofs -- especially since the discussions of this issue started after the search processes for the year had started. Colgate has been working on 16 searches for tenure-track jobs. In a typical year, that would have mean 3 or 4 non-white faculty members would be hired. So far this year, 15 searches have been completed, with 7 of the positions going to scholars who are not white.

 

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