Diversity plays positive and negative roles in University of Kentucky provost search
The three finalists announced last week for the University of Kentucky’s provost search have several things in common. All have impressive academic careers. All hold important administrative positions on their respective campuses.
And all are likely to stand out in cabinet meetings if they are named provost.
The University of Kentucky has come under scrutiny by local media in recent months for a lack of diversity in administrative ranks. Of the 11 people who report directly to university President Eli Capilouto, 9 are white men. The other two, a vice president for institutional diversity and a vice president for student affairs, are a black woman and black man, respectively.
The three finalists for the provost position are: José Luis Bermúdez, a Colombian-born, British-educated philosophy professor who is currently dean of liberal arts at Texas A&M University; Nancy Brickhouse, the current interim provost at the University of Delaware, who has a background in gender disparities in science education; and Christine M. Riordan, dean of the college of business at the University of Denver, whose academic work focuses on leadership and workforce diversity.
The diversity of the finalist pool – something many universities have struggled with in searches for top administrators – stands out because of the media scrutiny.
Those involved with the Kentucky search said their experience shows how institutions can foster diverse candidate pools for top administrative searches. But the search also raises questions about how too much emphasis on diversity, particularly the perception that candidates are being selected because of the diversity they would add to administrative ranks, can also frustrate the process.
“As the press coverage developed – two stories came out – those actually complicated the process,” said Michael Reid, a professor in the university’s medical school and a co-chair of the search committee. One story quoted a faculty member saying that the provost search was an opportunity "to get a handle on" the university's lack of diversity. “It was counterproductive because we’d have women who came in, and under-represented minorities, who had seen that coverage. They had done their homework and were suspicious of the University of Kentucky,” Reid said.
While Reid noted that the coverage presented a challenge, both he and Charles Carlson, a professor of dentistry and psychology who chaired the search with Reid, said the media coverage did not shape how they conducted the search. “Our committee focused on finding the best possible individuals,” Carlson said. “While mindful of media interest, the committee focused on identifying the most qualified applicants.” Both also said they are confident that the search attracted the best candidates.
Riordan said that coverage of Kentucky’s diversity issues, which she said are endemic not only to higher education but most professions, was not a deterrent in her pursuit of the position. She said the search committee and university administration showed a clear interest in fostering a diverse candidate pool as well as selecting the best candidates on the basis of merit.
“What I know from my own experience – recruiting chaired professors and program directors – is that you have to work harder to recruit diverse candidates,” she said. “The problem is that when someone makes the suggestion that gender or ethnicity played a role it perpetuates stereotypes that women and minorities need some sort of affirmative action. The truth is that when they’re recruited, women and people of color are earning top spots.”
The other two finalists, who have been on campus this week holding open forums, could not be reached for comment.
As Riordan noted, the University of Kentucky is not alone in struggling with administrative diversity. Presidents at public universities are overwhelmingly white (88 percent) and male (78 percent), according to a recent study by the American Council on Education. That same study found that the pipeline to the presidency also lacked diversity. Except for chief diversity officers, 79 percent and 56 percent of whom were minorities and women, respectively, all other top administrative jobs were overwhelmingly white and male.
Ninety-three percent of provosts were white and 60 percent were male. Deans of academic colleges – the most common stepping stone to the provost’s office – were 87 percent white and 73 percent male. Two of the three finalists in the Kentucky search are academic deans.
Reid said diversity, one of the university’s five strategic goals, was a priority in the search from the very beginning.
In a survey of students, faculty, administrators and staff about what they were looking for in the search, the university asked about the “Importance of diversity & inclusion as it relates to students, staff, faculty, and administration.” Of the 1,212 individuals who responded to the question, about 73 percent said diversity was “important” or “somewhat important.”
The 16-member search committee included seven women and three people from underrepresented minority groups, and multiple people said a diverse committee was key to developing a diverse candidate pool. Reid also said the committee included a diversity of institutional perspectives, including a range of disciplines, departments and experience levels. “If you look at the roster of the committee, you can see that diversity was a fundamental component of the process from the beginning,” Reid said.
Reid and Carlson said they took purposeful steps to ensure a diverse pool, including bringing on a search firm, Witt/Kieffer, that they said had a track record of cultivating diverse pools and reaching out personally to prospective candidates. “We were fortunate to have an engaged community that offered a significant number of nominations from a broad spectrum of the academic community,” Carlson said.
Riordan said the involvement of Capilouto, who attended airport interviews with search committee members, also helped with the cultivation of candidates. “Any time the school has its senior leadership involved in the process and helping communicate the institution’s values and can say, ‘Here’s where we’re going,’ that helps,” she said.
Reid said diversity was not a consideration in selecting the three final candidates and will not be a consideration when the president picks one to be provost. Diversity played into the search when cultivating a pool of candidates, he said. The university wants to make sure that it’s encouraging all possible candidates to apply. “If we don’t have a diverse candidate pool, then we haven’t done our job right and the process has failed from the beginning,” he said.
Once it comes time to narrow the pool, Reid said, the only consideration was to determine the most qualified candidates.
But as Reid noted, there is a difference between the committee emphasizing diversity in its cultivation of candidates and an external focus on the issue. In addition to the concerns Reid mentioned about losing potential candidates because of the scrutiny, search consultants said publicly highlighting issues of diversity during the search can cause complications for the search committee.
“I think the pressure is really twofold,” said Jamie Ferrare, principal at AGB search. “You have some candidates who are going to say, ‘Gee, I don’t know if I can get in this search if they’re just going to pick someone else.’ And then you might have the rest of the campus community say, ‘Gee, they’re just going to hire someone regardless of background and just focus on this diversity piece, and is that person going to be strong enough to do the work that needs to get done? It hurts pools and it hurts candidates.”
Witt/Kieffer, the search consultant hired by Kentucky for the search, declined to comment.
Ferrare's latter point – that people might assume someone is being picked because of their gender or race – came up in a letter to the editor in The Lexington Herald-Leader after the paper wrote its story about the lack of diversity in Kentucky’s administration. “The race, gender, sexual preference, religion, height and other personal attributes are about as important as the size of the shoe the applicant wears,” wrote Denny Harris, a Lexington resident. “It is all about the academic qualifications of the individual, period.”
That perception could present a challenge for whoever does get picked for the provost position, Ferrare and others said. Despite the fact that all three appear to have the credentials and experience for the job, officials said, some people will invariably think that the final pick got the job because the university wanted to increase diversity, not because that person was the most qualified.
Kim Bobby, director of the inclusive excellence group at the American Council on Education, said this is something that candidates who come from diverse backgrounds simply have to face. “You can’t control for where some people are going to get stuck,” she said. She added that most candidates rightfully believe they were picked on merit.
Ferrare and Bobby said higher education institutions need to continue to do a better job finding diverse candidates for the pipeline positions that lead to top administrative posts in order to dispel the notion that individuals are being selected because of diversity.
Administrators at Kentucky hope to make a decision by May 14, when the governing board next meets.