As greater numbers of students from underrepresented populations enroll in American colleges and universities, institutions of higher education have increasingly recognized the importance of an equally diverse faculty. Yet despite heightened awareness of issues related to diversity on college campuses, hiring practices in academe continue to disadvantage applicants from minority groups.
The National Center for Education Statistics projects that, by 2026, 55 percent of students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools will come from minority populations. This demographic shift has begun to shape the nation’s college population, as well. In 2012, college enrollment rates of Hispanic high school graduates ages 18 to 24 outpaced the enrollment rates of white students for the first time, and from 1999 to 2016, the number of Hispanic and black high school grads enrolled in college increased 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
The homogeneous makeup of the professoriate proves that many institutions fail to keep pace with the demographic changes of their student bodies. A 2016 TIAA Institute study showed that although the overall percentage of minority faculty rose from 1993 to 2013, only 10 percent of people holding all tenured positions come from these backgrounds. The influx of minority students in postsecondary institutions vastly outpaces the hiring of full-time faculty members from similar backgrounds. That is particularly true with regard to the rapid growth of the Hispanic student population, as the ratio of Latino students to Latino faculty members rose from 80 to one to 90 to one between 2003 and 2014.
Women, too, remain underrepresented among full-time faculty. The TIAA Institute study revealed that the total number of female professors increased in the period between 1993 and 2013. Yet women hold less than 40 percent of tenured positions and only 36 percent of the full professorships in American colleges and universities. And those numbers are significantly lower when considering gender in the context of race and ethnicity, as African-American and Hispanic women account for only 8 percent and 6 percent of the female tenure-track population, respectively.
Yet research shows that improving faculty diversity plays an important role in mitigating racial, ethnic and even geographic disparities in the degree completion of college students. A 2017 study revealed that only 46 percent of Hispanics and 38 percent of African-Americans completed degree or certificate programs within six years, compared to 67 percent of whites. While many factors can affect the academic achievement of students from underrepresented groups, studies frequently highlight the importance of a diverse faculty in ensuring that those students remain enrolled in school. Students who can be considered part of underrepresented populations on any count -- race, ethnicity, geographic background, socioeconomic status and the like -- benefit from having faculty members with whom they can identify.
In a piece published by the National Education Association in 2011, Luis Ponjuan affirmed that students of color in predominantly white institutions show higher retention and completion rates when they have minority faculty members whom they can consider role models and valuable examples of professional and academic success. Ponjuan also argued that the propensity of faculty members from underrepresented groups to assign readings and hold class discussions on issues of race and ethnicity challenges students’ preconceived ideas and stereotypes. Such conversations are beneficial to all students, regardless of background. In a 2016 Washington Post opinion piece, University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman asserted that the presence of minority professors in the classroom pushes students to reconsider who produces knowledge.
In our research, we’ve found that students are acutely aware of the ways in which the composition of their institution’s faculty affects them. For example, at Bronx Community College, a Hispanic-serving institution with a student body that represents nearly 100 countries, second-year student Yanidra de la Cruz speaks highly of the diverse faculty. De la Cruz, a first-generation student of Dominican descent, affirms that she has formed stronger interpersonal connections with her minority professors due to a sense of shared experiences, as “They can relate better to what students have encountered in life.”
In contrast, a senior we spoke with at another institution -- let’s call him Julio -- reports a markedly different experience. Julio, who emigrated from El Salvador in 2007, has had only two nonwhite professors in his four years in college and laments that “a Eurocentric view pervades in the classroom.” He points to lectures he attended on Latino politics, which, he said, did not acknowledge the reasons driving Hispanic immigration to the United States. According to Julio, a lack of multiple perspectives can make minority students feel invalidated or silenced. He feels obligated to present an alternative voice in the classroom, a role he accepts but finds “exhausting and stressful.” Motivated by a desire to encounter diverse perspectives, he has sought out the ideas of minority faculty from other institutions through YouTube, podcasts and other digital platforms.
In order to vary the demographic profile of the professoriate in a manner that best serves students such as De la Cruz and Julio, colleges and universities must take careful stock of the recruitment and hiring strategies that may disadvantage applicants from certain groups. For Tony Thomas, chief diversity officer at Brooklyn College, a crucial first step involves considering the demographic makeup of the hiring committee. Thomas notes that more diverse search committees “tend to do a better job hiring minority candidates.” Institutions should also strive to reduce the effects of implicit bias throughout the hiring process.
According to Thomas, search committees at Brooklyn College undergo training to help identify sources of implicit bias in recruitment and learn to use rubrics for evaluating candidates’ dossiers with greater objectivity. These sessions cover topics such as the cloning phenomenon, in which searches seek to replace a retiring faculty member with a candidate who closely resembles the outgoing colleague. Cloning, Thomas explains, “not only limits the opportunity for hiring diverse candidates, but it also limits the scope and breadth of approaches and perspectives in research, teaching and service.” Thomas underscores the effectiveness of these training sessions in bringing awareness to the ways in which implicit bias can affect the hiring process and create barriers to faculty diversity.
During tenure-track searches, departments at Brooklyn College are also asked to examine the ways in which they have previously addressed diversity and develop strategies to ensure that current searches are more inclusive. In one such strategy, search committees reach out to Ph.D. programs with diverse groups of graduate students in order to recruit potential candidates.
Institutions must also modify application and interview practices that disadvantage job seekers of limited economic means. For instance, the application process often requires candidates to pay to send reference letters through dossier services such as Interfolio. While it may seem that applicants have a choice about using these services, they often do not in practice. Given the competitive nature of the job market, it is not unusual for candidates to apply for dozens of positions -- in some cases, more than 50 -- in order to improve their chances of reaching the interview stage. Those applicants cannot reasonably expect recommenders to submit multiple reference letters through the various platforms that different universities employ, and they must therefore rely on dossier services. If institutions subscribe to dossier services themselves, applicants will be relieved of the up-front investment required to apply for a position.
Alternatively, search committees could forgo asking for references entirely, an idea that is gaining the support of scholars across academic fields who question whether this practice genuinely leads to better hiring decisions and who worry that references are more indicative of applicants’ social connections than of their actual ability.
Preliminary interviews present an economic burden to candidates when conducted at professional conferences, such as the Modern Language Association convention, as well. Candidates without full-time academic work must pay out of their own pockets for travel, lodging, conference fees and other associated costs -- often for just a single 30-minute interview. In 2015, Rebecca Schuman reported that candidates without tenure-track positions spent, on average, $1,177 to attend the MLA convention.
Conference interviews put an undue financial strain on a large portion of the applicant pool, including graduate students of lower socioeconomic status with limited institutional resources at their disposal, parents who may find it difficult to pay for childcare and adjuncts who may be docked part of their pay for canceling classes in order to travel. Far from demonstrating a genuine commitment to diversity, such application and interview practices propagate an image of academe as an elitist institution biased toward instructors from privileged backgrounds.
In a recent editorial, MLA executive director Paula Krebs acknowledges that “job interviews at the MLA annual convention contribute to a system that leads to the impoverishment of graduate students and to hierarchies” that promote inequality in the profession. She is adamant in urging committees to conduct remote interviews: “For the love of all that’s good and holy, please stop going to the MLA convention to conduct first-round job interviews. Stop making job candidates pay their own way to conventions so you can spend three days locked up with two of your favorite colleagues and a procession of nervous graduate students.”
Some institutions offer applicants the choice to interview at a conference or via video-conferencing platforms such as Skype or Zoom. On the surface, this approach suggests sensitivity to the burden that conference interviews may pose for many applicants. In practice, however, Skype and conference interviews are qualitatively different experiences, and institutions that pay to send search committees to conferences reveal an obvious preference for in-person meetings. Given the scarcity of tenure-track vacancies, candidates may feel that a Skype interview will put them at a disadvantage and will therefore pay to travel to a conference, even if it means going into debt.
To ensure a fair process, institutions should forgo conference interviews and communicate with all first-round candidates under similar conditions. Some colleges and universities have even begun to interview via phone rather than Skype, a practice that can reduce the propensity of hiring committees to unconsciously prefer applicants who look like them.
During the final round of interviews, search committees must continue to strive for consistency and objectivity. Before finalists come to campus, institutions should ensure that anyone who may come into contact with a candidate knows what types of questions are permissible. Questions about a candidate’s family life are forbidden, yet they often come up during informal discussions in the final phase of interviews and may bias hiring committees against certain finalists, particularly women.
From search-committee formation to campus visits, institutions must employ equitable hiring practices. By fostering a greater awareness of implicit bias and practices that disadvantage women and minority groups, institutions can begin to address these issues and ensure that their faculty reflects changing student populations.