Diversifying Faculty Requires Departmental Change

Focusing on the immediate contexts underrepresented minority scholars must navigate is the best way to make academe a welcoming place, write Amalia Pallares, Angela L. Walden, Bernard D. Santarsiero and Aisha El-Amin.

August 5, 2022
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Efforts to recruit and retain more underrepresented minority, or URM, faculty members are ubiquitous in higher education. Yet institutions struggle with making meaningful progress on this front, which may be further hindered by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps heightened faculty turnover, as more people consider leaving academe entirely.

Numerous studies point to the role that noninclusive academic contexts can have in shaping the experiences of URM faculty members. URM faculty members report isolation, a lack of support from supervisors, repeated microaggressions and marginalization in various contexts, as well as being overburdened with diversity work that’s not recognized when it comes to promotion and tenure.

The reason colleges and universities fail to increase faculty diversity is obvious: the solution is not aligned with the problem. While the problem is systemic, most interventions are targeted at the individual level—professional development seminars, grant-writing workshops and the like—an approach that identifies the difficulty of recruiting and retaining URM scholars as a problem with those scholars themselves. That lens leads to a deficit-focused model of support that emphasizes workshops and professional development so as to make URM scholars a better fit for the academy.

We must change course. We must stop viewing URM scholars through a deficit lens. Instead, we must create supportive environments where they can develop and flourish. And to do so will require a collective effort at the department level.

Current initiatives to diversify faculty often are top down: they start from central campus programs that select scholars and then assign them to a department. But minoritized scholars’ main home is their local community—that is, their department.

Departments should have retention, mentoring and support systems in place before a URM faculty member is hired. If a department is not committed to engaging in the significant and difficult work needed to provide a more inclusive environment, it is unlikely to retain minoritized scholars who don’t feel valued and engaged. Departmental efforts must be grounded in core program tenets that center URM scholars’ sense of belonging.

Focusing on the immediate contexts such scholars must navigate—departments—is the most effective way to effect lasting changes that will make academe a welcoming place. Such a local process not only leads to faculty diversification but also supports long-term cultural change that makes diversity an integral value within a department.

We’ve seen firsthand the value of taking a departmental approach as the coordinators of the Bridge to Faculty Scholars Program (B2F), a successful postdoc-to-faculty program that focuses on scholars’ local academic communities and contexts. Members of three administrative offices at the University of Illinois at Chicago—the vice chancellor for diversity, equity and engagement; the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs; and the chancellor—created the program in 2019. Three core tenets drive the program: it is ecologically (environment) oriented, scholar centered and emphasizes accountability within departments and colleges. Driven by scholarly literature and continuing feedback from URM faculty members and students at the institution, the program requires departments to shift how they think about recruiting and supporting URM scholars. As part of that, it encourages them to address common barriers—such as the lack of knowledge among many departments about best practices for attracting and hiring URM scholars, as well as bias in the grants awarded to them or ongoing microaggressions.

For example, in our work with departments through the B2F program, we provide support that encourages an awareness of pedigree bias (assumptions about achievement and aptitude based on the prestige of candidates’ alma mater or recommenders), expands faculty understanding of the need for mentors to be aware of and responsive to racial bias in academe, and promotes team-based mentoring by people both inside and outside the department to ensure a stronger network of support.

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Through the program, individual departments serve as hosts to URM scholars and ultimately transition them to full-time faculty positions. But each department must earn that right, starting with completing an application that requires:

  • Engaging in an extensive collective process among fellow faculty colleagues to define, in a scholar-centered manner, a shared understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion;
  • Establishing goals for DEI within the department;
  • Creating strategies for a successful search;
  • Building a mentoring structure; and
  • Organizing a plan to transition a scholar to a faculty position.

Departments that are selected for the program demonstrate an understanding of DEI that goes beyond a surface-level recognition and acknowledgment that they lack adequate numbers of URM faculty. For example, strong applications illustrate how the prospective scholar will expand or enrich department research and teaching missions, either through cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and/or teaching approaches or through explicit incorporation of perspectives that are more likely to be attractive to URM scholars—such as demonstrated valuing of research focused on URM populations. Further, the department articulates research and teaching expectations that are appropriate for each scholar’s career level and that serve their individual interests and career goals.

Selected departments create mentoring plans that center the scholar by ensuring adequate time and resources to launch and carry out research. They also assemble a committed and thoughtful mentorship team with clear parameters to make certain that mentors meet with and give helpful feedback to the scholar about research and teaching milestones. And they refine plans through ongoing discussions with our team, increasing their readiness and shared responsibility for the success of their scholars.

We work closely with awarded departments in an ongoing way to attract URM candidates and ensure valid and equitable searches. We participate in all steps of the search, including reviewing job ads to ensure they are welcoming for applicants and providing departments with data about URM scholars in their field. We also recommend where and how to target recruitment efforts—such as through one-on-one outreach to graduate programs matriculating higher rates of URM scholars. The searches must be competitive and advertised nationally.

This hands-on approach offers departments new strategies and ways of thinking. It counters the widespread myth that few or no qualified URM scholars exist, and it increases buy-in from faculty and administrators who may be skeptical about the value of diversity. Our office complements department mentorship by building community within and across the cohorts of scholars through ongoing programming and one-on-one support, promoting institutional connection and belonging.

Notably, despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to implement effectively all aspects of the program. And we can proudly report that it has had significant positive results. All 10 of our first cohort of scholars have become full-time faculty members at the university. B2F scholars have noted program impacts, such as “rebalancing the scales” of academe, demonstrating genuine investment in scholars’ current and future success, and creating a community of future generations of URM faculty members engaged in cutting-edge research.

Departments that have successfully hired one or more B2F scholars feel confident about their ability to support and continue to hire URM faculty, as well as to informally advise other departments. Motivated by the program’s success, one dean increased their own support of B2F by making grant-writing funds available for all B2F scholars, both current and future, in their college.

In addition, we continue to be committed to building more departments’ readiness for the program. We have given feedback to those that weren’t selected the first time around and have offered suggestions for improving their climate and approach for thinking about our program, translating to a stronger application the next time.

Based on our experience with the program, we offer the following recommendations for institutions struggling to recruit and retain URM faculty:

  • Focus on department-level engagement as the way to build buy-in and capacity for creating welcoming and supportive climates for URM scholars.
  • Ensure that departments demonstrate adequate planning and readiness to successfully recruit and retain a URM scholar before allowing them to recruit.
  • Activate support from top administrators, such as the provost or chancellor. Campus leaders’ investment in the success of such efforts is crucial.
  • Use a scholar-centered approach to guide all program aspects. Departments should make all decisions about how to mentor and guide a scholar based on the best interests of that scholar and their career trajectory.

Finally, we would like to note that institutional diversity offices, like ours, are optimal venues for housing these programs. We have a broad view of the institution and serve as important conduits between faculty members and administrators. Our layer of oversight, which includes regular meetings with scholars and tracking progress toward well-communicated milestones, ensures that scholars continue to be appropriately supported throughout their time in the program. And our work, predicated on building trusting relationships, allows us to effectively share information and feedback with departments to support their readiness to successfully recruit and retain URM faculty.

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Amalia Pallares is vice chancellor for diversity, equity and engagement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Angela L. Walden is assistant vice chancellor for diversity initiatives at the university. Bernard D. Santarsiero is director of research initiatives, and Aisha El-Amin is associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging there.

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