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One of the most serious challenges facing colleges and universities in the United States is the recruitment and retention of faculty members and students from groups that are historically underrepresented in academe. Indeed, the issues are closely intertwined: on the one hand, students are eager to encounter faculty members whose backgrounds resemble their own, and, on the other, today’s students are the population from which tomorrow’s faculty members will be drawn.

Our two offices at the University of California, San Diego—the academic affairs office and the equity, diversity and inclusion office—are collaborating on an initiative that is using hiring clusters to improve faculty recruitment and retention, the student experience, and our campus culture. Hiring for the first two clusters of a dozen positions apiece is already underway, and a third has been approved to launch this year.

The university is providing the funds for all the new faculty positions in these Advancing Faculty Diversity hiring clusters, and we’ve also obtained one-time support from the University of California Office of the President to assist with the expenses of searching for and onboarding the hires. We are hiring for each cluster over two years to allow for differences in recruitment cycles across disciplines. Each cluster is aligned with a campus strategic priority, such as our goal to move from our present emerging HSI status to full-fledged designation as a Hispanic-serving research institution.

In this essay, we’ll describe our objectives for the program and how we’ve structured it, and in a follow-up article, we’ll detail how it has worked and the results thus far, with an eye to inspiring similar programs at other institutions. We believe that our structured, equity-focused approach to cluster hires has transformative potential and would welcome seeing it adopted more widely.

Setting Objectives

Like many public research institutions, our university has been making steady progress on building a more diverse faculty and inclusive climate. Our cluster hiring program grew out of a desire to make faster and more sustainable advances, to benefit students and faculty alike.

A central goal is diversifying the entire institution, at scale and across all disciplines. Rather than hiring historically underrepresented faculty primarily in the same disciplines where they have traditionally been most prevalent, our goal is to build up a deeper presence of faculty from varied racial and ethnic groups throughout all of our departments and schools. Achieving that will require employing multiple hiring programs and strategies that target future faculty with a variety of intellectual interests and professional goals. Our interdisciplinary program seeks to attract faculty who are not only experts in the disciplines of the departments that hire them but who also focus on how their fields can be forces for social justice in the real world and who are committed to teaching and mentoring underrepresented students both inside and outside their department.

Attaining this first objective will only be meaningful and sustainable if we retain such new colleagues by establishing a satisfying intellectual and cultural experience for them on our campus, as well as by respecting and rewarding what they add to the institution. Accordingly, our second objective is to transform the university’s organizational culture. That involves embedding innovative, culturally responsive practices within our departments and schools and across the campus. It involves attention to macrostructures, such as strategies, policies, procedures and incentives. And it involves focusing on microstructures, such as organizing around specific themes, generating focused questions and discussions about equity, and creating intentionally open opportunities for collaboration across and beyond disciplinary boundaries.

Further, it requires shifting practices and discourses throughout the university to address historic and current inequities and start building a more inclusive and just future. The program is designed to ensure that the departmental searches undertaken as part of the cluster hire will be overtly guided by equity, diversity and inclusion experts so they can use proven inclusive practices and foster productive unitwide discussions about how the goals of the program searches align with a participating department’s academic priorities. This dovetails with other transformational activities that the university is undertaking as part of its Strategic Plan for Inclusive Excellence.

An important element of this organizational transformation involves ascribing value to the work of promoting and sustaining equity, diversity and inclusion. Our third objective is, therefore, to elevate the visibility and impact of several relatively small academic programs whose missions emphasize those values and then partnering with them to become better resourced and more highly networked campus leaders. Each of our hiring clusters centers on one such program, such that the new hires will all do some of their regularly assigned teaching, mentoring and service in that program, regardless of the identity of their home department. That will also ensure faculty members get full credit for their work related to equity, diversity and inclusion during academic reviews and will establish lasting academic connections among the members of the cluster.

Creating Structure

There are many ways to arrange cluster hire programs, and each institution must go about it in a way that best fits its distinct circumstances. We will describe the structure of our program as a way of outlining some of the factors that designers might consider.

The University of California Office of the President runs an annual competition among its 10 campuses for one-time funding to support Advancing Faculty Diversity initiatives focused on either recruitment or retention. In each of the past three years, our proposals for cluster hire initiatives were selected for monetary awards toward the one-time costs associated with the searches and the onboarding of new hires.

In our experience, the competition was an invaluable catalyst that generated a sense of excitement, opportunity and immediacy. While not all universities are part of systems or consortia, a similar competition could be held within a single institution, with the financial structure matched to local norms.

Our program’s initiatives are structured to hire each new person into a home department appropriate to their core discipline, while also affiliating them with an academic program focused on equity, diversity and inclusion and related to their social justice objectives. Each interdisciplinary cluster’s members are typically spread over nine or 10 departments in about half a dozen academic schools; consistent with our aim of impacting all of the university, each cluster covers a large swath of the institution and, together, the clusters span every school. All members of a given cluster are also formally affiliated with a central academic program focused on equity, diversity, inclusion and social justice. That knits cluster members into a cohort and provides them a joint academic home complementary to their individual home departments.

The 2020 Bridging Black Studies and STEM Cluster incorporates departments in science, technology and health; is centered on Black diaspora and African American studies; and supports the Black Academic Excellence Initiative. The 2021 Latinx Cluster Hire Initiative incorporates departments in the arts, humanities and social sciences; is centered on Latin American studies and Chicanx & Latinx studies; and supports the Latinx/Chicanx Academic Excellence Initiative. The 2022 Designing Just Futures Cluster will incorporate departments from both scientific and humanistic fields, is centered on the Design Lab, and supports our efforts to integrate design thinking throughout students’ academic experiences.

Centering each cluster on an academic program focused on equity, diversity and inclusion will involve teaching and mentoring assignments that count as part of the faculty member’s core responsibilities and achieve several key purposes. It will forge a set of hires from multiple departments into a distinctive cohort that serves as a supportive community for its members and helps with their long-term retention. It will make each of these academic programs a more visible and valued partner of many departments throughout the university, most of which will be new to such partnerships. And it will add significant teaching capacity to those programs, enabling them to offer students a deeper and richer intellectual experience, consistent with the university’s Strategic Plan and Strategic Plan for Inclusive Excellence.

The program is ambitious, and we have high hopes for it. So how has it been working, and what are the results thus far? In a follow-up article, we will report on the process we’ve followed, the initial outcomes and the planned next steps.

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