It’s that time of the year again, when a few chosen candidates from underrepresented groups will be invited to visit various campuses for job interviews. Many candidates in that narrow pool will be interviewing at institutions where they will encounter a search committee that is predominantly white—despite all the campus diversity initiatives, student protests and letters over the past years to increase the number of underrepresented faculty members and address climate issues resulting from institutional racism.
And far more often than they should, those job candidates will endure negative experiences, as Mireille Rebeiz noted in a recent Inside Higher Ed article. As underrepresented candidates, all eyes will be on them, and they will experience what Toni Morrison called “the white gaze.”
If you are a freshly minted underrepresented Ph.D. or faculty member making a lateral move, the results of a survey conducted by the Educational Trust are anything but comforting. While they won’t be surprising to most faculty of color, the findings clearly show that even though underrepresented student demographics have significantly improved, “Black and Latino faculty are severely underrepresented at most public, four-year colleges and universities.” And according to a recent article on the study, “When researchers compared Black and Latino faculty representation against student enrollment in 2020, some 57 percent of institutions got F’s for Black faculty diversity. Nearly 80 percent failed on Latino faculty diversity.”
Such low representations are attributed to hiring and retention practices and an unfavorable climate for underrepresented faculty members on campuses, among other challenges. In a vicious cycle, having fewer underrepresented faculty to interview candidates for positions often results in the hiring of fewer underrepresented faculty, which means fewer underrepresented faculty to interview candidates for positions, and so on.
Yet when it comes to visiting a campus as a job candidate, any challenges that you as a faculty member of color and LGBTQI+ faculty member may face at a particular institution will probably not be immediately obvious. There are, however, ways for you to not only to effectively handle the interview process but to also collect your own data to gauge whether the college or university has a favorable environment and will provide the resources you need.
Remember, you don’t want to pack up your bags and move yourself and your family to another city or state to make a commitment to a tenure-track job, only to leave that job a year or two later. The stakes are too high both emotionally and financially. You must protect yourself by reading the campus culture and climate, paying attention to the policies and initiatives already in place, and asking appropriate questions.
A Dozen-Plus Ways to Make the Most of Your Visit
During a typical two-day job visit, you will meet with the search committee and then with the dean or provost, or both. After that, you may present a job talk or colloquium on your research agenda or a teaching demonstration, followed by a campus tour, lunch and dinner with faculty members and students. Then you’ll probably have a final meeting with the search committee. While the itinerary is often tedious and exhausting, it provides an opportunity for the search committee to get to know you better and solicit feedback from other stakeholders. And from your point of view, it’s a serious opportunity to determine if the institution can provide the kind of environment and resources that you would need to be successful.
How can you make the most of that opportunity? Here’s some advice to keep in mind as you navigate your campus visits. It is based on my own observations and experiences as a senior faculty member who has served on search committees at a PWI, as well as recommendations from underrepresented faculty members in various positions at other institutions.
- Before arriving for your campus visit, study the institution’s strategic plan and its priorities. While you can’t support every institutional priority, you should be prepared to speak to the people interviewing you, especially deans and provosts, about those which you can. If you notice that the institutional priorities have nothing to do with your area(s) of expertise, that could be a potential yellow flag.
- Research the programs the institution already has in place and how you can contribute them. Study the current departmental curriculum and think about what you can teach and what new courses you might develop to expand that curriculum. Ask the search committee how your potential courses would benefit the overall goals of the department. Would any of them fulfill requirements for the major, or would they all be electives? If the answer is the latter, that may be cause for concern.
- Inquire if a recent climate report is available. Study it and determine your comfort level with its findings. Or if a colleague or administrator, unsolicited, brings up such a report, use it as an opportunity to ask about the various ways in which the institution plans to address the issues that report has raised.
- Request a meeting in advance of arriving on the campus with one or two faculty members of color and LGBTQI+ faculty. Most departments will be delighted to arrange such a meeting to reassure you that you will not be isolated. (If a department resists, then that’s a red flag.) At that meeting, ask those faculty members about their experiences and the kinds of resources, onboarding processes and mentoring the institution has offered them and other underrepresented faculty members. Also ask about the number of underrepresented faculty members who have received tenure and promotion in the previous five years.
- If a faculty member of color serves on the search committee yet seems to be aloof, take notice. Their aloofness may signal something negative about the institution’s climate.
- Try to get a feel for the people interviewing and showing you around the campus. Do they seem interested? Bored? Do they ask questions to get to know you? Trust your gut reactions.
- When you give your campuswide research presentation, notice how many underrepresented faculty members are present. If you see none, pause and think about potential reasons for their absence. They could certainly be busy, or their research area may be in an entirely different discipline than yours. But there could also be other, less innocuous, reasons. For instance, I went on a campus visit and was surprised to see no faculty of color during my institutionwide presentation. Later, when I registered my observation with a trusted colleague (who was not on the search committee, but worked at the institution), she revealed to me that faculty members of color were deliberately not present. They were, in fact, protesting poor and hostile climate issues for faculty of color at the university and did not want to encourage new faculty to join it. That was all I needed to know.
- Meet with the leader of any diversity, equity and inclusion committee or initiative the institution already has in place. Ask them, do they have women of color in leadership positions? Are there affinity groups for students, staff and faculty? Are they excited to have you contribute to their DEI initiatives? Also, since faculty members of color are few and far between at most PWIs, you need to consider how involved you want to get in DEI initiatives and how much cultural taxation and invisible labor you are willing to undertake.
- Request to see a schedule of the most recent professional development event. Notice if any sessions are particularly devoted to working conditions of underrepresented faculty.
- Take a walk around the campus and notice how many faculty and underrepresented students you see on it. Pick up the college newspaper or read several issues online, particularly any articles and reports about diversity-related issues on the campus.
- Take note if an entire predominantly white search committee tells you they all treat each other like a family at the institution. Unpack the message they are trying to convey. Such statements could be read as a code—one that alerts you that they expect you to assimilate and not rock the boat.
- Read the faculty handbook, especially the section pertaining to academic freedom. Also, read the mission statement of the college or university, particularly if it has a strong religious affiliation. If misaligned with the institutional mission, whatever you say, teach, research and publish may impact your employment, tenure and promotion.
- Last, when interviewing with a typical PWI, recognize that, from the committee’s point of view, it’s often less about you or your work than it is about how well you’ll assimilate into the institution’s structures, culture and community. While many institutions have made commitments to creating antiracist spaces, white fragility has not been seriously challenged, let alone eliminated. As a faculty member of color or a LGBTQI+ faculty member, how you make white cisgender people feel about themselves is often a crucial factor in how successful the hiring process and your staying power at a particular college or university will be.
All this said, whatever else you do on a campus visit, be honest about who you are, what you can and will contribute, what you will tolerate and what you will not. Such honesty will protect you in the long run and give the committee and their stakeholders an opportunity to determine if the institution is ready for you or not. Besides bringing along some snacks and a water bottle, you may also want to read Robin Kelly’s piece “Confessions of a Nice Negro” before setting out on your next visit. Good luck!