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Did you know that full-time faculty at four-year universities are:

  • 225 percent more likely to be of a non-Christian faith than other U.S. adults.
  • 131 percent more likely to be on the political left.
  • 60 percent more likely to identify as LGBTQ.
  • 55 percent more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.
  • 55 percent less likely to be Black and 67 percent less likely to be Hispanic.

How do I know? Thanks to two recent publications by Musa al-Gharbi, a Columbia sociologist who I consider among the most insightful social and cultural commentators who I regularly read (see here and here). His papers underscore how radically the professoriate differs from the general population, not only demographically, but economically, ideologically and politically and in terms of religion and sexual orientation.

For example:

  • The overwhelming majority of Ph.D. candidates come from relatively affluent families.
  • More than half of full-time faculty have at least one parent with an advanced degree.
  • The professoriate is growing increasingly ideologically homogeneous.

Want to know where I got that information? From al-Gharbi’s papers.

Al-Gharbi isn’t easy to pin down ideologically. If pressed, I’d say he falls into the camp that is loosely labeled heterodox. That doesn’t mean that his views mirror those of others associated with heterodoxy, like the NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He is, for instance, much more likely than other heterodox thinkers to write about systemic bias, opportunity hoarding, bias and discrimination. But it does mean that he combines open-mindedness with a critical sensibility and a staunch commitment to viewpoint pluralism and empiricism with an emphasis on social justice.

What I find especially striking in his writing is his refusal to subordinate scholarship to ideology or partisan politics.

Nothing better illustrates his heterodoxy than his focus on two facets of diversity that are typically treated in isolation: identity diversity—race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation—and viewpoint diversity—ideological, moral, religious and political. His papers consider both aspects of representativeness essential.

You have no doubt seen recent research that suggests that at the current pace, faculty demographics will literally never approach parity with the U.S. writ large. Al-Gharbi’s papers explains why that is a problem. In his view, this isn’t just a matter of social justice or equity. It’s ultimately about scholarship, teaching, mentoring and public trust in expertise and science.

What explains the faculty’s unrepresentativeness and the sluggishness of change? Al-Gharbi looks closely and critically three core barriers to change:

  1. Pipeline problems. There are, al-Gharbi shows, significant differences in Ph.D. attainment along lines of gender and ethnicity. But, as he also demonstrates, there is much more that campuses could do to address the pipeline issue and many highly qualified women, Black and Latino/a candidates that institutions could hire.
  2. Bias and discrimination. For all the academy’s professed claims to equity, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and female professors are overrepresented in positions ineligible for tenure and are significantly more likely to be denied tenure and promotion. In addition, these individuals, as well as ideological outliers are overrepresented in “less prestigious schools and less lucrative fields,” and “even within the same rank [and] department,” are typically paid less. Al-Gharbi also shows that “conservative faculty, when hired at all, tend to be concentrated in less prestigious schools (even after controlling for factors like the school they graduated from or publication frequency and quality).”
  3. The slow rate of faculty turnover. Even though the faculty is much more diverse than it was a generation ago, the professoriate’s characteristics “tend to evolve much more slowly than the general population.” Delayed retirement, stagnating (or in some instances, shrinking) faculty size and shifts in hiring toward fields with fewer diverse Ph.D.s mean that parity within the next thirty years is unlikely to be achieved without “dramatic changes in hiring, promotion and retention.”

“Overwhelmingly,” al-Gharbi writes, “academics tend to endorse the idea that the professoriate should reflect the society it serves.” But why, one might well ask, is the faculty’s lack of representativeness a problem? After all, similar disparities can be found across the knowledge economy: in journalism, law, consulting, tech and finance.

Is the representativeness problem a matter of social justice? A barrier to student success? A lack of faculty relatability? Or something else?

Al-Gharbi argues that “This gulf between the ivory tower and the rest of society undermines knowledge production, pedagogy and public trust in experts and scientific claims.”

How so?

In terms of knowledge production, he refers, largely, to the existing faculty’s identity and ideological commitments, which, he argues, influence which research is funded and published, who is hired and promoted and whether “inconvenient findings and narratives (and the academics who produced them)” are marginalized or suppressed. Al-Gharbi cites studies that demonstrate bias in “PhD admissions, peer review, institutional review boards, faculty hiring and promotion.”

I can certainly cite examples from my own field. Among the works largely ignored by the historical establishment early in the last century were the pioneering studies of Black historians, including Carter Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois and, in the 1960s, works by scholars like Lerone Bennett Jr. and, even today, books by brilliant current scholars like Gerald Horne.

As  al-Gharbi demonstrates, positionality and homogeneity affect knowledge production in several ways: influencing scholars’ objects of study and their prior assumptions, perspectives and commitments, while reinforcing confirmation bias, encouraging “motivated reasoning” (selecting and evaluating evidence to suit their own preferences) and treating the dominant perspective as “obvious, natural, objective, [and] inevitable.”

Al-Gharbi’s regards a lack of viewpoint diversity as a genuine problem. Without heterodoxy in terms of identity and ideology, the conventional wisdom inevitably reinforces itself and exacerbates and overlooks omissions and errors. Above all, ideological homogeneity “undermines the quality and impact of research” and the public’s willingness to accept expert claims.

What about teaching? Is there any reason to believe that diversity, whether defined by identity or ideology, influences teaching effectiveness or classroom practice? If so, why is this the case? Is this a matter of classroom environment, instructor attitudes, behavioral and academic expectations, cultural background and relevance, student-faculty relationships, role modeling, approachability and receptivity, pedagogy or instructional style? The correct answer: all of the above.

Instructors’ identity does have an impact. As one commentator summed up the existing research: “In high school and college math and science courses, studies have shown that when women have a female instructor, they get higher grades, participate more in class and are more likely to continue to pursue the subject.”

Of course, an instructor’s personality, patience, passion, enthusiasm, understanding, accessibility, humor, warmth, creativity organization, perceived expertise, communication capabilities and disciplinary practices—these too make a big difference and mustn’t be minimized. One solution: to treat a demonstrated commitment to mentoring as a priority in the hiring process.

Al-Gharbi ends his most recent paper on a negative note. He argues that the current strategies to diversify the professoriate—such as pipeline programs, antibias training, cluster hiring and mandatory DEI commitment statements by job candidates—are unlikely to succeed in the absence of far more radical measures.

I think he is wrong. For one thing, that paper exaggerates the extent to which faculty are delaying retirement into their 70s and 80s. Faculty turnover is occurring faster than he thinks. To take one example: the average retirement age at the University of Michigan, for faculty members is “66, up just slightly from 10 years ago.” Of course, if institutions are indeed committed to diversifying their faculty, all they need to do is offer more faculty buyouts and to offer ways for retirees to remain connected to the campus. All of us have our price—and that price is probably lower than senior administrators think.

I think al-Gharbi also underestimates the potential to diversify STEM faculty by actively recruiting practicing professionals from diverse backgrounds. Many such individuals are very well qualified to teach especially in applied fields and could help campuses better prepare undergraduates for postgraduation employment.

Yet another strategy would be to hire many more diverse candidates in hybrid roles that combine academic, professional and administrative responsibilities. Currently, campus employment is rising most rapidly among nonteaching professionals, including advisers, instructional designers and technologists, assessment specialists, career counselors and learning support personnel. In my judgment, many of these individuals are already well equipped to teach in areas that campuses desperately need. Future hiring should be made with an eye toward teaching as well as to their administrative or service responsibilities, with tenure a possibility—much as many librarians are currently eligible for tenure.

Here are my takeaways: faculty diversity matters, not simply as a matter of justice or equity but as a way to enhance the three responsibilities universities value most—teaching, research and community and professional service. Nor is something approaching faculty diversity unachievable within our lifetimes. It will require the kind of affirmative action that I would hope no one would dispute: building and expanding pipelines, broadening our definition of candidate quality and qualifications, aggressively pursuing job candidates who are genuinely dedicated to student success and to pathbreaking research, and attaching greater value to the very qualities we claim to care about—faculty who are community engaged, culturally responsive and dedicated to mentoring not just doctoral candidates, but all students.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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