Diversity or Conformity

Professors say search committees too frequently doom minority candidates.
June 2, 2005

If you want a diverse faculty, you need to pay more attention to search committees, according to speakers at a panel Wednesday at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.

About 60 faculty members and administrators attended the session, in a Manhattan hotel, which was organized in a circle so audience members could fully participate. They traded stories of searches marred by inappropriate questions and faulty assumptions.

Many of the faculty members -- asking that their names and institutions not be identified -- shared experiences from search committees where they said minority candidates were assessed for their ability to “fit in” to the department. The phrase itself brought groans from an obviously familiar crowd. “They question if someone will fit in,” said one professor. “But if you get comments in recommendations like ‘they play well with others,’ it’s assumed it’s because they haven’t done enough good work.”

To some at the session, not “fitting in” is precisely the point. “I don’t think some discomfort would be a bad thing,” said Omega Barton, an undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan. “It stretches people.”

Many faculty members present said that the educational value of diversity must be built in to the search process. “If the policy is that we need diversity as an educational benefit to our students,” said Robert Crosman, associate professor of English at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, “then that criteria has to be built in, or it can’t be considered.”

An affirmative action officer who asked not to be identified said that some information that is supposed to be excluded unfortunately occasionally enters into the search process. The officer said that when “fitting in” talk begins about minority candidates, faculty members often start discussing gossip about the candidates’ personalities. The officer expressed the desire to stop a particular search in which that had happened, but “I do serve at the pleasure of the president,” the officer said. “And if the faculty hate me too much, I don’t have a job.”

Another faculty member gave an example of what speakers called “raising the bar.” The faculty member said that, in at least one case, men and women were evaluated differently in a search at her institution. She recalled a search committee that delighted at comments about a male candidate’s teaching, but saw it as a red flag for a female candidate, perhaps “code language” for lack of research.

The buzz-term “cultural competence,” which recently lit a controversy at the University of Oregon as part of a five-year diversity plan, came up several times. At Oregon, many professors were upset with what they saw as a vague term that might be used to evaluate faculty members and that would place diversity issues above others.

“'Cultural competence' is understanding your own social station and the personalities and profits of your group membership and talking about that with new hires,” said JoAnn Moody, a diversity consultant and one of the session moderators. Carla Gary, assistant vice provost at Oregon, was among the attendees, and expressed her dismay that faculty members at Oregon reacted so defensively to the term “cultural competence” in the diversity plan. “This is not a new idea,” she said. “We’re not saying add an African American, a gay person and a woman and stir. We’re talking about the endless possibilities we can realize if we engage different people, and see through different eyes.”

Moody added that having faculty members from many different nations is not always a safe road to more diversity. “Immigrant professors ... often figure, ‘I came here without even the language,’ ” Moody said, explaining why some faculty members on search committees play down the educational benefits of diversity.

Judy Jackson, dean of the college at Vassar College, and the other session moderator, said that diversity is attainable for all institutions if their goals are concrete. “They need a definition of diversity,” she said. “If an institution knows why it wants diversity, and is serious about getting it, then they can get it,” Jackson said.

But for some diversity issues, few pragmatic solutions were proffered. Crosman, the professor from Alaska, said that there are few minority candidates with Ph.D.s in his state, and that it is very difficult to coax qualified professors to Anchorage. “How do you tell them about the winter?” asked one of the moderators. “We interview them in the summer,” Crosman said.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top