Does Faculty Diversity Need Targets?

Brown U. says it will double underrepresented minority faculty ranks in 10 years. What's its strategy? Why do some institutions favor -- and some avoid -- specific goals?

April 6, 2015
Brown University
Liza Cariaga-Lo

Brown University made a bold promise at its inaugural National Diversity Summit last month: to double its proportion of underrepresented minority faculty by 2025. The announcement, to which the faculty was already privy, drew praise on campus and off, but also questions about how Brown would achieve such a goal. It sparked a larger discussion about the best way for institutions to aggressively diversify faculties, too, especially at elite institutions, when candidate pools remain relatively small.

Currently, 9 percent of Brown’s faculty is underrepresented minority (an additional 11 percent is Asian-American). That’s relatively high among Ivy League colleges, but still far below the percentage that would mirror Brown’s proportion of underrepresented minority undergraduates, which is about 20 percent (another 13 percent is Asian-American; Brown also hopes to increase that figure and the overall climate for minority students and faculty as part of a broader strategic plan emphasizing diversity).

So how can Brown enact such change? Liza Cariaga-Lo, vice president for academic development, diversity and inclusion, described in an interview a multipronged approach that relies heavily on “developing the young talent of scholars from diverse backgrounds, to identify individuals who will be competitive for faculty positions here at Brown.”

One method is by creating a new postdoctoral fellowship program, in which early-career scholars who have finished their Ph.D.s within the last five years will be invited to work closely with Brown faculty members for two years, particularly on integrated areas of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

Another piece of the plan aims at closing the so-called leaky pipeline between graduate school and the professoriate, when many students leave academe for industry or other jobs. Cariaga-Lo said Brown is sponsoring a young scholars program, in which a small “cadre” of advanced outside graduate students will be invited to conferences on campus to work with faculty members, again on “integrated” areas of scholarship. The first conference will take place this fall, and center on the theme of “the brain.”

“We’ll bring in scholars from underrepresented backgrounds, including women, to be able to have them present their work, but also be mentored by and have the opportunity to talk to scholars not just here at Brown but also other scholars from other campuses,” Cariaga-Lo said. “We’ll work with them on trying to facilitate work on their dissertations and career development, and various other ways we might help them as they consider their careers.”

A third arm is aimed at helping faculty of color and women in the physical sciences -- which are particularly lacking in diversity -- “be able to thrive and be productive in their work here at Brown,” Cariaga-Lo said. That means expanding professional development opportunities for underrepresented groups. (Brown has a separate goal of doubling its proportion of women in the physical sciences, which is about 15 percent.)

Brown’s other major commitment is to work closely with departments on “accountability” related to climate, so that underrepresented minorities are not only hired but want to stay at Brown, Cariaga-Lo said. “We’re asking that each department in the fall develop its own diversity action plan, so that my office will be looking and monitoring on a yearly basis whether or not they meet those goals and objectives.” Such plans might include curricular innovations related to diversity and metrics for measuring progress, she said.

These efforts build on Brown's existing affirmative action practices in recruitment, which entail proactive outreach to and careful, holistic reviews of applicants who historically have been underrepresented in their disciplines. "Faculty search committees are required to make a good faith effort to ensure a diverse pool of candidates," Cariaga-Lo said. "We are developing new metrics to look at both short-term and long-term considerations of diverse candidate pools and hires in departments."

As a "21st-century university," Cariaga-Lo added, "we want to be a leader in providing the resources to support an ever more diverse student body. This is an opportunity to try to address the many needs of these diverse students by ensuring that the faculty and administration have sufficient experience and tools to be able to address their concerns.”

Though the plan is still somewhat in flux -- there’s no price tag yet, for example -- faculty members at Brown seem to support the overall goal of doubling the percentage of underrepresented minorities. The idea was generally well-received at a faculty meeting last semester, when President Christina Paxson first shared her goal with professors. James Morone, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and the John Hazen White Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, said there’s “a lot of commitment on the part of the faculty to supporting the goal of diversity at Brown.”

Morone said the faculty has been “keenly awaiting details about how exactly it’s going to happen, but I think everybody who’s spoken up at faculty meetings has really been pushing hard for this goal. There’s a really strong sense that we’d like to be leaders in this area, and in some of our departments there’s a strong sense that we really could be doing more.”

He said committing to diversity aligned with Brown’s values, adding, “We’ve really been waiting for strong leadership and a good plan to really take the plunge and make our mark in the world of higher education in this way.”

Benjamin Reese Jr., vice president and chief diversity officer at Duke University, and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said the first step to any successful diversity initiative is making sure that “the strategy the institution uses should align with the nature of the that institution, and where it’s sort of at historically” -- which he said seems to be the case at Brown.

Beyond that, Reese said bold numerical goals can be good motivators for progress; Duke announced it was going to double its number of black faculty members in 1993, as part of its Black Faculty Strategic Initiative, within 10 years. It hit its target of 88 faculty members, up from 44, a year early. The initiative, somewhat similar to Brown’s, provided university funds to hire and offer professional development to new faculty members, as well as means of tracking and recruiting minority candidates. It eventually morphed into a broader faculty diversity strategic plan supporting the careers of other underrepresented groups.

“For a particular school setting, if a numerical goal works for that environment, that’s a decision for the leadership,” he added. “I don’t think one size fits all.”

Reese said Brown’s “grow-your-own” approach to filling the pipeline with well-mentored advanced graduate students and postdocs was a more common feature of institutional diversity plans. He said it’s also important to include current faculty in discussions about the kinds of implicit bias that can drive hiring decisions, as well as how to recruit and entice minority faculty candidates.

That’s all beyond any existing diversity protocols for search committees, he said, which vary from campus to campus. Reese said some colleges require that a certain number of candidates from underrepresented groups be interviewed; others rely on "intense oversight" of the search committee. In the latter case, Reese said, it's "not so much 'do you have one of these and two of those,' but a real, in-depth assessments of what you've done" to ensure that the candidate pool is diverse.

Reese said one strategy isn't necessarily better than the other, but that "one of the challenges of requiring a search committee to interview a certain candidate is that it runs the risk of being a perfunctory interview, where everyone in the search committee knows that this person is not going to be a finalist." Broader diversity initiatives, such as Brown's, help widen the pool of diverse applicants over all. 

The University of Pennsylvania's diversity initiative, announced in 2011, also is focused on filling the pipeline with more diverse faculty candidates, including women and other underrepresented groups. But Penn chose not to put a numerical target on its five-year plan. The program still has yielded results. In just two years, between fall 2011 and 2013, for example, the percentage of news hires who were underrepresented minorities shot up from 9 percent to 14 percent. Total underrepresented minority faculty grew from 6 percent in 2010 to 7 percent in 2013. Minority professors over all increased from 13 percent in 2013 to 16 percent in 2014.

Anita Allen, vice provost for faculty, said she “loves and respects” Brown, but that it’s “more important to Penn that we have a strong and diverse faculty than to focus on a particular number.” Allen, a legal scholar, said that race-based, numerical targets have a long and complicated history in higher education. But the most important reason to think twice about them, she said, is that falling short can make any diversity initiative seem like a failure -- even if it’s been wildly successful in achieving its other goals.

“The challenge of a specific target like that is of course we’re talking about a finite pool of new Ph.D.s and new professional school graduates and continuing scholars,” Allen said. “I just don’t know that it’s wise to present those kinds of goals as being imperative to the real goal, which is making the faculty diverse and inclusive.”

But Penn did put another kind of number on its diversity initiative -- a big one: $50 million from the university, matched by each of its schools. Allen said meaningful funding has to be a part of any successful initiative, since putting more Ph.D.s into the pipeline and eventually luring them to take jobs in academe -- presumably amid intense competition between institutions seeking to diversify -- is expensive.

Penn’s plan -- which defines diversity broadly, including racial minorities, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and disabled people, as well as veterans -- focuses on faculty recruitment through some endowed professorships, funds for competitive hiring and retention, and facilitating dual careers. It also aims to grow local recruitment pools of graduate students.

The plan emphasizes faculty climate, too, as well as retention and diversity in leadership. Like Brown, it hopes to nurture young scholars through postdoctoral programs and a new predoctoral program that allows six graduate students in the social science and humanities at other universities to spend a year at Penn while completing their dissertations.

Allen said not all graduate students involved in such programs will get hired at Penn, but that helping minority students prepare for careers in academe is to “everyone’s benefit.”

Graduate students aren’t the only students targeted by diversity initiatives. A newly announced $8.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the Associated Colleges of the Midwest and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes the Big Ten Conference member universities and the University of Chicago, is reaching farther down the academic pipeline, to minority and women undergraduates.

The seven-year initiative, called the Undergraduate and Faculty Fellows Program for a Diverse Professoriate, will offer college students internships at research universities in the humanities, social sciences and the arts. (The program complements similar, ongoing efforts in the natural sciences.) The program also will provide faculty fellowships in tenure-track positions for 30 new terminal-degree holders from underrepresented backgrounds at the associated colleges, as well as a series of annual meetings and workshops for colleges and universities focused on diverse and inclusive faculties.

Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, said the goal of the program was to “make the pipeline bigger and create as many viable candidates for slots in our graduate programs or postdoctoral programs or faculties as possible. Quite frankly, we know the numbers are not great in our universities with respect to the representation of underrepresented groups, and any movement positively toward the right is what we want to accomplish.”

Many of the colleges associated with the grant have much smaller budgets with which to work on diversity than Brown and Penn -- both Ivy League institutions with large endowments. Christopher Welna, president of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, said the colleges must have "sobering" conversations about how they'd fund the tenure-track positions, for example, after the grant runs out, but that the general consensus was "this is what's in our mission statement -- this is an opportunity to give additional energy to our efforts to achieve these goals." He added, "Several of us said, 'This isn't going to be easy, but this is where we need to be in the future.'"

Regardless of how well -- or with how much money -- a campus plans to diversify its faculty, Allen, of Penn, said, the plan will fall apart if there’s too little focus on climate and retention.

“You can hire as many good people as you can afford, and you can offer as much in the way of financial incentives as possible, but if the atmosphere is not welcoming, if it’s toxic or uninviting, or acrimonious or sexist or racist or intolerant in any way, you’re just going to be out,” she said. “There’s just no way of increasing or doubling or meeting these goals if the climate is not there.”

Penn’s faculty climate surveys, like those at most institutions, traditionally suggest that minority and women faculty don’t feel that the climate is as positive as their white, male colleagues do, Allen said. For that reason Penn’s diversity plan is backstopped by a focus on faculty mentoring, work-life balance, tolerance and accommodation for disability.

“All those kinds of things matter,” she said.

Kecia Thomas, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology and associate dean of faculty leadership and development in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia who has written about faculty diversity, said she thought the most “effective ways to support an aggressive diverse-faculty recruitment strategy would be to ensure that leaders and the larger climate are supportive of diversity and inclusion.”

Specifically, Thomas added via email, “resources could be directed to training [human resources] and search committee chairs and department heads on long-term efforts to cultivate a pipeline of minority faculty. Also providing implicit bias training and providing some level of certification that search committee members are prepared to effectively engage in a successful search are other suggestions. Online webinars and in-person training could support this.”

All of that could go a long way to ensuring that Brown’s plan works out long-term, in that “these underrepresented faculty hires are not marginalized nor are stigmatized due to these affirmative action efforts,” she said.

Whatever the result, Reese, of Duke, said he applauded Brown and other institutions for tackling such an issue.

“The challenge of having a diverse leadership and faculty is one of the most important challenges for the academy,” he said.


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