Not Just 'Musical Chairs'

Beyond well-funded individual campus initiatives aimed at increasing the number of underrepresented minority faculty members, experts urge collaboration across institutions and within disciplines.

September 19, 2016

Increased faculty diversity has long been a goal of many colleges and universities. But a number of institutions have recently put their money where their mouths are, so to speak, launching expensive initiatives aimed at making their faculties more representative of their respective student bodies and the U.S. population. And while these initiatives are comprehensive, targeting multiple potential points of entry into -- and exit from -- the faculty candidate pool, a good portion of the funds are reserved for recruiting underrepresented minorities already working in academe or new Ph.D.s.

These patterns have led some to wonder whether the net effect of these individual initiatives across academe will be zero -- just a shifting of diverse candidates from institution to institution -- instead of a real demographic change.

Are those concerns legitimate? And how can a net-zero outcome be avoided? Experts say the answers lie in trial and error, inclusivity efforts, earlier interventions with students, and -- perhaps less obviously but no less crucially -- collaboration.

One of the biggest such initiatives is under way at Brown University, which earlier this year said it was dedicating $100 million to diversity and inclusion, including $50 million for faculty diversity efforts. Richard Locke, provost, likened the potential pass-the-faculty problem to a costly game of “musical chairs.”

“That’s the biggest concern,” he said. “When we released our report and everyone else released their reports around the same time, I kind of froze and said, ‘Oh, God, if we’re all doing this, what’s going to happen?’ Our approach has to not be simply going out and poaching people from other universities, but building up the population -- not just for us but for all universities.”

Brown’s faculty plan never hinged on poaching. The people aspect of its Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan includes multiple simultaneous strategies aimed at attracting and retaining underrepresented faculty members. Examples include hosting Young Scholars Conferences to provide mentoring and guidance, thus far for those working in certain sciences; creating a Presidential Diversity Postdoctoral Fellows Program, from which two recent cohort alumni have been hired into tenure-track positions; investing in faculty mentoring; launching campus networks for early-career faculty members of color; and training professors involved in tenure and promotion decisions about conscious and unconscious bias.

But Brown has also announced that it will double the number of faculty members from historically underrepresented groups by 2022, reflecting an increase of at least 60 professors. So it’s of course under pressure -- both from within and without -- to show real results, relatively quickly, and a number of its strategies do or could entail recruiting talent from other institutions. It is creating endowed professorships for scholars working on issues of diversity, social justice, power and privilege; engaging in cluster hiring with an eye toward diversity in those teams; launching a diverse visiting scholars program; and revitalizing a Target of Opportunity program that shortcuts the traditional search process for scholars of “extraordinary” value to the university.

Locke says much headway has been made so far by even simpler means, such as rewriting job ads to make them as inclusive as possible, and attempting to circulate them beyond the standard avenues. The idea is to reach people who, for a variety of reasons, never would have considered applying for a job at Brown. A bigger, more diverse applicant pool can only help improve faculty excellence, he said.

So how have all those efforts played out so far? Brown hired 35 new tenure-line professors this year. Eleven were from underrepresented groups, two of whom had permanent positions elsewhere. A few were in visiting positions at other campuses or were in private industry. The rest were graduate students or Brown postdocs.

With these additions, Brown now has 73 underrepresented faculty members of 751 total, or about 9.7 percent. That’s up from 8.1 percent since 2014-15, Brown’s baseline for its efforts.

For reference, Brown defines historically underrepresented groups as those who self-identify as American Indian, Alaskan native, African-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander.

Yale University recently announced progress in its own $50 million faculty diversity program. Ben Polak, provost, told faculty members that his development fund, which supports the appointment of professors who contribute to diversity or other strategically important values, committed resources to 26 ladder faculty members in its first year.

Thomas Conroy, a spokesperson for Yale, declined to provide details on where the scholars were coming from or how many were already teaching at other institutions. But he said the university “recognizes the need to expand and develop the pool of young scholars who will contribute to the excellence and diversity of future generations of faculty.” Examples include the Graduate School Dean’s Emerging Scholars Initiative, designed to help attract and retain the best Ph.D. students who enhance diversity and excellence. Fifteen incoming Ph.D. students were admitted as fellows through the program and another 10 received competitive research awards, he said. The Provost’s Faculty Development Fund also provides resources to expand postbaccalaureate programs that help promising students transition to graduate school and academic careers.

Brown also has a number of diversity efforts directed at graduate students, whose underrepresented minority ranks it also wants to double by 2022. It's also working with undergraduates, to encourage more students of color to pursue Ph.D.s in the first place. Retention and recruitment efforts at both those levels are key, experts say, to keeping graduate students within the faculty pipeline, and encouraging more students to follow them.

The University of Missouri -- whose Columbia campus was a flash point for college and university discussions about race last fall -- also is striving toward increased faculty diversity. It has said that it wants to double the percentage of historically underrepresented faculty by 2020, up from 6.7 percent currently. It has added $600,000 to its Faculty Incentive and Excellence fund to recruit and retain diverse professors, for a total of $1.3 million. Last week, it announced an additional $1 million investment to come from intellectual property revenue to recruit minority postdocs, with the goal of retaining them in the long term. It’s seeking additional donations to continue the program.

While the funds being added represent real money for Missouri, which has far fewer resources than Brown or Yale, it amounts to fraction of what those institutions can spend to -- potentially -- lure faculty members.

Doing More Together

Columbia and Harvard Universities and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, have their own well-funded faculty diversity initiatives. And like the plans at Yale, Brown, Missouri and other institutions, these plans revolve around improving their own statistics -- attracting praise but also criticism from those who say universities could do more if they work together.

One of the most vocal critics of individual diversity initiatives is Bernard Milano, executive director of The PhD Project, which aims to improve diversity among business professors. The program is funded by the KPMG Foundation, partner colleges and universities, the makers of the Graduate Management Admission Test, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and various business faculty groups. Its budget is relatively small -- some $2.4 million -- and goes to marketing efforts to recruit those working in business or studying in undergraduate or master’s programs to pursue Ph.D.s. It's also heavy on networking opportunities, so those in graduate school feel supported by peers and mentors. There is no direct support to graduate students. Yet it graduates about 50 students per year and says 97 percent of alumni are teaching in colleges or universities.

“When I heard about Yale committing $50 million to faculty diversity, I thought about our program and how over 22 years we’ve spent $49 million,” Milano said. “If you just carved out a little from what Brown and Yale and Harvard have committed to a national program, that could be very effective.”

Milano didn’t necessarily dismiss those individual campus efforts, but he said he's convinced that real change is best achieved through collaboration across campuses, by discipline. The PhD Project works with 300 institutions, which have welcomed more than 1,000 new minority instructors into their ranks.

“Unless these institutions do something to increase the pool across higher ed, it will not increase,” he said. “They have to go out to people getting their undergraduate degrees in these respective fields and plant the seed about getting a Ph.D. to become a professor -- that’s the missing component.” (Milano also said such programs have to help their recruits solve the “opportunity cost” of attending graduate school, especially for those who might otherwise seek or continue more immediately lucrative work.)

The PhD Project is not the only collaborative effort aimed at increasing diversity in the eventual faculty candidate pool. But they are relatively uncommon -- especially considering the resources so many institutions are devoting to the issue.

Kimberly Griffin, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park who has studied early-career choices by academics of color, said the problem, in part, is one of incentives.

“It's hard for individual institutional efforts, especially early on, to go beyond activities that will benefit their individual institutions in some way,” she said. “When your students are mad at you and you’re facing other kinds of pressure, intuitively, your thoughts turn immediately to ‘How do we increase faculty diversity? How do we improve our own policies and programs?’”

Like Milano, Griffin said she was increasingly convinced that collaborative efforts were the key to real gains in faculty diversity across higher education; she’s currently working on grants with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities that aim to scale up diversity efforts through partnerships and by amplifying successful strategies. But she said group efforts might happen not just across disciplines, with the help of disciplinary organizations, but also in other configurations -- such as across a state university system.

Still, Griffin called initiatives such as Yale’s and Brown’s a “great start” to eventual collaborative successes.

Lorelle Espinosa, assistant vice president for the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, said she agreed that “an alliance or consortia approach is going to see that much more powerful gains, if it’s executed the right way.” At the same time, she said, there’s no “silver bullet” to the issue of faculty diversity, “and certainly there is power in numbers. With Brown and Yale making their mark on this issue, it’s another signal to higher education that this is important work.”

Espinosa added, “We’re still in a period of long-running experimentation.”

Locke, at Brown, said he wouldn’t be opposed to partnering with other institutions or disciplinary organizations going forward. He said he was heartened to see some individual departments already have started this kind of work as part of their own, unit-specific initiatives. Brown also is home to the national Leadership Alliance Summer Research-Early Identification Program, which provides nine-week summer study opportunities for undergraduates considering graduate school.

There's room for more collaboration, with time.

"This is not going to be addressed effectively if we all go off and do our own thing, without any coordination or collaboration or information sharing," Locke said. "All of us are learning as we go."


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