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It’s easy to understand why so many colleges want to increase their share of faculty members who are underrepresented minorities: research suggests that cultural diversity means diversity of thought and experience -- boons to any intellectual enterprise -- and both minority and white students benefit from learning from professors who look like them, and those who don’t.

But actually diversifying faculty ranks is hard. Implicit biases persist in hiring, some academics resist explicit faculty diversity initiatives and data still demonstrate some “pipeline,” or supply, issues, especially in the natural sciences.

Yet a number of campuses have made strides toward achieving faculty diversity in a short period of time. Among them are the University of California, Riverside, and Boston College. Both institutions avoided setting hard numerical goals and opted instead for cluster hiring -- which has been proven to promote faculty diversity elsewhere -- and additional training and support for faculty search committees.

Riverside also asked all candidates for faculty jobs to submit a statement describing how they’ve worked to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in their previous positions -- as graduate students or professors -- and how they planned to continue to do so once on campus. (Pomona College, among others, has recently introduced similar requirements.) By law, faculty candidates cannot be assessed based on their personal characteristics, but there was clearly a correlation between having a compelling diversity statement and coming from a diverse background.

Ken Baerenklau, Riverside's associate provost, said the university's Bourns College of Engineering ran its own simultaneous experiment, by limiting its initial review of candidates to just research records and diversity statements. All three new hires ended up being women, and two of those were underrepresented ethnic minorities (the other hire was an underrepresented religious minority).

“It was striking,” he said. “But I do think it’s natural that those who are committed to diversity themselves or drawn to this part of our mission have had their own life experiences.”

Riverside over the past two hiring cycles recruited 35 new underrepresented-minority faculty members, comprising upwards of 22 percent of all new hires. Historically that figure has been about 13 percent of new hires. And in the most recent cycle, 30 percent of all new minority hires were in the natural sciences, technology, math and engineering. That’s significantly higher than the university's current underrepresented-minority faculty population of approximately 10 percent. And it brings Riverside’s professoriate closer to reflecting the diversity of its students, as 45 percent of undergraduates at the university are from an underrepresented minority background. The share of hires who were women also increased.

At Boston College, 46 percent of the tenure-track and tenured faculty hires last year were from minority backgrounds (39 hires total). Among all full-time hires by the college, including non-tenure-track professors, 38 percent (or 53 total) were minorities, which, in Boston College terminology, is “AHANA.” That means of African, Hispanic, Asian or Native American descent. Counting visiting professors, some 32 percent of new faculty hires (87 total) were AHANA. Currently, less than 20 percent of the Boston College faculty meets that definition, compared to 31 percent of students.

Looking only at underrepresented-minority faculty members, which means excluding professors of Asian descent -- who are in some cases overrepresented -- the figures change but still indicate progress toward diversity. Eighteen percent of new tenure-track and tenured professor hires by the college this year were underrepresented minorities. The current student body is 15 percent minority, while the faculty is less than 8 percent.

How They Did It

Neither Riverside nor Boston College announced major faculty diversity initiatives, and both institutions avoided setting numerical targets, such as a goal of X percent of the faculty being underrepresented minorities by 2025. Instead, they relied on consistent messaging from university leaders about the importance of diversity and other, somewhat more subtle changes.

Cynthia Larive, Riverside’s interim provost, said avoiding particular targets “gets people out of thinking about a quota system. We want to hire outstanding faculty members who can help the institution continue to be successful and, most importantly, who can mentor students.”

Billy Soo, vice provost for faculties at Boston College, said “just having conversations is very important -- getting the search committees and department chairs together sends a clear signal to them that we really care about this.”

Describing something like peer pressure coupled with peer support, Soo said, “Having people sit together and talk about what hiccups their departments are experiencing, and hearing what other departments are doing, puts the onus on everyone there to do something, too.”

In addition to stated commitments to diversity from administrators, both institutions offered additional training to faculty members involved in hiring. Ana M. Martínez Alemán, associate dean of faculty and academic affairs at Boston College, said search committees were up and running earlier than usual this past year, and that she met with each to review best practices focused on equity.

“We review what we know about explicit and implicit biases in academic searches,” such as privileging Ph.D.s from elite institutions and relying on “narrow” networks, she said. Recruitment strategies include working within professional organizations at meetings, especially those that have identified racial and ethnic contingencies, and asking faculty members to contact colleagues in their fields for recommendations, or to apply themselves. All departmental faculty members are provided with template emails for such outreach, so that contact is not limited to the search committee.

Committee membership is approved by the dean, who visits with each to discuss equity. And Boston College provides additional training seminars though its Office of Institutional Diversity.

“We make sure that the goal is clear and that we employ good strategies to recruit candidates of color,” Martínez Alemán said.

Riverside used similar strategies. The university also hoped that its new cluster hiring program, which focused on hiring teams of faculty members to work on particular sets of problems across departments, would offer the ancillary benefit of increasing diversity. The approach worked elsewhere: a 2015 report from the Urban Universities for HEALTH, for example, found that most surveyed institutions that engaged in cluster hiring had appointed faculty members who were more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender than those who were hired through traditional department searches. Other kinds of diversity, such as the intellectual variety, also were reported by the institutions that could measure them.

Riverside’s cluster hiring initiative had a rocky rollout, with faculty members complaining in a survey that it was opaque in terms of how cluster pitches would be assessed. Critics also charged that cluster hiring seemed to supplant, rather than enhance, traditional departmental hiring -- a no-no, according to the emerging literature on effective cluster hiring.

Larive said faculty members still have their concerns about cluster hiring, but that the university is dedicated to making the process more transparent and collaborative. (Many faculty concerns about the initiative were also linked to the former provost, whom Larive replaced, and who resigned from that post facing a planned faculty vote of no confidence in his leadership.) Those comments are supported somewhat by a second faculty survey on cluster hiring in the 2016-17 academic year, the results of which were released last month. "A strong plurality of the responding faculty would support (i) a far more narrowly targeted cluster hiring program that (ii) acknowledges and builds on existing campus/departmental research strengths and/or carefully defined research areas likely to yield high-value research over a long-term research trajectory, in which (iii) departments take the lead role in conducting the cluster searches themselves," reads that report.

The dominant theme in the survey comments was a "need for a far more rigorous articulation between cluster hiring and the departments in which cluster faculty are placed," it says. Further, "there is an overwhelming consensus that the selection of cluster hire themes and recruitment of prospective faculty members often do not account for the programmatic and pedagogical needs of departments, which are the primary locus for [Riverside's] fulfillment of the academic mission."

Baerenklau said cluster hiring led to increased new hires from Native American backgrounds, in part due to the inclusion of an indigenous studies cluster. Chicano and Latino hires increased as a result of both cluster hiring and regular departmental hiring, he said, while regular departmental hiring -- with enhanced training and recruitment efforts -- resulted in increased African-American hires.

The Boston College cluster initiative was smaller (just one funded proposal) but also resulted in increased diversity. Four African-American faculty members were hired: two in English, one in theology and one in arts and art history. All four have joint appointments in the African and African diaspora studies program.

Richard Gaillardetz, Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology and department chair at the college, said he and his fellow theology professors believed that having a colleauge with a joint appointment in African and African disapora studies "was a very important initial step toward creating a more diverse theology faculty." 

He added, "We still have a long way to go in redress a pronounced gender inequity and a grievously inadequate representation of scholars of color. It has been our experience that AHANA faculty members bring a challenging, fresh perspective to our theological conversation."

Soo said this year’s progress is promising and necessary, but just a start. Only with similar gains, year after year, will the college's faculty diversity reflect that of students. For Riverside, Larive said it was hard to know for certain whether the recent gains were a “blip or trend,” but she was confident they would continue. Retaining faculty members of color through a positive climate is another crucial piece of the puzzle, she added. 

“My sense is that faculty are more comfortable with looking at diverse candidates as part of the hiring pool, without thinking of it as an affirmative action kind of hire,” Larive said. “That’s an important breakthrough for us, and we see it as a strategic advantage.”

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