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The University of California, Davis, is launching a pilot hiring program that eliminates the requirement -- typical in department searches -- that candidates have a specific disciplinary specialty.

Davis says the research-backed approach will help it increase faculty diversity.

“Part of having a diverse student body poised for success is having a diverse faculty,” said Philip H. Kass, vice provost for academic affairs. "Part of having intellectual leadership in research and scholarship is having a diverse faculty. Part of bringing students of color into graduate school and academic careers is having a diverse faculty.”

Davis is funding the program with some $422,000 of a $7 million University of California System-wide investment in faculty diversity, in addition to existing campus funds.

The eight school- and college-wide searches that make up the pilot program will, in the university’s words, “cast a broad net and reach out to candidates who are contributing to enhancing diversity and inclusive environments through their research, teaching and service.”

The idea is that a diverse search will lead to a diverse candidate pool. Instead of a focusing on a particular disciplinary expertise, search teams will look for candidates with proven commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion among underrepresented groups, namely black, Latino, Chicano and Native American applicants.

Statements of contributions to diversity already are mandatory for faculty applicants across the California system, but search committees will put greater emphasis on these statements in selecting candidates for interviews. Individual search committees will decide just how to evaluate the documents and other evidence of commitment to diversity, however.

Finalists will be assigned faculty members to serve as confidential advisers and may ask one who has no role in the selection process questions about campus life and climate.

Hires will get up to $12,500 for hiring their own students, traveling or writing workshops, and enrollment in the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity’s program for research productivity and work-life balance.

Participating programs are the Colleges of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Engineering, along with the Graduate School of Management and the Schools of Education, Law, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

Deans of all these colleges expressed interest in the program, according to Davis. The College of Letters and Science was participating in a different diversity grant proposal, and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing received similar campus funding for a new faculty member last year.

Search committees will soon be formed, with the goal of hiring these new professors by July. Davis will pay up to $85,000 toward the salary of each hire. Individual schools or colleges will be responsible for pay above that, and the professors’ entire salaries after five years.

Asked if he had any concerns about these hires upsetting the balance of departments’ disciplinary specialties, Kass said no, as these eight searches will happen alongside 45 traditional faculty searches at the participating programs.

While the open-search approach isn't appropriate for all searches at all schools, Kass said, “we do want to see if it can augment these other processes to accelerate the diversification of our faculty.” Beyond that, he said, “faculty may be hired in disciplines that departments had not contemplated but now want.”

The University of Michigan’s chemistry department saw a 10 percent female applicant pool prior to adopting a diversity program and open searches, from about 1998 to 2003. Then its pool shot up to about 18 percent women. The percentage of underrepresented minority faculty also increased from 2 percent in 2001 to 7 percent in 2014, according to information from that university.

Abigail Stewart, Sandra Schwartz Tangri Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at Michigan, has written about open searches and diversity, including as co-author of the recent book, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence. She said via email that Davis “is to be recognized for its willingness to experiment in this way.”  The university’s “relatively specific, but still broad nature of the participating colleges, and their voluntary participation in the experiment, are all factors that make it highly likely to be successful.” The program will provide valuable insight into this kind of hiring to institutions nationally, she added.

Stewart noted that other institutions have offered “target of opportunity” positions to academic units, as requested, when they find “particularly attractive candidates who don't fit a specific search.” That approach has increased diversity on some campuses, she said, but problems have arisen, such as candidates not having the full support of the unit. Cluster hiring also has helped increased faculty diversity in some instances, as noted in a 2015 report from the Urban Universities for HEALTH. But Stewart said that cluster hires have “a very mixed record in terms of advancing diversity and of successful long-term outcomes.”

While Davis’s approach has all the makings of a successful one, she said, “internal hiring environments” still matter. Units with other opportunities to hire professors based on perceived disciplinary needs may be more open hiring someone “they otherwise might not consider, but would be happy to have.” But where positions are scarce overall, she said, “then the tendency will be for the unit to try to identify someone within the broad pool who fits the narrower niche not overtly specified.” And such narrow considerations “can end up trumping the opportunities offered by open searching.” Stewart therefore recommends having “open as possible” searches and says the key “is how the search process is managed on the ground, not just the creation of the apparently open position.” Effective recruitment of candidates is equally important, she said, since open searches can be “slightly puzzling” to potential applicants.

Davis’s faculty is currently 9.2 percent underrepresented minority. The university is moving toward becoming a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution. One qualification for that recognition is that, for at least one year, one-quarter of domestic, full-time students be Hispanic. Davis says it will reach that threshold this fall.

Roland Faller, professor of chemical engineering at Davis, said he thought the open-search process is “a really a good way to foster interdepartmental collaboration and increase diversity at the same time.”

While one “of course has to be mindful about the needs of the departments,” he said, the wider a search is, the more likely it is “to find a broad, diverse pool in all respects.” That’s one reason his department tries to keep its own searches open in terms of research area.

“We typically have an open search with potentially a focus in one or two certain areas rather than a narrow search,” Faller said. The approach “allows us to also respond quickly if we identify candidates in exciting new areas which are just emerging, in addition to having a larger diversity of the pool.”

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