A shortage of diversity among faculty members is a stain on our higher education system, but it’s not for lack of trying on the part of college administrators or academic leaders. Instead we may have misdiagnosed the problem. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 45 percent of college and university students in the United States come from underrepresented groups, while only 24 percent of faculty members do. Retention rates are affected; student satisfaction is impacted. And the promise of academe falls short.
To be fair, we are seeing improvement in the junior faculty ranks that may, in time, translate into greater diversity in the senior ranks. At the moment, however, we are failing both diverse faculty candidates and students, who, whatever their race or gender, benefit from exposure to professors from all backgrounds.
Typically, the diagnosis is that implicit (and sometimes explicit) bias is impeding progress in diversity hiring and hence the remedy becomes sensitizing people to their prejudices. Accordingly, extra attention is paid to recognizing and correcting for bias by scrutinizing short lists or monitoring questions put to candidates to avoid prejudicial inquiry. Whole new administrative positions are created to enforce these standards.
While bias may be the root of the problem at some institutions, it is far from a universal condition. Having worked for six different universities -- private and public -- over a 30-year span, I can attest that the vast majority of academic departments are eager to hire new colleagues from underrepresented groups.
They are not paying lip service to the goal; they mean it. Accordingly, they willingly embrace these remedies. But antidiscrimination practices don’t move the needle, because the problem of bias is not, in general, what is driving hiring patterns. What’s more, as the authoritative work of Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev has shown, organizations that utilize antibias training have even worse records than those that do not.
Instead, the shortage of faculty diversity lies in the clash between the dual desire of universities to both increase diversity and satisfy their need for highly specialized professors to meet fairly defined specifications. At times, that is because the only way to secure a line is to demonstrate that a key lacuna must be remedied, especially if a retirement or departure has created the gap. An English department that loses its major Shakespeare specialist is going to want to request another. A history department whose 19th-century United States expert retires will ask for a replacement and argue -- quite rightly -- that it won't be able to cover an essential period that all history departments require.
Alternatively, a department that cannot maintain its reputation if it cannot move into a new, hot field will argue that it must be able to pursue candidates that can fill that need. Departments that only get to hire a new person when they can make a compelling argument for a specialist along these lines, a situation common in all but the wealthiest institutions, have stored-up desires about what they need.
And they aren’t wrong. They do indeed need to fill these spaces or develop these new areas if they are going to keep up their research portfolios. The likelihood that faculty members from underrepresented groups are in plentiful supply in all these specialized areas is slim. But asking faculty to choose between the goal of diversity and the desire to fill these specific desiderata is pitting one value against another -- and specialization is winning.
At the University of Massachusetts Boston, a majority-minority public university, we have employed a strategy that acknowledges and addresses these dual goals. When departments are filling academic openings that require a highly specialized professor, we allow and encourage them to propose a second position that a scholar with related but not necessarily identical expertise can fill, as long as the second candidate is from an underrepresented group. For example, if a history department is looking specifically to fill an opening for a Civil War scholar, it could hire in that field and present another scholar whose focus is Reconstruction. If we are looking for a senior scholar in engineering, we will consider a second hire who is junior (or vice versa).
Under this approach, the tension between hiring a specialist with exactly the expertise originally envisioned and making a diverse hire melts into opportunity.
We have set aside a minimum of 20 percent of our faculty hiring budget for this “two-fer” system, and the resources behind it are permanent and fulsome rather than temporary (e.g., two or three years of salary). Departments keep the line for as long as that diverse scholar is employed. Should that person leave, the salary reverts to a “diversity bank” and can be reused to enable another department (or the same one) to bid for another position.
The early returns are promising. At UMass Boston last year, our 23 hires yielded eight African Americans, four Latinx scholars, three Asian Americans, two Native Americans and three women in STEM. Our experience stands in stark contrast to the track record of many other institutions that are equally devoted to diversity.
The system has galvanized our academic leadership to the point that departments are hiring from the ranks of underrepresented groups well beyond what our 20 percent fund covers. Energized by the opportunities, departments came up with a bumper crop of extraordinary faculty members who have now joined us regardless of the source of the line.
The success of this approach in changing the composition of our faculty will take time. But if we follow this policy every year, we will gradually see a faculty that looks a lot more like our majority-minority student body. Efforts to improve retention will need to follow for this hiring plan to result in true compositional change.
The key to our approach is a different theory about the source of barriers to hiring diverse faculty. Instead of assuming academic leaders are uninterested, uncommitted or biased, we recognize their legitimate interests in hiring specialized scholars, but we remove the constraints created by tight definitions. We allow them to pursue their original hire and are on the lookout for talent that will enhance their departments and improve the diversity mix.
To be sure, our approach requires commitment and discipline at a time when colleges and universities, especially public ones, face significant cost pressures. The 20 percent has to come from somewhere. But it is worth the investment for what it does to achieve the goals we are all committed to, but few are achieving.