3 Steps for Increasing Faculty Diversity

Colleges must move beyond stated commitments and incremental efforts to embrace more innovative change, write Sonia Cardenas and Anita Davis.

November 2, 2021
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It’s time to start hiring faculty members in new ways. A look at the diversity of the country’s professoriate shows that the old approaches aren’t working. Adopting best hiring practices is necessary, but as student activists across the country long have asserted, such practices alone won’t turn the tide. It’s time to move beyond stated commitments and incremental steps to embrace more innovative change.

On our liberal arts campus at Trinity College, we recognized that and responded to student calls for racial justice and increased faculty diversity by adopting an accelerated hiring initiative. We focused on tenure-line faculty members, redeployed our special-opportunity hiring mechanism and committed to a three-year initiative endorsed from the top.

In less than a year, we moved the needle. For example, while the share of full-time Black faculty in the United States grew by only one percentage point in the 20 years between 1997 and 2017, we saw an increase of five percentage points in our Black faculty members in STEM in just months. This progress would not have been possible under our regular hiring practices, which emphasize diversity but yield much slower results.

Based on our experience, we’d like to share three lessons for other institutions interested in adopting an accelerated faculty hiring strategy. Together, these steps provide a framework for innovating under shared governance. They reflect our view that increasing faculty diversity is complex work, involving multiple stakeholders, concrete resources and systemic bias. To manage those complexities and coalesce around a new approach, campus leaders need to signal credibly the institution’s commitment to change. Such commitment strategies can, in turn, reduce faculty fears about embracing disruptive change.

Lead With Purpose and Data

The first step to pursuing an accelerated faculty hiring strategy is to establish that the status quo is unacceptable. Dissatisfaction, after all, often drives the adoption of more innovative strategies across all types of industries, including the higher education sector. That dissatisfaction must emanate from the very top, among senior leaders who understand the problem and view a hiring initiative as a moral imperative. Having the president and Board of Trustees endorse the urgency of change by setting clear institutional hiring goals, as we did at Trinity, can be essential in signaling commitment and setting the overall direction.

The key to defining the problem and its urgency is to present disaggregated data. Institutions should break diversity data down by race, ethnicity, gender, rank and discipline, because, in the aggregate, statistics about faculty diversity can obscure more than they reveal. What may seem like a situation that isn’t so bad can hide the fact that faculty of color are all but absent among some groups and parts of the campus.

Let’s say that a college or university has 400 full-time faculty members and boasts that 20 percent of its professors are from domestically underrepresented groups. Based on national averages, let’s further assume that 6 percent of the full-time faculty at the institution, or 24 professors, are Black. Let’s break that down to focus more closely on tenured and tenure-track faculty. If we assume that only half of the faculty are tenure line, is it all right if this college of 400 faculty has 12 Black tenure-line professors?

Now zero in on specific ranks and gender. How many Black female tenured professors are there likely to be, given that nationally, among all tenured professors, only 2 percent are Black women? Is four an acceptable number? What about Black female full tenured professors in STEM? The emerging picture is a quite different one than the institution’s aggregate claims. This is the type of granular data that must be reviewed internally to unleash a commitment to change.

Having a new hiring strategy flow from the top can help ensure there is no turning back. When faculty members ask whether a new approach is worth their efforts or question the institution’s seriousness, which they will likely do, pointing to the board’s directive can make all the difference. When skeptics try to slow down the pace of change or otherwise delay it, invoking the new direction set at the highest levels will leave no room for failure.

Realign Resources With Values

In a world of trade-offs, faculty diversity is often treated as an add-on. There’s support for special initiatives to increase diversity assuming they don’t detract from “regular” hiring. That attitude has real consequences.

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When we perceive and present hiring more diverse faculty as simply additive, we’re saying that it isn’t mission-critical work or the priority that we claim it to be. It becomes easier to make excuses for slow progress by pointing to resource constraints or blaming other people for not funding special initiatives. We convince ourselves that we would do more for faculty diversity if only we had the resources or others had the will.

Resources do exist, of course. They just need to be reallocated to align with stated priorities and values. Parallel to establishing the need for a new hiring strategy, administrators should propose a funding plan for an accelerated program. And for maximum long-term success, especially at smaller institutions, that plan shouldn’t focus on growth in the overall number of tenure-line faculty.

On the contrary, it should be a plan for reallocating existing resources, or shifting budgets designated for other purposes to invest in faculty diversity. That could entail setting aside open tenure lines to support faculty diversity or carving out annual funds to invest in new hires. It’s only when we back up stated priorities with concrete resources that we move beyond lip service and token commitments.

Resource reallocation involves trade-offs, and we will receive pushback about the choices we make. But reallocating resources also has the advantage of creating a more collective sense of ownership. At Trinity, faculty in some disciplines were concerned that they would be at a disadvantage, since their fields were less diverse than others. But in the end, they learned to recruit outstanding candidates.

When we stop doing something to support another thing that brings value to the entire community, it fortifies our creative confidence in getting things done. It reinforces a flexible and strategic approach to planning, and it affirms that tackling complex problems in the here and now is in our hands -- if we’re willing to reallocate resources.

Co-Create, Then Iterate

Some people may object to an accelerated hiring approach, and your institution can take steps to overcome such opposition. The last thing anyone wants is to recruit faculty of color into an environment in which the legitimacy of the hiring process itself is questioned or new faculty are stigmatized.

Even if it isn’t articulated explicitly, diversity can trigger people’s fear of losing control or status. To ensure buy-in, all sides need to commit credibly to shared governance and a participatory process. That is especially important because there is no cookie-cutter approach to designing an accelerated hiring strategy. The key is to create a hiring mechanism that works for your colleges or universities. A few design principles are nonetheless worth remembering.

First, co-create. Dramatically changing the way that you hire faculty can’t be top-down. Nor can it be led entirely by faculty who won’t be held accountable if it fails. It requires co-creating the strategy, with faculty and administrators working closely together. We used our governance structures to hold facultywide forums, which allowed concerns to be voiced and generated new thinking.

Second, adapt what you have. While it’s tempting to create something from scratch, it also pays to revise existing mechanisms and processes, if they’re available. For us, that involved taking the existing special-opportunity hiring mechanism, which was rarely used, and rolling it out as a robust annual call.

Third, iterate, again and again. Any retrofitting of existing mechanisms will require iteration. A core group, preferably an existing governance committee, should lead the process. You should structure any feedback publicly, encouraging faculty to deliberate and debate each other openly. Additionally, consider designing a multiyear initiative. What works the first year may not work the second, but you’ll have room to continue adapting and responding to ongoing feedback.

For us, that resulted in a two-step process. First, the committee that recommends position allocations reviewed a curricular proposal and mentoring plan, independent of a candidate’s merits. Building mentoring into the hiring process was important to ensure retention beyond recruitment. Second, the tenure and promotion committee reviewed a candidate’s credentials, supplementing the work of departments and programs. Despite critiques and faculty fears, departments reimagined curricular needs expansively and put forward exceptional, energizing candidates. After successfully hiring those candidates, we created a cohort mentoring model, called New Voices, to support and empower them.

What we learned above all is that rethinking faculty diversity requires, and is a catalyst for, broad institutional innovation. An accelerated approach will create value cumulatively; it will change the overall composition of the faculty and bring together a cohort of new faculty. As the research across industries shows but we often forget in academe, organizations that are more diverse and inclusive are also more innovative and open to new ideas. We indeed have urgent reasons -- both principled and strategic -- to prioritize faculty diversity here and now.

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Sonia Cardenas is dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs and professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Anita Davis is vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the college.

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