Debunking Myths in Hiring Diverse Faculty

For more than three decades, low rates of representation of African American men and women, Asian American women, and Hispanic or Latino/a men and women have persisted in the full-time faculty ranks of American colleges and universities. In The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (Stylus, 2015), our survey of department chairs from across the nation indicates a number of issues faced by department chairs in hiring diverse faculty including: 1) no new faculty lines; 2) lack of ability to provide competitive compensation; 3) administrative practices such as beginning too late in the hiring cycle; 4) the need for recruiting resources; 5) geographic location; and 6) lack of collegial support and a supportive campus climate.

Despite the validity of these concerns, one of the most frequent issues raised with regard to hiring diverse faculty is the lack of qualified applicants in the pipeline. As a human resource practitioner, I have often been asked by members of search committees as to whether the need for diversity affects quality and whether faculty with “lesser qualifications” should be hired just to increase diversity. Confirming these experiences, a Black chair of Hispanic ethnicity in our study noted the frequent argument about qualifications he has encountered:

[A] Black male chair faces challenges of hiring other non-White faculty: “are they qualified?”

In a recent opinion piece for the Hechinger Report, Mary Beth Gasman relates the view she expressed at a recent higher education forum: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” She was greeted with a round of applause for her candor. Gasman challenged participants to think about a number of questions in hiring faculty, most notably including the following:

How often do you use the word ‘quality’ when talking about increased diversity? Why do you use it? How often do you point to the lack of people of color in the faculty pipeline while doing nothing about the problem?

Professor Gasman notes that quality is frequently interpreted to mean that the candidate did not attend an elite institution or was not mentored by a prominent scholar in their field. She observes:

…I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to ‘play by the rules’ and get angry when exceptions are made. Let me tell you a secret—exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Responding to Gasman in a Chronicle article, Rafael Walker, an African American faculty member, states that he cannot conclude that most institutions do not want minority faculty members. Instead, he writes, “the benefits of diversity are too familiar to us today to hold such a position.” Walker’s response does not seem to take into account how the social reproduction of inequality occurs within institutions of higher education. As Joe Feagin explains in Systemic Racism (Routledge, 2006), the pervasive residue of exclusionary stereotypes, images, ideas, emotions, and practices form an interconnected whole that perpetuates systems of inequality and privilege within institutional settings. And from interviews with more than 200 whites Nancy DiTomaso further describes how privilege is routinely transmitted through homogenous whites-only social networks and through the economic, social, and cultural capital that reinforces group-based advantage.

Rafael Walker indicates that the problem lies in the lack of diversity in certain subfields based on an examination of the faculty at the nation’s top 20 English and history departments with a particular focus on medieval, early-modern Europe, and 19th century British specialties. He offers a number of explanations about why such subfields are not diverse, including self-selection by minority graduate students and mentoring relationships. He presumes that minority students commonly are mentored by faculty of the same demographic groups, with apprentices following their mentors’ choices of sub-specializations based on interests allied with their identities. This argument is rather implausible, due to the lack of availability of minority scholars to mentor graduate students as well as the fact that mentoring relationships are not always homogeneous demographically. This perspective also downplays the individual agency of minority graduate students. But if choice of sub-specialization hinges to some degree on mentoring, Gasman notes that being mentored by prominent scholars is part of the social capital to which minority graduate students have less access.

Taking a different position, a White male psychology chair in an urban research university interviewed for our study encourages his faculty to exercise flexibility in the field of specialization to allow consideration of underrepresented candidates:

So if we, for example . . . wanted to hire a cognitive psychology professor who studies reading . . . we might find plenty of individuals who study that, but the odds of finding an underrepresented minority who studies that particular topic are going to be less statistically. You might find someone who studies not reading but psychology of language comprehension. So I would argue that’s close enough to what we’re interested in: We need to be flexible about the topics. So maybe we find someone who studies language comprehension but not necessarily in a reading setting.

Even granting some merit to the sub-specialization argument, there is only mixed support for the scarcity of diverse candidates in the major disciplinary streams. An analysis of doctoral graduation data reveals that minority doctoral graduates typically represent a range of approximately 10% to 20% of doctoral recipients in many fields, with larger percentages in certain disciplines. As Daryl Smith points out, diverse candidates for faculty positions typically do not find themselves the subject of bidding wars, leading to a “schizoid” condition in which each side (candidates and hiring authorities) present competing anecdotes. A study she and her colleagues conducted of 299 recipients of prestigious Ford, Mellon, and Spender fellowship in 1996, for example, found that only 11 percent of these exceptionally qualified minority scholars were recruited for a faculty positions and encouraged to apply. More frequently, as numerous researchers indicate, the normative culture and practices involved in faculty hiring may be one of the principal barriers to diversifying the faculty. For this reason, the composition of search committees and search committee training are key factors in faculty hiring.

Whether or not minority faculty are “wanted” or not, their presence is nonetheless essential in the educational process given the need to prepare all students for citizenship and careers in a diverse democracy. Building a more diverse faculty means moving from knowledge of the benefits of diversity to action. As a white male chair of economics in a public southwestern university told us:

The chair has to take the leadership role, has to be proactive, has to get a critical mass of people on his or her side to try to take the proactive measures that are necessary. Obviously a chair or a dean . . . who simply gives lip service to diversity but doesn’t do anything concrete to make it happen is not going to make any progress.

Or as a white female chair of journalism in a western undergraduate university put it:

The chair has to lead and set the tone for what is important. . . . Your department has to decide what its culture is going to be like. If [the department] is not willing to embrace diversity or support recruitment for other [diverse] faculty, it’s going to fail. If you don’t have retention, it doesn’t matter.