The Fate of Faculty Diversity Initiatives

Posted By Monica Harvin on January 6, 2016 at 4:46 pm
The Fate of Faculty Diversity Initiatives
Amilcar Shabazz, faculty advisor for diversity and excellence, speaks during a forum on racial inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dan Glaun, AP Images.

Several major universities across the country announced multi-million dollar plans for 2016 aimed at increasing faculty diversity. In large part, these initiatives are spurred on by rising student activism and increasing racial tensions across the nation as a whole.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013, only 4% of full-time professors were black, 3% were Hispanic, and 9% were Asian/Pacific Islander. In contrast, 84% were white and only 26% of these were white women. Recently proposed plans at highly selective universities like Brown and John Hopkins aim to put these institutions on a path to correcting large disparities in race and gender among faculty.

What the plans look like

At Brown University, the “5 Percent Plan” calls for at least 60 new faculty members and 30 new graduate fellowships for underrepresented groups. The $150 million plan – open for comment until January 8th – also calls for the creation of professional counseling services for minorities, women, LGBTQ, and other underrepresented students. A small number of existing faculty of color currently provide counseling for these students – a burden not shared by most white faculty members and one for which most faculty members are largely untrained.

A more modest plan at John Hopkins University would allocate $25 million to support a two-year postdoctoral fellowship for fields where women and minorities are underrepresented, five awards for research on diversity and inclusion, five new faculty members in Africana Studies, and a recruitment program for diverse scholars. The impact that these initiatives will have is still to be determined, and each university is faced with significant obstacles to effecting systemic change.

To get more insight into what these initiatives mean for higher education institutions going forward, and what will be needed to ensure their success, GoodCall sought out one of the country’s foremost scholars on diversity and higher education, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Marybeth Gasman, Ph.D.

Change is not comfortable

Change makes most people feel uncomfortable. Take this to a large-scale university with decades or even centuries of operating under one way of thinking, and this type of transition is bound to make a lot of people feel uncomfortable from the administration and faculty to the students. Gasman says that in order for any of the proposals outlined by major universities to succeed three things will need to happen:

  1. Faculty from diverse backgrounds will need to be involved in how they play out. This means that their voices are going to have to be heard and listened to.
  2. Change is going to be uncomfortable for many. Undoubtedly, people are going to get upset. There’s going to be pushback at all levels, and some are even going to accuse reverse discrimination. The universities need to be okay with all of this and prepare themselves to face these realities.
  3. The people placed in positions to oversee faculty diversity initiatives will have to have the power to do their jobs. This means having their recommendations taken seriously by administration and colleagues. These people must have the authority to challenge the status quo and voice their opinions openly without fear of reprimand or being ignored.

Gasman says people often express interest in the topic of faculty diversity but, generally, there’s not a lot of follow-through. This has been made clear by the fact that the percent of faculty of color has really not moved much and that large-scale proposals are needed now at the big institutions to fix this. At most universities, there’s been no pressure from administration, largely made up of white males, to force change. Gasman says the change that has occurred has been slow and often only when there’s an obstruction from the faculty or the students, as is the case now.

What universities are up against

Gasman highlights that universities do often attempt to have a diverse pool, but as they go through the candidates, they only stick with traditional – and largely white – ways of interpreting quality. Part of this is because the committees themselves are not diverse in their makeup, so the perspectives and decisions made reflect only the traditional ways of evaluating quality. People of color fall through the cracks in these selection processes.

And when universities do bring in faculty of color and these people voice their opinions, the institutions don’t listen, they don’t change the way things are, says Gasman, who describes this as being “invited to dinner but then we don’t let them eat, or we tell them they have to sit at the kids’ table.”

Minority and women faculty members are asked to “check their blackness or being a Latina at the door, check their cultural heritage, their gender, sexuality, and even their class,” says Gasman. Black faculty members are expected to check frustration over racism impacting the nation, for example – black mothers and fathers can face reprimand for expressing their opinions on court verdicts for the murders of young black men by policemen.

Even faculty, regardless of race or gender, who come from lower-class backgrounds are taught early on to hide these aspects of their lives or face being looked down upon, rather than standing as examples of success, Gasman tells GoodCall. In an academy dominated by white males, these checks are not equally applied to faculty from the dominant group. They don’t face stringent checks on what they can express about who they are and what they believe, even if it is offensive or uncomfortable for others, Gasman points out.

To add to this, students also represent a challenge to the success of new faculty members from diverse backgrounds. Often, Latinas who make it into higher education are sexualized, says Gasman, with student evaluations focusing on they way they look, what they’re wearing, and having nothing to do with their performance in the classroom. At major universities, professors and students alike are also the targets of racist insults from other students.

Lessons from Minority Serving Institutions

There are universities that have done an excellent job at recruiting highly diverse faculties. Minority serving institutions (MSIs) have some of the most diverse faculties and student bodies, says Gasman. Even at historically black universities, only about 60% of the faculty is black. The rest is a melting pot of other groups – white, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, etc.

To attract and maintain this diversity, these institutions use of a range of measures of quality. Gasman says MSIs don’t use traditional, stringent measures of quality – which allow very few individuals, regardless of race, to succeed. She adds that as a country, it’s time to move away from those types of evaluations that don’t embrace who we are as a nation.

Another key lesson from MSIs is assuming students and faculty will succeed – instead of waiting for them to fail. At universities with low diversity, she says, when a person of color comes in, many of their new colleagues are “just waiting for them to screw up, to have their hunches confirmed that the person won’t cut it,” she says. “Why aren’t we assuming these faculty members will succeed? And why aren’t we helping them like we do all of the white faculty?”

Creating a campus climate for diversity

Gasman’s questions and recommendations for mainstream universities are echoed in the Chronicle of Education in an article by Lucinda Roy, professor of creative writing at Virginia Tech, who argues universities must first create positive climates and support systems for faculty members from underrepresented groups, in order to have a real chance at growing a diverse faculty.

Roy says schools need a “clear-eyed assessment of the prevailing culture in the department and the university as a whole.” Knowing this, they can move forward in fixing ingrained problems that prevent diversity from flourishing. Such critical self-assessments by institutions and concrete action to lay the groundwork for new faculty to be successful will likely set apart the initiatives that really succeed at bringing in and retaining a more diverse faculty.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst – member of a voluntary collaboration among higher education institutions working together to identify student and employee diversity best practices through transparent data practices, setting institutional benchmarks and using reflective practice – in 2015, executed its diversity strategic plan. Objectives included improving the campus climate of inclusion and fostering faculty and student diversity, among other goals.

To help ensure that these plans saw action, the university built in accountability, making program updates and reports accessible by students, faculty, and the general public. University-wide resources related to diversity as well as instructions for reporting different forms of bias and discrimination were also concentrated at the school’s Diversity Matters website for easy access by students, staff and faculty. Coordination and transparency across the institution on issues of diversity can help demonstrate clear commitments to goals for greater faculty diversity and help ensure follow-through as well.

Image: Amilcar Shabazz, faculty advisor for diversity and excellence, speaks during a forum on racial inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. AP Images / Dan Glaun

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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