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Why Are 90 Percent of College Faculty Still White?

Why Are 90 Percent of College Faculty Still White?
By Pauline E. Kayes and Yvonne Singley

Harvard University announced a $50-million initiative in May to make faculty more diverse. Three months later, Columbia University followed suit, pledging $15 million to “jump start a new recruitment campaign and to accelerate other ongoing efforts to diversify faculty.” Those are two high-profile commitments, but in the last 10 years many other colleges and universities have jumped on the diversity bandwagon, creating a variety of programs and strategies to increase the number of faculty of color in predominantly White institutions. In spite of these efforts, however, the statistics show little progress in the diversification of faculty. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 90 percent of full-time faculty members are White.

“Efforts to diversify the faculty continue to be amongst the least successful elements of campus commitments to diversity,” writes

Caroline Turner in Diversifying Faculty: A Guidebook for Search Committees.

With a large number of faculty retirements expected in the coming years, many higher education administrators are scrambling to fill the void with minority faculty. The mission becomes more pressing as the gap between a multicultural student body and a homogenous faculty has become more of an educational, social and political problem. To complicate matters further, the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court decision on the use of race in admissions by the University of Michigan has caused many institutions to tread lightly lest they be singled out for legal reprisal.  

There are some common myths and assumptions about diversity hiring that set up such initiatives and processes for failure. One assumption is that if the president, dean, provost, chancellor, department chair, human resources officer and trustees publicly declare their support for diverse hiring, then it will be actualized in the search and hiring process.

But the reality is that many of those who serve on search committees have never even discussed, let alone agreed upon, the institutional and departmental advantages of a diverse faculty and staff. Administrative leadership like that articulated recently by Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, on “building a diverse university community,” is crucial to the successful recruitment, hiring and retention of faculty and staff of color. However, without campuswide commitment to this effort, such advocacy can spawn a backlash that plays out behind the closed doors of search committee deliberations. In fact, the belief that members of search committees, by virtue of their academic credentials, do not introduce bias into the search and hiring process is a major reason why perceptions of “good fit” and “quality” criteria have blocked much of the progress toward hiring minority faculty.

Another myth is that “grow-your-own” programs will expand the pool of diverse candidates for faculty positions, which will, in turn, ensure automatic employment for minority scholars. Instead, these programs reinforce the misperception that the dearth of minority hires is due only to the lack of a diverse applicant pool.

Finally, the recruitment of diverse faculty and staff is not retention, so any initiatives that do not address hostile and exclusionary institutional cultures will end up fueling the “revolving door” so common for faculty and staff of color. According to Dr. Charmaine P. Clowney, director of diversity and equal opportunity for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, “Those universities that use creativity in their recruiting efforts by having welcoming environments, offering additional research funds and having fair and consistent tenure policies enhance their efforts to retain diverse faculty.”

Much of the research on diverse hiring indicates a need for professional development for all those involved in the search and hiring process. Such experiences are essential so that faculty can become aware of how biases and stereotypes undermine the hiring of people from culturally and racially diverse backgrounds. To be effective, such programs should precipitate real change in the systems, policies and cultures that impact the recruiting and retention of minority faculty and staff. One important forum for sharing best practices is the University of Minnesota’s annual “Keeping Our Faculties” conference, where the topics have included “Toolkits for Retention and Recruitment: Utilization and Outcomes,” and “Retaining Scientists of Color.”

Ultimately, a serious commitment to faculty diversity means moving from rhetoric to real action, and all faculty, regardless of race or ethnicity must be involved. Dr. William B. Harvey, the newly appointed vice president and chief diversity officer at the University of Virginia, says, “While leadership plays a significant role in committing to diverse hires, the thrust of the effort should be in the ‘followership.’ White faculty have to take ownership in hiring faculty of color on predominantly White campuses or it will not happen.”

— Kayes, top, and Singley are president and vice president, respectively, of DiversityWorks Inc., a coalition of educators providing comprehensive diversity education.

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