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Perspectives: The Use of Outside Voices in Increasing Faculty Diversity

For all of our difficulties in achieving student diversity on our nation’s college campuses, it is commonly acknowledged that faculty diversity is an even more elusive goal. Underrepresented minority faculty in 2005 composed only 16.5 percent of all full-time faculty in degree-granting institutions.

Explanations for the lack of progress in diversifying the professoriate usually center on some version of the “shallow pool” or “narrow pipeline” argument, which holds that there is simply an insufficient supply of qualified minority candidates, particularly in key academic areas like the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The faculty search process is also recognized as part of the problem, as incumbent faculty routinely hire others like themselves and thereby reproduce historic patterns of homogeneity.

To improve the identification and recruitment of minority faculty, several strategies have been adopted by search committees in recent times, including greater use of personal networks, placing position announcements in nontraditional academic media, coding job descriptions in ways that appeal directly to underrepresented faculty candidates and engaging in “target of opportunity” hiring; that is, hiring a person felt to be in the strategic interests of the unit, particularly when a national search would impede the hiring process. Perhaps these practices will produce substantive change over time. In the meantime, however, we are neglecting a potentially powerful source of support for our efforts — trusted external allies who share our values.   

The enlistment of non academics may seem anathema to a culture where the faculty clearly maintains exclusive control over hiring (as it properly should). But influential supporters have figured prominently in our diversity-related ambitions before, most recently in the U.S. Supreme Court cases of 2003, when legions of groups filed amicus briefs to protect the use of race as a factor in student admissions. Once student diversity was framed as a societal interest, as having measurable benefit beyond the self-interest of minorities or of the institutions wishing to recruit them, a remarkable cross-section of individuals and organizations signed on to advocate for race-conscious admissions. More importantly, it allowed a very broad swath of society to take shared responsibility for student diversity.

How might we continue to harness that collective goodwill in the service of faculty diversity? A willingness to consider the positive role of external involvement in promoting faculty diversity would be a good place to start. Those of us with strong convictions about recruiting, retaining and developing faculty of color might think about how to mobilize or leverage our partnerships with business and other stakeholders in an effort to collaboratively build a case for faculty diversity that is every bit as compelling as the one for student diversity. This time, instead of appealing to the Supreme Court, our target audience would be the reluctant or sluggish among our colleagues who may need to be persuaded and prompted to action by the legitimating power of a new narrative.

Naturally, this is not to suggest that we should start giving outsiders a direct role in selecting our colleagues. The idea is simply that we need to operate with a more capacious view of the importance of faculty diversity, one informed partly by its relevance to a wider public. Does a diverse faculty deliver unique value to society? If so, we ought to do a better job of communicating how that value proposition looks and works. Ultimately, our success in diversifying the faculty will depend in large measure on whether we can frame the challenge and the opportunity in a way that inspires a sense of joint ownership of the prospects for progress.  

The better we can demonstrate how the active presence of faculty of color advances societal interests, the more advocates we are likely to radicalize on our behalf.  Outside voices, whether they originate in corporations or community-based agencies, can accelerate our own change agenda and cause us to act with a greater sense of urgency than we might otherwise. They can also lend an element of magnitude to our project, reminding us that faculty diversity is a social imperative, not just an academic one.

The retirement of faculty hired in the 1960s to support the massive expansion of higher education now presents a singular opportunity to recruit and retain a more diverse professoriate for the 21st century. How will we respond? If we proceed precisely as we have in the past, there is little reason to expect a different situation in the future. We need to look to nontraditional approaches to help us break the cascade.

By itself, external support won’t make much of a difference in faculty recruitment, which is and should remain, the prerogative of faculty. But it could become a useful and a novel complement to existing strategies. Intention and commitment always represent a good start, but when they are paired with some competencies in rallying external supporters to the cause, these motivations can become potentially significant and facilitative of real change.

—      Dr. David J. Siegel is an associate professor in the department of Educational Leadership at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.


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