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Let’s Start from the Very Beginning: Implicit Bias Conversations for Faculty Search Committees

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Let’s Start from the Very Beginning: Implicit Bias Conversations for Faculty Search Committees

There is a great deal of discussion in higher education about how to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive campuses. Tufts is not unique in its desire to diversify its faculty to better mirror the student population. One challenge in achieving this goal is implicit bias—that is, attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner—in search committees. The Deans of Arts & Sciences and Engineering have made it a priority to address this concern and requested that Human Resources (HR) develop mandatory implicit bias training for faculty search committees. Our HR partner in turn engaged the director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT) to discuss how we might together develop a mandatory program that would appeal to and benefit faculty on search committees, providing space for deep discussions about how to address implicit bias in the search process. To mitigate the reaction to all things mandatory, we immediately reframed the sessions from “search committee training” to “search committee conversations.” We decided to work with intact departmental search committees (not mixed groups across departments) to work toward diversifying their faculty in their disciplines. Below we discuss the final model and some preliminary outcomes.

This is a conversation, NOT a training

“I think a powerful part of the workshop is that we all saw that all the committee members were learning and thinking about this topic. There’s something about this shared mutual awareness that I think is very important and is likely to improve the chances that it will actually be carried out.”—Faculty participant, fall 2019

Tufts HR had developed an Awareness of Implicit Bias in the Hiring Process program for staff drawing on the expertise of two faculty members who study implicit bias. We used their content as a baseline and tailored it to the faculty search process, adjusting terminology to align with an academic audience. We piloted the process with departments to get feedback and make revisions before it was launched for all search committees in the College of Arts and Sciences.

We facilitate the three-hour sessions as conversations, or working meetings, during which the search committees discuss when and how implicit bias can appear by using their current search process and their own materials for a series of exercises. We begin by sharing the program’s goals and developing ground rules for discussion to show how developing their own as a search committee might be useful. During introductions we describe the session as a conversation that would hopefully improve their search process and decrease bias. We also reinforce that the meeting content was developed with implicit bias expert input.

The first activity sets the tone for the session as collegial and conversational. Using an affinity diagram, the committee develops its collective definition of bias in response to the prompt, What do you think of when you hear the term bias? The affinity diagram process allows each individual to share their understanding of the term and models a democratic process. While the language choices and completeness of the collective definition may vary across departments, the process effectively allows groups to begin a conversation by sharing what they already know about bias. This assessment of the group’s expertise allows the facilitators to fill in knowledge gaps or ask questions to draw out where necessary rather than present information already familiar to faculty on the search committee.

Implicit bias can occur in any of the five phases of the search process

Because implicit bias can enter the search process at any point and is important to mitigate from the beginning, we walk through five phases (below) in sequence to determine where bias might emerge. We also created a workbook that went along with the topics so faculty can take notes, make comments to themselves, or write questions to ask each other in subsequent meetings. One of the most valuable set of questions we’ve seen is a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Oregon State University’s Anne Gillies entitled “Questions to Ask to Help Create a Diverse Applicant Pool.”

Phase one: Determining the search criteria

The conversation then transitions to understanding the selection criteria for the open position, which are not usually well defined. The selection criteria are the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience that are required to be successful in the role. Each member generates a list of criteria they think most important. We then distribute their job description as currently written and have them search for the criteria they just identified. This activity makes some departments realize that across the committee there are differences in priorities and sometimes even conflicts. We have found this to be a place where being neutral facilitators is helpful and appreciated. We emphasize the importance of a set of common evaluation criteria to be used throughout the process as well as criteria that are truly essential to the role. Each section ends with the question, What might be some biases to be aware of in this phase of the search? Some biases might be asking for more qualifications than are necessary to do the job; keeping the criteria too narrow; not determining what candidates of color might bring that is outside the box to the role; forgetting to capture the affective criteria (for example, good collaborator or effective mentor); or quite commonly, not having thoroughly discussed what each committee member means by ”good collaborator” or “effective mentor.”

Phase two: Defining the recruitment strategy

Next, in a conversation around their recruiting strategies, we ask participants what they currently do and then brainstorm additional strategies and venues that will help generate a more diverse applicant pool. An interesting outcome of this part of the conversation was one committee’s realization that its main source of recruiting was the discipline’s annual conference. In response to the question, What might be some biases to be aware of in this portion of the search?, participants realized that only those with the financial resources could attend the conference and they might want to offer an opportunity for those not able to attend to connect in another way. We discuss the pitfalls of heavily relying on faculty they know at other institutions as sources of candidates, of posting only in their own discipline’s listserv, and similar matters.

Phase three: Selecting qualified candidates

Identifying qualified candidates is the crux of the process. We hand out mock (but realistic) CVs and pair up participants to review them. We ask not which ones they would interview but rather what stands out about each candidate and what some potential sources of implicit bias in reviewing CVs are (e.g., degree granting institution, controversial areas of research or references). Conversations have been very candid. We offer the research on human tendency to gravitate toward likeness and offer some suggestions to mitigate bias, such as ensuring at least two people review each candidate, using the established criteria, and continually questioning our assumptions.

Phase four: Conducting interviews

Next, we address bias in the interview process itself. We share some best practices, such as asking the same core questions of all candidates, and the questions should tie back to the selection criteria the committee determined for the job. We ask for the “traditional interview questions” they have asked in previous searches, and then introduce behavioral interview questions—not hypothetical questions but ones that ask for specific examples of how candidates have handled situations to get at criteria that might not be evident in submitted materials. Behavioral interview questions are based on the premise that the best predictor of future performance is past performance in similar circumstances. Behavioral questions generate significant conversation and interest and foster an understanding of how to move away from gut feelings to data-driven responses. We review personal questions committees should never ask. In cases where the group intends to conduct virtual screening interviews, we point out potential bias in online environments. Since we are dealing with academics, we outline the literature relevant to interviewing that highlights confirmation bias, recency bias, halo effect, in-group bias, and groupthink bias.

Phase five: Evaluating candidates

One of the most interesting sections of this workshop is the closing discussion. Departments differ in the roles the search committee and the department as a whole play in selecting finalists and in making the final decision. Collecting feedback from faculty and students following campus visits also varies widely in consistency and in how that feedback is weighted. Some departments have a vote after seeing the candidate’s presentation; some have feedback forms. Few have a structured process to ensure that feedback from those outside the search committee is related to the actual criteria in the job description. This raises the possibility that implicit bias of colleagues who have not been part of the search committee enters the process, and the need for departments to mitigate bias beyond the search committee, especially when the final decision-making power resides in the department, not the search committee.


We don’t yet have data on how this process is influencing applicant pools or actual hiring, but we do collect feedback after each session and have additional anecdotal data. First, while there was some initial faculty resistance to a mandatory three-hour session, all but one faculty member (who was then taken off of the search committee) attended of 68 requested faculty from 14 departments, and the follow-up survey feedback strongly indicated that faculty valued this training. Most rated it highly, saying they had gained new insights and felt it was valuable. In most cases we achieved our intended goal of raising awareness of bias at each phase of the search. One participant said, “It was helpful to break down the various stages of the search process and to concretely identify the types of bias that may enter at each. The activities attuned me to my own perspectives and preferences and encouraged more thoughtful consideration of evaluation processes.”

We have since had requests for follow-ups from participants as they go through their search process. After conversations with faculty who had gone through the experience, other schools at Tufts have invited us to work with their search committees. The importance of working with intact committees and focusing on their current searches was clear in this feedback:

Having a safe space to discuss concrete details about the search process with my fellow committee members [was the most important outcome of the program]. The critical thing is that we already started discussing these issues. This means that a) I have a sense of how my fellow committee members think about this issue and vice versa b) we had substantive discussions about this particular search and c) we identified areas that we need to continue discussing. This is *so* much better than having an abstract lesson on implicit bias that we then as a committee have to put into practice in our own private meetings.

Overall, we feel these departmental conversations have raised awareness of implicit bias, caused some departments to revisit their procedures, and generally signaled that diverse faculty hiring is an important priority for the school. This makes awareness of equity and bias important from the inception of a position rather than at the end of the process. “It gave me the hands-on experience (by going through the activities) of taking a step in the process such as considering the desired criteria and thinking through how our decisions at this stage could influence who applies/who we select. It feels like it will now be a reflex and one that occurs at each step rather than at the end in some sort of ‘ok, let’s review what we did to see if it was good.’”

The biggest lesson learned is that the earlier we can have the conversations in the process, the better—before committees have been formed and job descriptions written. In future we will develop information for department chairs prior to their forming a search committee. Careful thought and conversation about bias in the search process will be valuable to chairs in considering elements of implicit bias in the forming of committees. Exploring such questions as who is appointed to a committee, how does the committee reflect the diverse perceptions of the department, what is the role of the appointed chair all will help to increase the likelihood that a search committee will bring multiple perspectives and diverse viewpoints and talents to the process. We also see the need to develop a repository of resources for chairs and committees.


Gillies, A. (2016, September 11). Questions to ask to help create a diverse applicant pool. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Questions-to-Ask-to-Help/237747

Annie Soisson is the director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at Tufts University and an assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. She holds an EdD from Boston University and is president of the New England Faculty Development Consortium. Her work with faculty has long been centered on creating equity in learning environments and facilitating difficult dialogues.

Donna Qualters is the former director of the Center for Learning and Teaching and currently associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University. She holds a PhD in educational studies from Lesley University, where she adapted an innovative technique called Dialogue to facilitate change by raising beliefs and assumptions around faculty thinking and practice.

Mary Ann McInnis is the director of training, learning, and development in Tufts University’s Human Resources Department. She holds a graduate certificate in instructional design from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She works collaboratively to identify the appropriate learning and development solutions for Tufts senior leaders and faculty clients.

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