Overcoming the Pipeline Myth: Department Chairs as Transformative Diversity Leaders
For at least three decades, the myth of a lack of diversity in the faculty pipeline has lingered in academic circles. And surprisingly, the role of the department chair in building a diverse faculty has received little attention in most chair handbooks and resources. Yet arguably, the department chair occupies the most pivotal position in colleges and universities in building inclusive and diverse learning environments. Strategically positioned between the faculty and the administration, chairs are responsible for the coordination of major academic decisions that include appointments, tenure and promotion, curricular changes, pedagogical approaches, and student learning outcomes. Our new book, The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (Stylus, 2015), is the first research-based resource on the chair’s role in diversity transformation. Drawing on a substantial survey and interview sample of department chairs from across the nation, we found that strategies for hiring a diverse faculty to address the underrepresentation of women and minorities are at the forefront of department chairs’ minds.
What are the barriers that chairs perceive to diversifying the faculty, and what strategies have they adopted to surmount these barriers? The principal barrier identified by chairs in our survey is the lack of hiring opportunities due to diminishing budgetary resources, limited senior faculty turnover, and the unavailability of new faculty lines. In small departments in liberal arts colleges, departments can go for years without the ability to add a new line. For example, a department chair in a private university told us that he had been requesting a new faculty line in a specialization that would draw diverse representation for six or seven years, and then was granted only a postdoctoral line contingent upon the retirement of another faculty member. And funding shortages have also impacted outreach capabilities. Nearly 20 percent of our survey participants told us that their department does not use any resources in order to attract a diverse candidate pool.
Even when a vacancy is identified, chairs expressed difficulty in building diverse applicant pools not only in highly specialized fields such as STEM disciplines, but even in the humanities, education, and business management. Yet the apparent scarcity of diverse candidates finds only mixed support based on an analysis of 2011-2012 doctoral graduation data. Take the field of education, with 15.4 percent Black or African-American graduates, 6.5 percent Hispanic or Latino graduates, and 3.4 percent Latino graduates. Or business management, with 6.3 percent Asian American graduates, 6.2 percent Black or African-American graduates, and 2.8 percent Hispanic or Latino graduates. In biological or biomedical sciences, Asian doctoral recipients represent 8.5 percent of doctorates, Hispanic or Latino graduates represent 4.1 percent, and African-Americans 3.5 percent. While some fields such as economics and chemistry have lower representations of diverse candidates, in many other fields minority candidates represent a range of 10-20 percent of doctoral recipients.
Research shared in our study suggests that the culture and practices of hiring are actually more important than are pipeline issues. A white female chair of journalism at a western undergraduate university summed up the chair’s role in hiring and in setting the tone for departmental culture:
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.
Disciplinary allegiances can cause faculty to overlook the importance of more creative search processes and to focus on certain specializations with less opportunity to increase faculty diversity. The lack of diversity on search committees as well as the impact of homophily, or the tendency to bond with similar others, can preclude serious consideration of diverse candidates. As an African-American history chair from a Midwestern religiously affiliated university explained:
An important thing for chairs, any chair, is to sit down and really look in the mirror and ask themselves, “What do you really know and what do you really believe about people who don’t look like you?” . . . because a chair can be a very influential position in an institution.
Other significant barriers to hiring of diverse faculty identified by participants in our study include administrative practices such as the timing of the release of the budget at institutions late in the hiring cycle, advertising limitations without the ability to customize language to departmental needs, and not permitting the use of specialized services or agencies with experience in diversity recruitment.
Despite the presence of these barriers, representative strategies offered by chairs that will help build a pipeline of diverse candidates include the following:
First, consider recruitment approaches that will allow diverse candidates from different subspecialties in an academic field to apply. A White male psychology chair at an urban research university pointed out that because minority candidates are by definition a smaller number, the odds of finding an individual who is underrepresented in a specific subspecialty is necessarily smaller. He encourages his faculty to be more flexible about the areas of specialization. When countering faculty who make arguments like, “Well now we’re changing who we want to hire just so we can hire a minority,” he argues:
. . . that’s a lack of intellectual flexibility and we need to take into account that just simply the odds of finding someone who is underrepresented is smaller. That’s what underrepresented means.
The creation of broader job descriptions and more flexible disciplinary requirements are strategies that will help build a more diverse applicant pool.
Second, review curricular offerings and ask what courses would attract women and minority candidates. For example, a White male chair of economics at a southwestern research university noted the tendency among faculty to want to put the department on the map by hiring the best and the brightest, rather than considering the types of courses that might attract diverse candidates.
Third, increase education about community resources that can be shared with diverse faculty in the interview process. A White female chair of kinesiology at a public southwestern research university emphasized the need for search committees to familiarize themselves with community resources:
By resources [I mean] different churches, the LGBT community, etc. We have had a couple of candidates who have been interested in resources of that nature and have asked me directly about these resources. I know that we have faculty members [who] could assist in giving more information. What is it like to live here when you’re African-American? What is it like to live here when you’re a gay or lesbian faculty member? Those kinds of conversations don’t occur, and I think it hampers our recruiting efforts.
Fourth, expand recruiting efforts beyond conventional avenues to consider minority doctoral recipients at “less prestigious” institutions, including individuals who hold temporary, visiting, or part-time faculty positions. Due to the desire to hire from the most selective institutions, search committees can overlook promising scholars with significant scholarly, research, and teaching potential.
The value-added contributions of a diverse faculty are best summed up by a White male psychology chair at an urban Midwestern university:
It’s not just diversity for diversity’s sake. Making your faculty more diverse will improve the quality of your faculty; it will improve the quality of decision-making of the group.
In our view, the tendency to focus on diversity for its own sake is a backward algorithm. Instead, the presence of diverse faculty in the classroom is an essential aspect of the educational process that prepares students for citizenship and careers in a diverse, global society. As students work with faculty who represent mirrors of diverse identities, they will be exposed to differing perspectives, experiences, and intellectual approaches. Institutions of higher education can send no stronger message about the value of inclusive excellence than by the presence of diverse and talented faculty. And since the academic department represents the focal point in the student’s experience of diversity, the department chair plays a critical role in diversity transformation by working with faculty and staff to cocreate an inclusive and rich learning environment.
Edna B. Chun, DM, and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Chun is chief learning officer and Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.
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