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Diversifying the Faculty: New Report Identifies Barriers and Opportunities

Whether at a small liberal arts college or a large research university, educational leaders have recognized the crucial need to increase faculty diversity. While the number of doctoral degrees awarded to persons of color and to white women has increased over the past several decades, the numbers of white women and people of color in faculty ranks remains low. Of a total number of full-time faculty (533,770), only 155,492 are white women, 23,976 are women of color, and 41,024 are men of color.

What are the barriers to increasing the diversity of faculty in higher education? What can committed educational leaders do to remedy this problem?

With support from the Ford Foundation, The American Council on Education recently completed a project that begins to answer these questions. The project involved 11 major research universities. While the sample is a selected and small group of institutions, the project report does reveal important issues applicable to other kinds of institutions.

In Achieving Diversity in the Professoriate: Challenges and Opportunities, authors Marjorie Fine Knowles and Bernard W. Harleston identify problems and barriers to diversifying faculty and offer strategies campuses can use to overcome them.

Project researchers gathered institutional data and interviewed top-level administrators and also minority faculty members and graduate students. They note that all the administrators with whom they met identified "the pool problem" as the principle barrier to diversifying the faculty--that is, they believe that there are simply not enough minority faculty candidates, or minority undergraduates applying to graduate school, to provide an adequate pool. But, confirming the findings of AAC&U's report (see page 3), these researchers note that both minority faculty members and minority graduate students identify other factors that also contribute to the lack of diversity among college faculty.

Administrators admitted that they recruit from only a few Ph.D. granting institutions--institutions, in fact, that do not award the greatest number of minority Ph.D.'s. In addition, very few administrators were even aware of a variety of resources available to help in recruiting faculty of color such as the Directory of Fellows published by the National Research Council or several directories published by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.

Another clear problem has to do with the nature of faculty searches. Most research universities have decentralized governance structures and hiring is done primarily at the departmental level. Knowles and Harleston note that "identification, recruitment, and retention of personnel seemed like a foreign subject to many department chairs." Further, "faculty search committees apparently are rarely briefed or educated on recruiting for diversity."

Minority faculty members and graduate students repeatedly pointed out how departments define minority scholars out of the pool of candidates.

Minority faculty and graduate students also note problems with how job descriptions are developed. Faculty seem to define categories or fields for searches in traditional ways and when a department consistently defines its needs in the same way, it tends to replicate itself. As these authors put it, "Minority faculty members and graduate students repeatedly pointed out how departments define minority scholars out of the pool of candidates."

These authors also note that, "Many university administrators also seemed unaware of the special burdens borne by minority faculty members--what one minority faculty member called 'the cultural tax,' which includes heavy committee and advising work as well as substantial community involvement." These burdens may decrease retention rates of faculty of color and set a discouraging example for undergraduate students of color considering academic careers.

Some schools that have had some success in diversifying their faculty have established special funds to support the appointment and retention of faculty of color. Others have established post-doctoral positions to provide new scholars of color with opportunities to pursue research and scholarly activities before they are appointed to tenure-track positions.

Finally, however, the key seems to be leadership. At schools that had success in this area, not only did top-level leadership express commitment, they took concrete actions to support departments in their efforts to diversify faculty. "At the institutions that were more successful, there was presidential leadership and commitment, which penetrated through layers of administration. The combination of strength of commitment and depth of that commitment made the difference."

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