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Leadership to Recruit and Promote Minority Faculty: Start by Playing Fair
Jonathan R. Alger, Senior Counsel, American Association of University Professors

One of the most challenging issues facing diversity leaders is the task of recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty body. In this article that first appeared on the website of the American Association of University Professors (www.igc.apc.org/aaup/index.htm), Jonathan Alger suggests some starting points for facing this challenge.

Sometimes, you have to review the rules of the game to make sure that you are applying them fairly to everyone. Recent legal attacks on affirmative action have made colleges and universities nervous about their efforts to recruit faculty (as well as students) from underrepresented minority groups. Special initiatives designed to attract minority faculty are of particular concern.

The statistics on minority representation among tenure-track faculty in many disciplines remain alarmingly low, however. At several recent conferences on these issues, I have been disappointed to hear deans and affirmative action officers express the belief that their own faculties often create the highest hurdles to minority faculty recruitment and retention. What can be done to ensure that the rules are fair and fairly applied? Before pursuing new programs that might be legally susceptible, faculty members should first examine how they currently evaluate candidates for appointment and promotion.

The search process for new faculty members is a good place to begin. Are your search committees given any training to broaden their perspectives, or any resources to ensure that they are reaching out to the complete pool of potentially qualified applicants? Do they advertise in journals and periodicals that make special efforts to reach minority graduate students and faculty? Do they rely on some sort of ranking of graduate schools in evaluating candidates? If so, what is the basis of those rankings, and how do historically black universities and other minority-serving institutions fare in them? Such questions can yield surprising answers.

What about mentoring new faculty members? Do your senior faculty members reach out to junior colleagues with different racial and ethnic backgrounds? Do you communicate regularly with minority faculty members about the environment in your department, campus, or community? Studies show that informal mentoring relationships usually develop between senior and junior colleagues who have much in common, because people tend to seek out younger versions of themselves when imparting their wisdom and experience.

The traditional criteria applied in evaluations for promotion and tenure often appear to be neutral, but in practice they can have a disparate effect on minority scholars.

The traditional criteria applied in evaluations for promotion and tenure often appear to be neutral, but in practice they can have a disparate effect on minority scholars. In analyzing research, for example, reliance on narrow definitions of “merit” that emphasize publication in traditional journals may slight new or emerging areas of scholarship or practical applications of theory to real-life problems. In weighing merit in teaching, courses on ethnic studies or courses that include minority perspectives are often taken less seriously than more “mainstream” courses. If an institution offers such courses, why should they be given less weight than other academic subject matter? Sometimes institutions that want to offer such courses force minority faculty members to teach them, even if those individuals do not specialize in the topic--and then the institutions hold the faculty members’ teaching evaluations against them.

Time and service commitments are often given lip service in tenure and promotion decisions but accorded little weight in practice. For minority faculty members who are asked to serve as representatives on many campus committees, these assignments carry a special burden. Minority faculty members are also often asked to be mentors to minority students regardless of the students’ subject-matter interests, a burden rarely imposed on white faculty members.

“Collegiality” is another criterion that is creeping into more and more faculty evaluation processes. Collegiality can be a code word for favoring candidates with backgrounds, interests, and political and social perspectives similar to one’s own. This vague and subjective criterion can be used against faculty members whose work and ideas challenge traditional orthodoxy in their departments or institutions.

If we care about recruiting and retaining minority faculty members, we don’t need to lessen standards or discard the concept of merit. Instead, we need to ensure that existing criteria are applied with a broad enough perspective so that each individual’s true contributions to the learning environment at the university, both in and outside the classroom, are fully and fairly taken into account.

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