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Toward a Warmer Climate: The Impact of Campus Culture on Underrepresented Faculty

The following is a summary of research findings presented by Annie Gubitosi-White, Assistant Director of Affirmative Action, Portland State University, at the recent conference, Keeping Our Faculties: Addressing the Recruitment and Retention of Faculty of Color in Higher Education, October 18-20, 1998, University of Minnesota.

Despite many sincere and concerted efforts to recruit and retain traditionally underrepresented faculty, faculty members at many institutions remain disproportionately white and male, especially in their senior ranks. The research summarized here focuses on assessing academic culture and its impact on underrepresented faculty in order to improve recruitment and retention efforts.

This study focuses specifically on social interactions and the reward process. It assesses the impact of expectations, assumptions, and unexamined norms of behavior on faculty at a predominantly white, public, comprehensive urban university. The study is based on interviews with full-time instructional faculty at this institution.

The data collected reveals three norms of behavior that seemed to dominate descriptions of faculty culture at this institution. These include: rank-based hierarchy, untenured faculty silence, and abundant individualism. Like at other institutions, interviews suggest that the tenure-track ranking system has created a norm of rank-based hierarchy. Interviewees suggest that to follow this rank-based hierarchy is to defer their own authority to tenured faculty members' opinions and to consult with tenured faculty members before taking any unprecedented actions.

Although both majority and underrepresented faculty are influenced by rank-based hierarchy and untenured faculty silence, the data suggest that this norm affects underrepresented faculty differently than it does majority faculty. Untenured, underrepresented faculty interviewees show a pattern of having more difficulty with this cultural norm than untenured majority faculty.

Generally, issues that majority faculty choose not to speak out about are "other-centered" issues. Majority faculty interviewees report remaining silent on such issues as expanding the departmental doctoral programs or departmental hiring decisions. Underrepresented faculty, on the other hand, report feeling that they cannot speak out on issues of support directly relating to themselves. They remain silent about such issues as unfair salaries, limited space, and unfair merit pay distribution.

Majority interviewees report more satisfaction with their socialization experiences and the levels of support they received in their departments than did underrepresented faculty.

Like at many institutions, faculty work at the institution studied is also highly individualistic. Interviewees described how this individualism contrasts with their experiences during job interviews, at which these faculty members typically describe being socialized into a network of colleagues. Positive interview experiences typically set up expectations that the institution would be a caring environment in which to work and one with a strong sense of community. However, once both majority and underrepresented faculty arrive, they rarely experience this same level of community. Instead, they experience infrequent social interaction with their colleagues, and little intellectual interaction within their departments. Most faculty members describe being left "on their own."

Individualism is also evident in the reward process. All interviewees report that single-author, published research is still valued above teaching or service related activities. Although interviewees report that executive administrators emphasize the importance that community service and teaching have to the institution's mission, interviewees still perceive that publications are most rewarded by departmental tenure committees.

Individualism is another norm that seems to affect underrepresented faculty differently than it does majority faculty. Majority interviewees report more satisfaction with their socialization experiences and the levels of support they received in their departments than did underrepresented faculty.

Taking the time to get to know or support one's colleagues is outside of the norm of individualism. This study seemed to reveal that it is easier for majority faculty at this school to reach out to majority colleagues than to underrepresented colleagues. It is assumed that, because of their likeness, majority faculty perceive that it will take less time to do so. Majority faculty, therefore, receive more support than do underrepresented faculty because of the norm of individualism.

Consistent with many other studies, underrepresented faculty members also seem to have less time for the higher rewarded individual-based activities. They are often expected, and sometimes explicitly asked, to take on more community involvement and service activities in a way that is typically not asked of majority faculty members.

The nature of faculty life revealed by this study is surely not unique to this institution. There are several ways, however, that institutions can take positive actions to address these sorts of disparities in faculty experiences. Promoting more community-based organizational planning is one way to combat alienation. Departments can structure faculty meetings so that there are opportunities for small group interaction. Departmental faculty forums can be developed where presenters are required to conduct and present their research in teams. Departments can offer incentives such as awarding travel money for working in teams on research projects or for coordinating team-teaching opportunities.

Becoming aware of "invisible" norms and their impact on different faculty members is the first step to improving circumstances for underrepresented faculty. Institutions can work to create more personal and professional rewards for community-based work. These activities, in turn, can create opportunities for more socialization and can overcome barriers of difference. In addition, individuals and institutions can make conscious efforts to create support groups and combat alienation and isolation which will benefit all faculty on their campuses.

To see a copy of the complete research study, see http://www.inform.umd.edu/EdRes/Topic/Diversity/

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