A sign marks an entrance to UTEP's campus at Schuster Avenue and Sun Bowl Drive. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The University of Texas at El Paso has the highest percentage of Hispanic tenured faculty among the nation’s largest research universities, according to the most recent national data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

The 2019 data shows that 30% of UTEP’s tenured professors are Hispanic. The data reflects that out of 132 very high research universities in America, UTEP’s percentage of Hispanic faculty is twice as high as any other university in the category.

Only four other universities have at least 10% of their tenured staff who identify as Hispanic.

“It has been a very intentional and deliberate process over the past 30 years of really building a mission-focused institution,” John Wiebe said, the provost of the university.

Universities and scholars across the nation are understanding more and more the importance and benefits of having a diverse faculty body at their schools, said Kimberly Griffin, a professor and access equity researcher at the University of Maryland.

Some of those benefits include the expansion of thought, research and ability to connect with students, she said.

“I feel like we’re at a moment now where institutions are starting to realize (that) we need to look at ourselves, our policies, our practices and figure out how we’ve been excluding people,” she said.

Griffin is also the editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, a collaboration between the American Psychological Association and National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

She said having and increasing diverse teaching staff at universities and colleges is multilayered, complex and typically starts with a needed internal change at institutions.

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the nation’s oldest higher education association, has started to address this topic by creating the IChange initiative.

The program, which currently has over 50 members that includes public and private institutions, guides and helps schools to create internal change in increasing diversity efforts related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, professors.

Although UTEP is not a member of the IChange initiative, the university is already doing a lot of the work that others aim to do.

“Some of the changes that (institutions are) just getting around to making now are things that people have been asking for, for 30 or 40 years,” said program director Jessica Bennett.

An intentional process 

According to national data, only 6% of tenured faculty in the United States were Hispanic in 2019, compared to white tenure faculty that accounted for 74%.

At UTEP, the Hispanic tenure percentage is more than four times that of the nation. 

Wiebe said the university has been able to accomplish this through active hiring processes, increasing students in Ph.D. programs and utilizing current faculty to help bring in new faculty.

Within the hiring process, Wiebe said the school searches for potential candidates and alerts them of job vacancies.

“We always do an open call (and) advertise widely but you can’t consider somebody who’s not in that pool,” he said. “And so we’ve been clear that our search committees need to be exactly that; they need to search for people with exceptional ability who are going to fit with the institutional culture that we’ve tried to build over the years.” 

Wiebe said this may be different from other universities who have a limited pool to hire from due to the candidates that applied for the position.

“They (candidates) may not know about this great opportunity to serve at a place that aligns with who they are and the work that they do,” he said.

Additionally he said that the school makes sure to keep in contact with the Ph.D. students they produce or UTEP undergraduate students who may do Ph.D. programs elsewhere.

“We have not shied away from that sort of recruiting strategy because it helps us find people who are very familiar with the institutional culture, the regional culture, and who know that they’re likely to be happy here,” Wiebe said.

He added that existing faculty at the school bring in valuable professional connections that can aid the hiring process.

“We have faculty who have contacts nationally and internationally, and work with organizations that are going to be great avenues for that active recruiting,” Wiebe said.

Ann Gates, the vice provost for faculty affairs at UTEP, said the school has created listening sessions for faculty to voice their concerns and address needed internal changes. She said this is a crucial step in retaining the faculty they hire.

“We are reaching out to faculty to engage them more in these conversations and letting them tell their stories so it’s not coming from the administrators as much as it coming from other faculty who have the passion,” Gates said. 

Leslie Gonzales, a UTEP alumna and professor of higher, adult, and lifelong learning at Michigan State University, suggested that universities look at the academic departments that faculty work in to understand if a healthy or unhealthy work environment is being fostered.

“When a faculty person is hired, the university is important, but the department is the most important building block for them (because) that department is their home base,” Gonzales said.

But due to the lack of action to address internal cultures, many universities cannot retain their faculty of color, which creates a revolving door for many schools, Griffin said.

In order to address this, focus shouldn’t just be on hiring practices but also inclusion and justice, she said.

“If we focus on diversity, we focus on how we shift the numbers. If we focus on inclusion and justice, then we create better environments where everybody can thrive,” Griffin said.

She said this takes examining historical practices and then offering specific ideas about what change is needed. She also said there isn’t just one solution or remedy.

“Folks realized that a new hiring initiative wasn’t going to be sufficient and that it’s really going to require some transformation. This isn’t just a hiring problem, it’s a pathway to the professoriate problem, a hiring problem, a retention problem and a tenure promotion problem,” Griffin said.

The importance of diversity

Historically, higher-education institutions, research and academic disciplines were created by white men who lived in a much different world than what we currently live in, Gonzales said.

She said this has created the absence of other ethnicities, races, genders and identities in the academic world.

“Having a diverse faculty means that you are producing research that sees more people, matters to more people, is more relevant to people’s lives, and captures the various phenomenons that we study in a way that is more representative of the world,” she said.

Gonzales noted that this diversity is especially important among tenured faculty and research universities due to the advancements that can be made from research.

“Tenure-eligible position means that you have a primary responsibility to conduct research,” she said. “And so it’s incredibly important that within that system, folks whose key charge is to pursue research, academic inquiry, intellectual inquiry, have diversity because this is where a lot of the new knowledge production is going to take place.”

At UTEP, Wiebe said by having a diverse faculty research can be better aimed at benefiting the local community.

“We place a strong emphasis on community-engaged scholarship and so that has been really helpful to our faculty and to the community to develop these reciprocal, symbiotic relationships where we use the university’s resources to advance a research agenda that’s in the public good,” he said.

And as educators, Griffin said those from marginalized backgrounds tend to employ teaching strategies that are different from their white counterparts.

“There’s an interesting line of research that suggests that scholars of color in particular are more likely to engage in more active and inclusive forms of teaching in the classroom that reach students in new and innovative ways,” she said. “So students learn differently in classrooms when they have faculty members that are marginalized or from minoritized backgrounds.”

She also said that for students of color, many wish they saw themselves reflected in their professors. 

“Students look to these individuals as role models and there’s research that suggests that they get a unique form of support and understanding when they’re able to work with faculty members that either share their identities or also have marginalized identities, that they understand the challenges of navigating a college or university campus,” Griffin said.

Across the nation, student populations at institutions have drastically increased in diversity from previous years, but slow movement is being made to diversify their teachers.

According to a 2020 IPEDS article, data from 2018 found that full-time faculty at postsecondary institutions were predominately white and male. Hispanic faculty made up less than 10% across the nation.

Gonzales said the diversity among tenured staff is even smaller.

“When we look at faculty over the past 30 to 40 years, the raw number of faculty has grown,” she said. “Now the proportion of tenure system or tenure eligible faculty has shrunk, incredibly.”

Mark Criley, senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors, believes financial compensation is a reason for the decline.

“When you take a look at the funding of colleges, the costs and so on, state funding and contributions are going down. A lot of instructional goal expenses have taken a hit,” he said.

He said this allows for more opportunities to hire part-time or full-time professors for less than tenure-track professors.

“For many professors, the importance of academic tenure is job security. However the status does not mean a tenured professor cannot lose their job. But with the title, specific reasoning such as misconduct or incompetence, has to be made by school administrators as to why a person is no longer fit for the role,” Criley said.

Increasing the Ph.D. pool

A popular consideration to increase the diversity of tenured faculty is to increase the number of students in Ph.D. programs, Griffin said.

She said that is not a complete solution.

“There are diversity and equity issues embedded in graduate education as well,” Griffin said.

For many students of color, financial barriers to afford an additional four years of schooling while also having the time to study is a deterrent from students applying and or completing Ph.D. programs, said Erik Devos, a professor of finance and associate dean for faculty, research, and graduate programs at the College of Business Administration at UTEP who oversees the school’s Ph.D. program.

“The amount of time students are focused on their schoolwork is often way more than 40 hours,” Devos said. “So when you think about students who have other responsibilities, it’s really challenging for them.”

He suggested that schools adopt a part-time Ph.D. program to help work with students’ schedules.

But he said a lot of undergraduate students don’t understand what a Ph.D. degree means, which also discourages them from applying.

“I feel in general, we are doing a very bad job of explaining to students what a Ph.D. program is, what it’s supposed to mean, and what you’re supposed to be doing when you come out,” he said.

Many students have the false perception that being a professor is only about teaching classes and not additionally producing research to get published, Devos said.

In order to combat this perception and to make the Ph.D. process easier, he said mentorship is a fundamental component.

In addition to getting students interested in education after their undergraduate years, Gates said that the undergraduate curriculum incorporates research aspects so that students are introduced early to it.

“We know from the data that research experiences have a huge impact on students deciding to go on (in education) because they experience being able to contribute to problem solving,” Gates said. “That could have a huge impact.” 

In order to help universities reach some of the success that UTEP has achieved, the APLU created the IChange initiative. The three-year program aids higher education institutions to diversify STEM faculty and identify what changes are needed to attract and keep these professors.

“Tailoring solutions to the actual problems at your institution are important,” Bennett said. “Too often universities grab solutions off the shelf hoping, ‘oh, hey, everybody is doing X practice that might help us as well’ and are not really thinking about the reasons why they are having the challenges they’re having.”

Bennett said while the initiative can help ignite conversations and solutions the work can only be done by universities themselves.

“There’s nothing to take away if they don’t implement,” Bennett said.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.