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A monthly newsletter that explores issues facing historically Black colleges and universities and follows the work of our HBCU Student Journalism Network. By Naomi Harris.

Welcome to The Intersection, an Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!

Creating a sense of belonging

For the past two years, higher education has taken an internal look at what it means to be an inclusive space for students and faculty. One component is taking on the obstacle of hiring and building a diverse group of faculty members. So what has and has not changed? I spoke with two administrators who’ve been on the forefront of these issues.

Gracie Lawson-Borders, dean and professor at Howard University, co-published an article laying out eight steps universities should take to increase faculty diversity. Renée White, provost of The New School, is an expert on topics such as the challenges administrators of color face and what universities should do to respond to racial trauma.

Here’s what they emphasize:

Hiring is a constant state

Lawson-Borders recommends college campuses adopt proactive approaches by constantly pursuing creative ways to recruit. At conferences or symposiums, Lawson-Borders said it is important to connect with scholars to build new relationships so when a job position opens there is a much wider and inclusive list to review. On that list, Lawson-Border also advises colleges to rethink the definition of “qualified.”

“If you keep trying to define qualifications so narrowly — I want to say they came from this Ivy League institution or they received their diploma on this day — you are squeezing to have a very small pool,” she says. Instead, the search for a new faculty member should be open to a variety of experiences and even exposed to the college through a postdoctoral fellowship or specialized project that can help add to the campus.

And interviewing and hiring candidates of color, Lawson-Borders adds, is just the beginning.

To belong is to retain

Colleges should create a sense of belonging for the new hires, including walking them through the tenure process and establishing a mentorship opportunity, says Lawson-Borders. At her college, the departments hosts a lunch for faculty members and graduate students to feature their work and have a chance to connect with one another.

“Those things can seem simplistic to people but they’re very important,” says Lawson-Borders.

“You’re showing people the things you want to do to make sure they know you want them to belong there and you want them to grow there.”

Creating opportunities for faculty of color to collaborate with others can also help improve retention.

At The New School, faculty, doctoral fellows, administrators, and community leaders meet weekly to talk about new programs and academic support, says White. The collaborative effort is called the Mellon Initiative for Inclusive Faculty Excellence and helps faculty of color build support systems while creating new relationships with scholars in different fields of study as well as community leaders.

“There’s so much power that comes from it,” White says. “I’m really struck by how often I talk to faculty of color and they feel the sense of obligation to make sure that the institution is also doing right by the community in which we’re located or the neighborhood in which we’re located and asking difficult questions.”

Faculty and scholars of color often create these opportunities for themselves but those same initiatives are not always acknowledged by traditional university systems, she adds. That’s a viewpoint that needs to evolve.

“At times this kind of labor that is associated with being a person of color at an institution — whether it be the extra work supporting students who will come to you or being asked to participate in certain kinds of diversity driven initiatives — it is taken for granted that it is the work you’re supposed to do,” she says.

Reward extra labor

In order to create inclusive spaces, White also advocates for changing traditional policies around promotion and tenure to reward and account for the extra labor faculty of color often take on.

“It is going to take some courage to say the things that need to be said and to change some of the ways of reviewing folks,” White says. “When faculty of color do this kind of work…being mentors to student organizations and creating vibrant programming, it is considered just part of what we’re supposed to do. But to be really frank, when white faculty do that — it’s extraordinary.”

University leaders should redefine what scholarship or service is, she says, and how it can be viewed differently by race and gender. After the tragic events of the summer of 2020, White says people have become more direct and vocal about instituting change on college campuses to address issues of racialized violence, trauma and anti-Black racism.

“We’re not just bubbles or islands around the things that happen. Things happening in the world — we are part of that world. There are versions of that type of trauma that are within our institutions,” she says.

“People move through the world and what they experience in the world is a part of what they bring into the classroom or into their office space.”

A barrier to diversity: Faculty search chairs

Two researchers at the University of Maine examined a big challenge of hiring diverse candidates: implicit bias. The social identities and personal views of the people put on faculty search committees can skew perspectives.

Leah Hakkola and Sarah Dyer interviewed 17 faculty members who chaired search committees. They conducted interviews and asked questions like how participants personally define diversity and equity, practices that were inclusive and equitable, and the types of language used throughout the process. The researchers found that faculty who chaired the committees often held implicit biases. As a result, the types of candidates in the hiring process were limited.

Part of the problem is the traditional hierarchical structure embedded within university culture, Hakkola said: “Within the academic faculty structure, typically what’s expected is that when you enter the tenure track, you defer to those who are senior to you,” such as department chairs or tenured professors.

For the members of the search committee who do not have the same seniority, speaking up may be costly, they said. At the same time, the majority of the search committee is often white men. Without various perspectives and people of minority backgrounds, problems of implicit bias can enter the hiring conversation.

If some members are people of color or from other marginalized groups, they then become tokenized and could bear the brunt of speaking for an entire community, the researchers found. But if senior faculty members specifically focus on diversity it can direct the search to be more inclusive, Dyer says.

The researchers recommended universities add training that centers diversity for processes like hiring, review the way job positions are posted, rethink the power dynamics that can make it challenging for junior staff to speak up and to analyze how personal views and identity plays a role in hiring decisions.

The paper was published in March based upon findings in 2017 but Hakkola adds that more direct action should be done, especially as universities and colleges continue to react to the social justice movements of 2020.

“The recent racial reckoning is putting even more pressure on leaders in higher education to make real change,” they say. “We’ve talked enough. It’s time to actually operationalize what we’re saying.”

Recommended reading

Photo by KirstenMarie on Unsplash

Read more from Lawson-Borders and her co-author, David Perlmutter, about creating sustainable paths to diversifying faculty on college campuses. The full article was published by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2020.

How can we address equity gaps in higher education? Amy Morona reported on a recent study that shows strengthening transfer routes from community colleges to four-year private colleges can increase degree attainment.

What else can colleges and universities do to make campuses more inclusive? Paulette Granberry Russell shared her thoughts on addressing a “culture of intimidation and what it looks like to truly center racial justice. Check out her opinion piece published by the Diverse Issue in Higher Education.

Thanks for reading!

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Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.