NSM Faculty/Staff Newsletter

From the Office of the Dean

Faculty Recruiting to Increase Diversity: Myths and Strategies (Guest Article)

Each year at the NSM commencement, our graduating seniors and their families arrive ready to celebrate. Our students represent a wonderful mix of ethnicities and life experiences, and many of us take pride and pleasure in serving as their professors and getting to know them in the classroom and our research laboratories. Indeed, the University of Houston, federally recognized as both a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI), is among the most diverse research universities in the nation.

Our faculty, in contrast, are far more homogeneous: mostly European white, mostly male.

Studies reveal that students are more successful when they see themselves represented in the population of professors and mentors in their institution. This is why universities throughout the U.S. are now actively pursuing an increase in faculty diversity by recruiting those whom HHMI’s David Asai refers to as PEERS: Persons Excluded by Ethnicity or Race. For example, Janet Napolitano, former president of the University of California system, directed the UC system to diversify the UC professoriate so that it reflects the breadth of diversity of its student population by 2030.

Faculty hiring is always a difficult, uncertain process, and expanding the diversity of faculty is a daunting task. Two myths cling to this challenge, which must be dispelled before we can move forward.

Myth 1: There aren’t enough PEERS in the “pipeline.”

A common justification for the tendency to hire white men is the assumption that there are not enough PEERS (or women) in the pool of qualified individuals. Even a casual survey of social media, however, reveals large numbers of PEERs preparing to seek faculty positions throughout the sciences (e.g., see #BlackinSTEM). Moreover, the term “pipeline” itself is an inaccurate metaphor; everything moves uniformly through a pipeline. A better metaphor for the progression of students from undergraduate STEM degrees to Ph.D.s, postdocs, and ultimately to faculty positions is the size exclusion column used in a biochemistry lab, in which the column matrix allows some compounds to move unimpeded while restricting the flow of others. Majoritarian (mostly white, mostly male) individuals progress more smoothly through college and graduate school unimpeded by the obstacles that can disrupt the progress of PEERs or other non-majoritarian scientists-in-training.

Myth 2: Increasing faculty diversity requires a compromise on faculty excellence.

This idea emerges from a historical dearth of PEER applicants. At present, however, there are plenty of outstanding faculty candidates of color across the natural sciences, although data suggest that such individuals may be selective in where they apply. Furthermore, “faculty excellence” can mean different things to different people. Studies of organizational performance have consistently shown that performance improves when organizations increase the range of representation among their members, because a broader range of perspective and experience increases the level of creativity and innovation. Similar findings in studies of research excellence have led many universities to conclude that the quality and significance of a department’s scientific accomplishments will be increased through the diversification of its faculty.

Strategies to Increase Faculty Diversity

Even after these myths are dispelled, we recognize that increasing the diversity of our faculty represents a long-term challenge. The following strategies may aid in our effort to integrate considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into faculty recruiting, leading to more diverse representation among our faculty.

Strategy 1: Prepare in advance.

Departmental faculty and search committees must define in advance what each search is intended to accomplish and establish specific objective criteria (in terms of strengthening specific research capabilities and instructional areas), rather than selecting faculty candidates on the basis of “fit.” These discussions should clarify what constitutes “faculty excellence,” and they should be accompanied by reflection on the extent to which unconscious personal bias colors our definition of “excellence.” In addition, we now request that applicants discuss how they may have contributed to DEI efforts in the past and how they might continue these efforts on our campus. This request is as much a signal of our values as it is a way to obtain information; we are still learning how to incorporate this component into our evaluation.

Strategy 2: Identify and invite potential applicants for faculty positions.

This is a long game; it requires the establishment of new networks and relationships, along with outreach to advocacy groups. For example, we have begun to send faculty to the annual meetings of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), accompanied by students from our UH SACNAS chapter. Many scientific societies are now developing their own DEI initiatives, and we can take advantage of these efforts to connect with PEER scientists. In addition, we can advertise positions in forums that target PEER audiences. Finally, Erika Henderson, our Associate Provost for Faculty Recruitment, Retention, Equity, and Diversity, can offer staff support in identifying individuals who are suitable for specific positions; search committee members or department chairs can then reach out with invitations to apply for open positions.

Strategy 3: Create an inclusive environment in which PEER faculty can thrive.

Many PEERs on the cusp of an independent career in academic science have indicated that they are unlikely to apply for faculty positions in departments or institutions that appear unwelcoming. “Unwelcoming” can mean anything from an environment in which PEERs are not provided the resources needed to succeed to a community in which people of color are treated with suspicion in their homes, classrooms, or labs. Too often, PEER faculty are burdened with extra committee assignments, or with the “invisible labor” of providing support to PEER students or institutional DEI efforts. PEER faculty will succeed in academic communities where they can enjoy both vibrant scientific exchange and the support of faculty colleagues who are cognizant of the challenges generated by institutional racism. PEER scientists are much more likely to consider applying to departments where these benefits are visible.

One Last Myth: Consideration of DEI is optional.

In recent years, the longstanding national conversation regarding ethnic and racial underrepresentation in STEM academia has gone from a murmur to a shout. We can no longer ignore this issue without incurring a cost in the form of reduced competitiveness. Research universities and medical schools across the country are now focused on recruiting PEER faculty, and departments will compete for these individuals. For example, Rice has made significant inroads in diversifying the faculty in their Department of Biosciences, and their success to this point will make it easier for them to recruit additional individuals. Already we see that graduate applicants seek out programs that have begun to address structural racism, and that many faculty applicants, including those from dominant groups, look for evidence that departments and institutions are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive scientific culture. The vibrant diversity of our students and the global reach of our faculty are strengths of our campus and our college, and they will aid us in recruiting outstanding PEER faculty – but we need to reach out to let them know who we are.

Amy K. Sater, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Biology and Biochemistry