Do chief diversity officers drive faculty diversity?

When Baylor University, Texas, began considering the creation of a chief-diversity-officer position a few years ago, many of James E West’s colleagues said the role could help diversify the institution’s faculty.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

That got West, an economics professor, thinking: What influence does an executive-level diversity position have on faculty demographics? West, whose work focuses on higher education, and three Baylor colleagues tried to find out.

In a working paper submitted to the National Bureau of Economic Research, West and his colleagues analysed the faculty diversity of 462 research institutions in United States before and after they hired chief diversity officers (CDOs). The paper, which the authors say is the first study of the topic, also looks broadly at faculty hiring and student demographics.

The authors were unable to find any statistically significant increase in faculty diversity after the creation of a chief-diversity-officer position. But, as the paper notes, many other factors can affect faculty diversity, such as underrepresentation in the PhD pipeline.

West spoke to The Chronicle about the study, its limitations, and what the findings might mean for universities chasing a more representative faculty. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. The first several pages of the study mention that faculty diversity is complex. Why look into this?

A. There wasn’t much research. But in the stuff that I did find, advocates for diversity officers do list faculty diversity as a major component. The background articles talked about how multicultural centres and diversity centres have existed at a low place in the university organisational structure for decades, and that advocates of CDOs saw that the problem was that faculty diversity was lagging behind the diversity of the student body. And one of the strategies, several of the papers argued, was that having a higher-profile executive-level position would dramatically address that.

Q. What did you find?

A. We weren’t able to find evidence that any pre-existing trends changed. The one significant result is actually not very nice: At institutions with a CDO in place, we found that diversity of tenured faculty hired fell.

I’m not sure how much stock to put in that.

Q. What do you mean?

A. Think about the market for tenured faculty. The volume of tenured positions hired is quite a bit less, and generally tenured faculty are not very mobile. Of course, these are older faculty members. If diversity has grown over time since these tenured faculty members came from an earlier cohort, they are less diverse. So could be mechanical, but I don’t know.

Q. Do your findings make a case for hiring a CDO, or not hiring a CDO, or neither?

A. We tried to be very careful. Statistically speaking, all we can really say is we were unable to find a result. Of course there can be lots of explanations. One could be that an effect doesn’t exist. And alternate explanation could be, well, there’s a very small but significant effect, but it’s numerically small enough that we can’t sort it out from all the other noise in the data set. It could be possible we’re measuring the wrong things.

As we discussed our results, we saw how in universities hiring decisions are generally made at the departmental level. Cabinet-level administrators have little to no direct effect over departments’ decisions because of academic autonomy.

But I could see how a diversity officer – if they set a positive tone or a tone that underrepresented-minority faculty members viewed as positive – that could affect attrition.

We’re the first paper. There's lots more to do. We're taking the first pass, but we thought it was important to say we were unable to find anything. This is an important topic that needs to be looked at carefully.

Q. The paper mentions the possibility of universities hiring CDOs just to say they have them, or to show they are committed to diversity without enacting a whole lot of internal change. Do you think these findings speak to that idea?

A. We took the rosy assumption that university administrators, when they make the decision to establish a CDO, are acting benevolently to increase diversity. When we sent this paper out for review, that was one of the criticisms. They said, “Well, how do you know?” And, of course the answer is, we don't. We took that assumption because everywhere within the paper, where there was a modelling choice, we tried to make assumptions that would be favourable toward finding results.

If CDOs were a smokescreen, it might be possible to find negative effects on diversity. We did find that one negative coefficient, but I’m hesitant to say this is evidence of this theory. If a CDO comes about from an institutional discussion that “Our diversity is really lacking and we need to improve,” it’s not surprising that institutions that hire CDOs would be less diverse. It’s sick people who go to the doctor, right?

The figures in the paper tell an interesting story, but I’m not sure what is it. For instance, the proportion of underrepresented faculty hired is actually higher for institutions that have no CDO. Does that mean that CDOs don't work, or is this the mathematical compositional effect? The whole lesson of this is complicated.

Follow Claire Hansen on Twitter at @clairechansen, or email her at claire.hansen@chronicle.com.