How can we dismantle systemic racism in faculty hiring?

Regardless of the country, and regardless of the type of college or university, if we truly want a diverse faculty, we must approach the faculty hiring process in a much more thoughtful and informed way than we currently do.

We can’t continue to reproduce the status quo, and we must be brave enough to push back against our colleagues who are dead set on maintaining the academy as it is – that is, maintaining a commitment to sameness and whiteness being the norm.

It is essential that current faculty members and academic leaders think more deeply about their role in recruiting and hiring faculty and their role in maintaining the status quo and, thus, fostering systemic racism.

At the crux of making systemic change in higher education is a need for a belief among academics that having a diverse faculty strengthens the curriculum, bolsters the academic environment in their department and school, enriches the overall institution and is the foundation of academic excellence. Getting to this belief can be a challenge.

Below are four concrete steps that colleges and universities can take to dismantle systemic racism and be more inclusive in faculty hiring.

Leaders must lead

A strong and consistent message from leadership at all levels is essential when it comes to dismantling systemic racism and hiring a diverse faculty. It is important that presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs and search committee chairs all communicate the same messages about the institution’s commitment to hiring and retaining a diverse faculty and how this diversity is central to academic excellence.

Institutions have mastered the art of issuing statements on their websites, including a commitment to diversity in their strategic plans, and talking about this commitment in sound bites.

However, a message in every setting that permeates the campus environment, policies that hold the faculty accountable for its faculty hiring practices and equity-oriented action is what is needed.

Moreover, leaders must express a firm acknowledgment of systemic racism, the impact of racial micro-aggressions and the presence of both implicit and explicit bias on campus, and they must act to address all these issues.

Question definitions of quality

One of the most important things that we can do to change the faculty hiring process is to have the courage to challenge colleagues when they bring up the word ‘quality’ during discussions related to diversifying the faculty.

An immediate assumption that quality will suffer with an increase in diversity is racist at its core, and we must be steadfast in making sure colleagues know that these types of conversations are unwelcome. Diversity increases quality rather than decreases it. Search committees need to keep in mind how candidates rise to the top of a search pool. Is their ascension a result of their research and teaching qualifications or a result of those they know?

One of the most effective ways to expand the definition of quality is to push back against faculty members’ efforts to limit recruitment to a predetermined list of institutions from which candidates can hail. It’s important to discuss the results of this practice and the limits it puts on faculty diversity, given the access that most people of colour have to these ‘elite’ types of universities.

Train search committees

Unfortunately, a faculty member can be a premier biologist or anthropologist yet at the same time may have no experience serving on a search committee and no understanding of diversity and equity issues as they pertain to faculty hiring (and beyond).

To achieve racial equity in higher education, faculties need to understand racism, bias, institutional policies and the importance of expanding the definition of quality to pursue diversity and equity and placing this pursuit at the core of their institution’s understanding of excellence. This type of work requires training.

Although implicit bias training is controversial and not a panacea (cut ‘placebo’) for racist behaviour and racial biases, it does have an impact on faculty and gives them an opportunity to reflect on their personal biases even if they are not willing to discuss these publicly. Using empirical data as a foundation for the training helps to convince sceptical faculty of the need for the training.

Based on 20 years of being a faculty member, the one thing I know about presenting in front of faculty is that if they don’t think the information applies to them or is valuable, they will work to disrupt or dismantle the entire presentation.

To counter this disruption, it is important to have enough supporters in the room who will speak out about the importance of the material being presented. When implementing implicit bias training, it is vital to do the preliminary work to gain support on the ground for it in advance of the training.

Confront excuses during the hiring process

One of the most effective methods of ensuring equity is to confront and push back against the typical excuses that derail candidates of colour.

Some academic deans have a running list of common excuses. The most common focus on search committees assuming how candidates will behave in terms of whether they will take a job based on location and whether the institution can meet the salary requirements, given their belief that the candidates are being pursued by many institutions in a bidding war.

Research demonstrates that faculty candidates of colour are willing to move to remote or less diverse areas for a job, and most importantly that they are not leveraging higher salaries and in fact – with very few exceptions – most often are paid less than their white counterparts.

If we as the academy are honest in our commitment to hiring a diverse faculty, we must do the hard work of dismantling a system that was built to support white men and exclude white women and people of colour.

We’ve made progress with white women, demonstrating that we know how to make change that leads to more inclusivity. We must now turn our attention to people of colour and ensure that they have the opportunities they deserve. Only then can higher education begin to live up to the lofty ideals expressed around academic excellence in every college and university mission statement.

Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair and a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, United States. Her newest book is Doing the Right Thing: How colleges and universities can undo systemic racism in faculty hiring (Princeton University Press, 2022).