Colleges have for decades tried to increase faculty diversity, with mostly limited success. Much of that responsibility falls to the faculty-search committees that make hiring decisions.
The search committees often run up against human biases and institutional barriers that can hold back those efforts, whether or not its members realize it.
That’s according to a new study by Leah Hakkola, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maine at Orono, and Sarah Dyer, a Ph.D student there, who set out to shed light on how those biases and barriers can come up even when institutional leaders say they are committed to change.
The article, “Role Conflict: How Search-Committee Chairs Negotiate Faculty Status, Diversity, and Equity in Faculty Searches,” was recently published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.
Faculty hiring is a lengthy and often murky process. Certain stages, Hakkola says, create room for bias, such as the creation of assessment standards and evaluation criteria for faculty candidates. “There are lots of holes in this entire hiring process that could contribute to biases being made and inequities, or the perpetuation of the status quo,” she says.
For the study, Hakkola and Dyer interviewed 17 search-committee chairs — all at the same unidentified predominantly white institution in the Northeast — to better understand how they viewed the role of diversity and equity in the search process, and to explore the barriers they have faced in attempting to diversify their institutions.
The researchers found a disconnect “between how individuals discussed their understanding of diversity and how it was perceived as an institutional value in the search process,” according to the study.
One interview subject, a white woman, did not bring up race or ethnicity as important identities in the search process when asked how she defined diversity to search-committee members. Instead, she described diversity as a part of “those checklists that everybody has,” the article says.
When asked to define diversity, the woman said: “I think of representing difference and the whole of humanity, the whole of being as people.”
There are lots of holes in this entire hiring process that could contribute to biases.
Her response was similar to that of many of the other chairs interviewed. Participants referenced their own gender, religion, nationality, or field of study most often when asked how their identity influences their understanding of diversity.
How the search-committee chairs talked about diversity and equity was contingent on whether they were tenured as well as their race, gender, and other identities, and the institution’s overall approach to handling diversity and equity measures and messaging, Hakkola says.
The researchers found that junior faculty members who lead searches were more likely to defer to senior faculty members on their committees. As a result, the views of more senior committee members about diversity ended up superseding the junior faculty members’ efforts to make the searches more diverse and inclusive.
Most search-committee chairs interviewed for the study believed that the human-resources and equal-opportunity offices were responsible for making sure the search process was equitable. Even so, participants reported that the people in those offices did not provide consistent clarity on what search chairs needed to be doing to improve.
To combat such problems and help clarify the hiring process, Hakkola would like to see colleges issue clearer, more unified messages about their commitment to diversity.
Dyer, who is also the diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at nearby Husson University, says it’s important for faculty members to hold one another accountable in conversations about faculty hiring — and in other areas. “We really need to look at if we have a hierarchy in our institution, and if this is the normal process, can we really expect equity in these other spaces?” Dyer says.
Creating the assessments or evaluations in faculty searches is subjective, and can be imbued with biases depending on who creates them, she says. How candidates are evaluated is another factor. Whether they are being evaluated by individual committee members, or by all members together, can influence decisions, as can faculty members’ seniority and whether or not they are meeting in real time.
Hakkola also notes that there are times when search committees are not even making final decisions.
“They put forth a recommendation, and then the powers that be … they ultimately get to make the decision when they’re not even a part of the search process,” she says.
While hiring a more diverse faculty has been one of the most persistent challenges in higher ed, institutions must look at more than just equity in hiring practices and make sure it is built into the institution as a whole, Dyer says.
“It’s not just one division, or one person’s role to advocate for equity and diversity,” Hakkola says. “Our article, I think, demonstrates that it needs to be on the forefront of everyone’s agenda in order to truly engage with equity.”