Faculty diversity has a lot of catching up to do

Over the years, I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of minority students in my classes, which is great…but strangely, there hasn’t been any increase in the percentage of minority faculty over the same period. One possible explanation is that since the tenure of faculty is so much longer than the tenure of students, student numbers are going to be more responsive to current demographics. But I can’t help but feel that there’s more going on. That we current faculty are not doing our part to create a professoriate that reflects our culture.

Here’s a blunt assessment of the problem. Why don’t we hire more faculty of color? Because we don’t want them. The author lists a whole series of excuses we white faculty make, and I’ve heard them all.

First, the word “quality” is used to dismiss people of color who are otherwise competitive for faculty positions. Even those people on search committees that appear to be dedicated to access and equity will point to “quality” or lack of “quality” as a reason for not hiring a person of color.

Typically, “quality” means that the person didn’t go to an elite institution for their Ph.D. or wasn’t mentored by a prominent person in the field. What people forget is that attending the elite institutions and being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital and systemic racism ensures that people of color have less of it.

This is slightly less of a problem in my current liberal arts, teaching-focused institution, but boy, I heard a lot of it in the big state schools I worked at before. I knew faculty who went through job applications looking only at the name of the institution/faculty member they worked with on the first pass, and if they didn’t come from a Name university or worked with a Name scientist, they were round-filed.

Second, the most common excuse I hear is “there aren’t enough people of color in the faculty pipeline.”

It is accurate that there are fewer people of color in some disciplines such as engineering or physics. However, there are great numbers of Ph.D.’s of color in the humanities and education and we still don’t have great diversity on these faculties.

In biology, we have a reasonable number of minority faculty applying for jobs — there are historically black colleges, like Howard University, that have excellent biology programs and turn out a good number of well-qualified black biologists. We just don’t hire them.

Third, I have learned that faculty will bend rules, knock down walls, and build bridges to hire those they really want (often white colleagues) but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, they have to “play by the rules” and get angry when any exceptions are made.

Let me tell you a secret – exceptions are made for white people constantly in the academy; exceptions are the rule in academe.

Oh man yes. Faculty tend to resent rules — this is a job that encourages independent thinking — and are accustomed to using the rules to get what they want. There is a kind of adversarial relationship between faculty and administration, and I suspect deans have all kinds of stories about how faculty try to work the system.

Fourth, faculty search committees are part of the problem.

They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department.

True confession: I’m on the search committee for a tenure track cell/molecular biologist this year — we meet with our human resources person next week for the mandatory diversity training, which I have been through several times now. We still tend to hire our fellow white people every time. I will try to pay more attention to minority applicants, and will avoid insisting that faculty at UMM must fit the Lake Wobegon stereotype.

Fifth, if majority colleges and universities are truly serious about increasing faculty diversity, why don’t they visit Minority Serving Institutions — institutions with great student and faculty diversity — and ask them how they recruit a diverse faculty.

Now that is a really good idea. We should be sending out our job ad specifically to minority serving institutions with strong graduate programs in biology, which would also enrich our applicant pool significantly. Please do suggest such places in the comments and I’ll be sure to add them to our mailing list.

Of course, once we hire a diverse faculty, there’s the next problem: community and university attitudes. Science just ran an article on doing science while black.

But my experiences with the larger scientific community still made me feel like I didn’t belong. A few years after becoming a professor, for example, I went to a social event at a society meeting with an international, multiracial group of colleagues. I was the only black researcher among them. When we walked into the room, the crowd fell completely silent, apparently uncomfortable with my presence. I considered myself a scientist with great potential, but that experience made me feel that, to others, my skin color was more important than the quality of my work. The next year, as I was starting a sabbatical in a lab at another institution, I asked one of the researchers in the group whether the PI was in. “Are you delivering a package?” he asked. “I can pass it on to him.” These and other encounters imply that, no matter how productive my research is or how professionally I present myself, I and other black scientists do not belong in academia’s hallowed halls.

Ouch. That’s going to be another difficulty here in the blindingly white Minnesota farm country.

Oh, hey, the other committee I’ve been assigned this year is to serve on the multi-ethnic experience committee, which works to promote “campus-wide understanding of racial and ethnic minorities”, despite the fact that I am made of doughy Wonder Bread and was raised in the same kind of Scandinavian-American household that just about everyone grew up in around here. You might notice that I’m trying hard to educate myself on these phenomena.


  1. rietpluim says

    It just happens to be in the Dutch newspapers today that diversity increases the quality of academic work.

    (Perhaps I should be talking about positive correlation and certain p-value but hey, it’s from a newspaper, and myself I am not a scientist.)

  2. michaelvieths says

    At one symposium I went to in grad school, we had randomly assigned topics for some breakout groups. We ended up with diversity. I said ‘Well, if there’s anyone qualified to talk about diversity, it’s 3 white men.’.

  3. says

    I just recently read about a study that said if there is one minority person on the faculty hiring short list, they are very unlikely to be hired. If there are two or more, the chances go way up that a minority person will be hired. Maybe once we get one on the short list, we relax because we did our due diligence and let our unconscious biases take over? I’ll be trying for at least two on the short list from now on…..

    I will also say that I have been told at least twice that I “really take this affirmative action stuff seriously!” in amazed tones. Um, yeah. Aren’t we all supposed to?

  4. wcorvi says

    “…search committee for a tenure track cell/molecular biologist this year.”

    Great, and if there isn’t a single minority in the pool, you can just put off hiring until next year’s pool, and pick up the extra classes yourself?

  5. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Are the applications screened by your search committee in any way blinded as to race and gender? I believe I’ve read of research showing that the presence of a female name or an obviously ethnic name on an application form has an immediate effect. Seems kind of obvious that if you could get HR to give you application forms with names and genders redacted, you’d end up with a short pile of really good applicants? (This of course could not eliminate the influence of institution and mentor names.)

  6. says

    #4: I worked at Temple in the 1990s! We had one black faculty member in biology while I was there, who left for richer pastures.

    #5: There will be multiple minority applicants in the pool. There always is.

    #6: Nope. The applications are kind of complex, with multiple recommendations, for instance, that we often have to look up; we also emphasize teaching, so there are often student evaluations included, too. It isn’t an application FORM that can be processed that way, it’s an application FILE.

  7. rhebel says

    We have the same problem at the secondary level. Our most recent science position (in a mostly white suburban Wisconsin school) had nearly 30 applicants from all over the U.S., but they were all white . We can’t even get over the first hurdle in getting diversity in our faculty. What to do?

  8. nathanieltagg says

    Hiring faculty isn’t like hiring a plumber: it’s more like dating.

    Consider that faculty positions are (you hope) permanent tenure positions. You’re going to be down the hall from this person for the rest of your life. They’re going to be your fellow soldier in the trenches, the one you talk with about teaching and research and politics and golf. Your kids are going to grow up together.

    This creates a powerful incentive to choose people that you identify with, which means you’ll pick people like yourself. It’s true in many dimensions, but race and gender are going to be part of it unless you explicitly force yourself to do otherwise.

    Another minor point is that faculty are usually hired one-at-a-time, as other faculty retire. You can’t choose three candidates, one of whom increases diversity, one of whom has the best pedigree, and one of whom has the most enthusiasm.. you have to pick just one candidate at a time. This makes it easier to exclude people you like and create a monoculture.

    And it’s a committee, not an individual. An old adage about horses and camels comes to mind.

  9. Raucous Indignation says

    @ 8. I subscribe to the network. That eliminates the all ads and pop-ups once you’re signed in. It’s not expensive and helps support the network. The link should be up there at the top.

  10. stumble says


    If your applicant pool looks like that then it’s most likely a problem in the advertising process. Did you reach out to predominantly minority schools, or just local/state universities? Have you placed the job with nation wide recruiters or just a local one?

    If you got 30 applications and they are all white, then there is a very good chance that the process is faulty.

  11. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I can easily see where PZ could try to get a more diversified faculty, but not succeed. All faculty hiring is a two-way street. I taught in Dah YooPee, and heard many tales about hiring problems. In the middle of the Lake Superior Snow Belt (>100″ snow). A long drive from even “big cities” like Green Bay or Duluth. Much less any area with a highly diversified population.
    Many good diversity candidates came for interviews, during the winter, and were not enchanted by the mounds of snow taller than they were, the very white/Xian local population, and the white-bread faculty. Looking ahead, they could see problems if they took a job there.
    Example, one house we rented was owned by an internist (MD) who happened to be Jewish. He was working in the area under a rural debt-forgiveness program for his medical school/internship/residency debt. When he completed his term, he moved to Milwaukee, where there was a significant Jewish population so that his daughters could possibly marry within the faith, which would be exceeding difficult in Dah YooPee.
    Rural institutions, like where I worked, or PZ is, also have a problem with retention prior to tenure. It doesn’t help if the hiree decides to start looking elsewhere after the first year, as they can’t deal with isolation.

  12. qwints says

    Is there a moral obligation for existing white male faculty to resign or retire early to open up positions? Even in a scenario where the only faculty hired were from underrepresented demographics, it would still take at least a generation for faculty demographics to be truly representative.

  13. greeny says

    After many years of recruiting into financial services, a predominantly pale, male and stale industry, I have come to the conclusion (as I am sure others have done) that affirmative action is the only way. Insist that your HR department provide a balanced shortlist with a set percentage which must be people of colour/non-white.

  14. wpjoe says

    This is a real problem. We need diversity in the faculty. Earlier this year at some universities, students were marching, demanding increased diversity now. They are not wrong. The problem is how to do it. The issues raised are real obstacles: no minorities apply for the postings, no minorities want to live in the frozen great white north, no minorities want to live in areas where no one looks like them, there are not enough minority candidates in the pipeline. We need some incentives and some quotas. NIH should pick up (read, fund out of order) more grants from minority applicants so these scientists are more easily hired (and because NIH has been shafting the minority applicants for years). There need to be hires just for minority candidates or funds set aside by the university that can be used only if a minority candidate is hired. Universities and states need to concern themselves with this problem and put money into it.

  15. John Morales says


    College teachers are more diverse than airline pilots.

    Well, sure — kinda hard to be a blind airline pilot.

  16. thing3 says

    I don’t think there are many blind airline pilots who stay employed or alive for very long John Morales. A blind person would be better off to pursue an academic career.

  17. bassmike says

    I work in a science department in a UK University and I noticed very early on the lack of POC in faculty positions. There are measures to improve the gender balance. But, to my knowledge, there is nothing in place to redress the racial balance. I try and make my views known, but sadly have no material input to the hiring process.

  18. Matt says

    Sometimes one faculty member can make a difference. My ex-spouse has made this her mission. She’s a faculty member in a liberal arts department at a private university. She brings up minority hires at every department meeting that is discussing hiring; she serves on hiring committees, she’s collaborated with the Ethnic Studies department and with PoC student organizations, she helps draft the language for job postings and makes sure they’re sent to conferences, universities and mailing lists that serve academic PoC communities, she’s taken advantage of diversity hire post-doctoral programs to pull in minority temp hires, which she’s leveraged into permanent hires by endlessly pestering the provost and dean. It’s an uphill climb, with surprisingly stiff resistance all the time, but 2 out the last 3 hires in her department are the first two black faculty in its history.

  19. Karen Locke says

    The geology department where I got my MS would love, love, love to hire PoC. Alas, they tend to be too smart to even apply, let alone accept. Our university is located in one of the most expensive places to live in the US, and the starting salary is a joke. You can maybe rent an outhouse on it here. But state school system, and salaries are set statewide. The department is losing people right and left; some are retiring early, and some are just finding jobs outside academia. Anything to move away from here.

    Husband and I are plotting our eventual exit, too.

  20. snuffcurry says

    @nathanieltag 10

    Another minor point is that faculty are usually hired one-at-a-time, as other faculty retire. You can’t choose three candidates, one of whom increases diversity, one of whom has the best pedigree, and one of whom has the most enthusiasm.. you have to pick just one candidate at a time. This makes it easier to exclude people you like and create a monoculture

    Nothing precludes the possibility that an applicant of color can’t, while “increasing diversity” by merely existing, also have “the best pedigree” and exhibit “the most enthusiasm.” The suggestion that applicants of color can’t meet these requirements as readily as white people is ridiculous. The justification you’re offering for a department’s failure to recruit better faculty is bizarre, because in the paragraph preceding this you acknowledge that race and gender are the mitigating factors, not quality, talent, skill, training, passion, education, and promise (characteristics that are truly blind to race and color and can be readily perceived and objectively evaluated by a hiring committee if they’d only make the effort).

    It’s tempting to render banal all bias, to reduce inequality to a sad-but-true matter of failure to “culturally fit” (a euphemism for failing to show up to an interview exhibiting unmarked identities). But it’s also obviously untrue as a real explanation for what’s happening here, because academic departments are full of intrigue, sabotage, and toxic personalities. The notion that people of color might cause tension or make terrible golfing partners is risible in a world where white male academics exhibit awful behavior, some bordering on criminal, every day of the year. If this was about fostering a cooperative, congenial atmosphere, there’d be a concentrated effort to rid departments of their white male majority. Of course, harassment and abuse by A Thinky Thought Man are often forgiven, tolerated, or hushed up if Thinky Thought Man is regarded as a research boon or person of prestige for a department, but, again, people of color are more than capable of brilliance, too, a fact that seems to get lost, curiously, in the mad rush to defend badly-behaving male academics while in the same breath bemoaning PC efforts to, y’know, maybe foster a better culture that doesn’t enable, if not encourage, this behavior in the first place.

  21. guiriguay says

    My brother-in-law Phil Lewis, a former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell and former VP of the Mellon Foundation, commented thus when I forwarded this item to him:

    Because the Mellon Foundation has been preoccupied for nearly 3 decades with the development of minority faculty, I happen to know a great deal about this topic. The author of this piece, relying on anecdotal and personal evidence, clearly knows very little. The truth is that most white-dominated colleges and universities are bending over backwards to hire minority faculty and to recruit minority students and that they make major concessions in order to do so. The only field in which there is an ample supply of Black and Latino Ph.D-holders is the field of Education, which for a century (yes!) has been a haven for minority students. As you probably realize, that field is not even included in a many colleges and universities (e.g., in the Ivy League, Harvard and Columbia, with their Schools of Education, are the only member institutions that give it solid recognition, and in both places the focus is on two interests: research on education and educational policy, and training teachers for elementary and secondary schools, i.e., they do not produce people who could be hired by academic departments in typical tertiary institutions). The field is treated as marginal in many institutions that do recognize it nominally.
    In any case, it is the core fields in which minority faculty are desperately needed, and the competition for the few minority candidates available to hire is intense. Mellon has sponsored research into the decisions that good minority undergraduates make when they choose not to seek Ph.D’s and not to pursue careers in academia. They discover while undergraduates that teachers/scholars work too hard under too much pressure and are not nearly as well compensated for their efforts as people in other, more palatable professions, so they tend to opt for professional schools rather than graduate school when they graduate. The elite schools are working hard to lure minority kids toward graduate study in the fields that make up their curricula, but it’s a very tough row to hoe. The other issue is the job market itself: all undergraduates, majority or minority, learn how rotten the academic market is and how few good jobs there are in many of the 25-30 fields that most places harbor. In some fields even strong minority candidates can find almost no position for which to apply. Word about this spreads fast, and the studies done lately show that minority students are more inclined than others to veer toward areas with more numerous and more lucrative job prospects. In sum, there is a huge economic overdetermination at work in the system. Departments and programs try to deal with it punctually in their local circumstances, but no one has come up with a promising systemic response to the problem simply because it’s so massive. (end of comment)