Growing Faculty Diversity is a Shared Responsibility of Critical Importance
Tasked with finding solutions to society’s greatest challenges, colleges and universities today are working to get a handle on the growing chasms and divisions that are deepening across American communities. One way to improve the generation and research of new ideas is the introduction of new perspectives and experiences into the professoriate, but efforts to increase faculty diversity across the country have been slow. In this interview, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III—who was a child leader in the Civil Rights movement and has, over the course of his career, helped drive great change in his own field, his own institution and across the postsecondary industry—shares his thoughts on the importance of faculty diversity and reflects on some of the approaches he thinks could be more effective in moving the needle.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is a diverse professoriate so important for modern universities?
Freeman Hrabowski III (FH): The professoriate needs to be as diverse as possible. When thinking about the different ways in which our students and our society have become increasingly diverse, we’re talking about different races and ethnicities. We’re thinking about religion and diversity of political thoughts. We’re talking about sexuality issues and prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community. We’re talking about people with physical and mental disabilities.
We need people from all the different perspectives who can talk about not just the challenges they may face in our society but who will also bring the strengths of each of the groups to the table. A more diverse professoriate leads to more discussions, conversations and research focused on the future of our society and the solving of the problems of humankind.
The more diverse the group, the richer the discussions and the research and the potential solutions to the challenges of American society.
Evo: What role can faculty diversity play in the marketing efforts of a university?
FH: It can be really challenging to attract people from different backgrounds. If those people come to campus and don’t see people from similar backgrounds, they might question if this is the right place for them. If you have, for example, an all-male faculty then women who are looking at potential employment at the institution are going to want to know why are there no women in this discipline, and what does this says about the institution’s attitude towards women. That would be true for any group that may have been under-represented in a particular discipline.
The more diverse the faculty—the more people from different types of groups one finds there—the more likely it will be that others will look at the institution as a potential place to work. Beyond that, the more likely it will be that others look at the institution as a place that values the richness of points of view and of different perspectives.
Evo: How does a lack of faculty diversity impact the students who might be on a given campus or considering attending a particular institution?
FH: Our student groups are becoming increasingly diverse—I’m talking about people who are first-generation college students, people of colour, and all the other groups I’ve mentioned.
The fact is that if we want to make sure we understand the backgrounds, the perspectives, the challenges and the potential of the new students coming into higher education, we need to hear not only from those students but also from people who become experts in their disciplines and who have experiences coming from backgrounds similar to our students. People can assume they understand the young person who comes from a rural community as a low-income white student, for example, but if you don’t have people who have seen those experiences or have some of those experiences themselves its really very challenging to understand and to be as concerned about and interested in those perspectives.
Additionally, when it comes to student retention, you’ll see that when students don’t feel people understand their approach or their challenges, they sometimes—and perhaps often—will decide this is not the best place for them. The more diverse the faculty group, the more they can understand and get to know the students and all of what’s going on with them, but also the more they can develop strategies for helping those students to persist and succeed.
Evo: What are some of the most significant obstacles standing in the way of ensuring more diversity in the faculty ranks?
FH: The fact that the American professoriate is still primarily white has a lot to do with the fact that we all tend to hire people like ourselves. These are good people—these are people who care about ideas and want to support students of all types—but it takes special initiatives and special effort to create an environment in which people will be proactive in identifying and selecting people different from themselves.
What we tend to see is that people of any race and any gender will tend to select people like themselves particularly because the power is still in the hands—in many disciplines—of men and, quite frankly, we tend to keep selecting men.
We can find qualified people of all races and genders, and the fact is that we need to increase those numbers, across disciplines, for people who are completing PhDs and research experiences and finding faculty positions. The fact is that most people of colour will say it was really challenging finding that faculty opportunity.
Evo: How can universities overcome these obstacles to introduce a wider range of perspectives?
FH: Here at UMBC, which is predominantly white, we now have a student body that is almost half people of colour. From Asians to Hispanics to Blacks and others, we’re at least in the high 40s in terms of the percent of our student population who are minorities. We also know that we need to have a larger percentage of faculty of colour, given that we are primarily a white faculty.
We have been making progress—we’re now up to almost 10 percent African American faculty in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and are seeing similar numbers for Latinx faculty. We made tremendous progress in science and engineering, too. We have developed an approach of trying to get a presence in every department of under-represented groups. We’ve also developed an advanced program to increase the number of women and we have done things to support our LGBTQ+ faculty and staff group as well.
We have developed special initiatives, including an emerging scholars programs and an MS mentoring scholar program and underrepresented minority faculty affiliate groups for Blacks, for Hispanics, for Asians and for LGBTQ+ and we’ve had a strong effort involving the National Science Foundation for Women. We have a new program called STRIDE, which involves very highly respected faculty championing efforts to help other faculty look at implicit bias and current practices that might be impeding the recruitment of people of colour. We’ve come up with all of these initiatives and this is what they are: proactive initiatives that will not only bring in more people but will ensure that they have the kind of experiences that will lead to retaining and eventually tenuring them.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact of a diverse professoriate on an institution?
FH: We’ve challenged ourselves at UMBC to think about what shared governance truly means and it has everything to do with faculty taking responsibility, identifying the best people, and shifting to think about shared governance more as shared ownership.
We own this problem that we need more people reflecting different perspectives coming from different types of backgrounds together. It has been the faculty members—with support from the provost and the deans and others—who have really made the difference in creating these programs. Bringing in more post-doctoral students, bringing in others, and giving them the kind of support is what’s increasing our faculty diversity.
The commitment has to be real and when people put both commitment and brain power together all of this is possible.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator