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Faculty members of color see ‘illusion of inclusion’

White professors and their nonwhite counterparts have very different perceptions of what constitutes diversity and inclusion, according to a recent analysis from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

White faculty members are much more likely to agree (73 percent) that there is visible leadership support and promotion of diversity on their campus than are Black professors (55 percent). Thirty-one percent of Black professors disagree with the statement entirely, based on data from COACHE’s ongoing surveys of faculty job satisfaction across many colleges and universities.

An even bigger perception gap exists as to how department colleagues support and promote diversity and inclusion within programs. While 78 percent of white professors agree that their departments are committed, just 58 percent of Black faculty members feel that way. Twenty-eight percent of Black professors disagree that their departmental colleagues are committed to these goals.

The idea of faculty “fit” in hiring is a controversial one, as it’s a potential catchall for various biases. COACHE acknowledges this but points out that a faculty member’s feeling of fit or belonging has also been linked to greater job satisfaction and likelihood of retention. Asked about fit, faculty members’ perceptions of how they fit in with their department varied by race. Sixty-nine percent of white professors said they “fit” or belonged, followed by 67 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander professors. Among all other groups, this share was 62 percent. Twenty-three percent of Latinx and “other” ethnic group professors in particular said they were dissatisfied with how they fit in — or didn’t.

“These impressions — white colleagues’ stronger sense of campus leadership on diversity; their more optimistic belief in their colleagues’ commitment to inclusion; and their greater sense of belonging in their departments — conjure for Black and African American faculty and other minoritized groups an unfulfilled promise of an inclusive academy,” says COACHE’s analysis.

In addition to faculty well-being and retention, the data also have implications for faculty hiring. Professors across racial groups who say they would strongly recommend their departments to job candidates also tend to report clear leadership on diversity and inclusion on their campuses. Among Black faculty members who would strongly recommend their departments, nearly 73 percent agree that there is visible leadership on diversity.

“College leaders must do better to connect their performative support of diversity and inclusion with the everyday behaviors of faculty, and especially white faculty, in their departments,” COACHE’s analysis says. “To begin, college leaders and white faculty can dispel the illusion of support and promotion for diversity.”

By really working on themselves, the analysis continues, “they can start to make inclusion a reality and institutions of higher education more attractive and equitable places to work.”

Flipping the Narrative

Kiernan Mathews, executive director and principal investigator at COACHE, said that while the collaborative has been doing equity work for more than 15 years, it has historically been complicit in a “deficit narrative” regarding how faculty members of color, as well as women in the sciences, are “typically less satisfied, less engaged in the things we prefer to count, more likely to leave.”

COACHE now encourages partner institutions to “flip that narrative,” focusing on the privilege enjoyed by white faculty members rather than “what’s wrong” with nonwhite professors, Mathews said.

The events of 2020 only “helped us to sharpen our message and to equip academic leaders with the tools for acting on it,” he added. COACHE’s statement on racial justice, for instance, draws what Mathews called a direct line from “the pandemic of racial injustice and systemic racism to this analysis of white privilege among the faculty.” COACHE’s analysis of faculty members with disabilities is another part this reorientation project.

Over all, COACHE urges institutions to move from “illusion to reality” by forming “genuine partnerships with organizations in this country that are seeking collective action on systemic change in the academy.” Groups that help institutions “hold themselves accountable for their rhetoric” include Aspire: The National Alliance for Inclusive and Diverse STEM Faculty and STEMM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change, from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Mathews has said.

As Mathews wrote in his original analysis, “Presidents, provosts and deans know by now that traditional evaluation criteria value the kind of work done by white faculty (especially white men), particularly scholarly productivity, over the work that faculty of color are more often asked to perform, including teaching, mentorship, and other departmental service work.” So if these leaders are really “intent on institutional transformation, they will work with faculty to reward in tenure and promotion all of the contributions that faculty from diverse backgrounds make to the university.”

COACHE gathered data prior to the pandemic, including in 2019, but Mathews said these “pre-existing conditions” were only made worse by COVID-19.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Education and co-author of the 2012 paper on “illusion of inclusion” referenced in the COACHE report, said that his ongoing research reveals little to no change on faculty diversity from 2013 to 2017, with large research institutions showing the least progress of all. (In addition to inclusion illusion, engineer Monica F. Cox has called this dynamic “playing” at diversity.)

Kentucky is something of an exception on this front, however. Two-thirds of the recent faculty hires to the College of Education are racial minorities, for instance. Vasquez Heilig and colleagues also signed an August agreement to develop an education and research initiative focused on educational equity, civil rights and social justice in collaboration with the NAACP.

Vasquez Heilig said that with his institution’s support, he helps college search committees cast a wide net and treats potential faculty candidates like potential star quarterbacks — or, more appropriately for basketball powerhouse Kentucky, point guards — calling, texting, writing postcards and even inviting them over for dinner. He also works hard to retain the minority faculty members whom other institutions are attempting to “poach,” he said.

For all these reasons, Kentucky’s reputation precedes it, Vasquez Heilig said, meaning professors from elsewhere also reach out directly. “I probably have a faculty member of color call me once a week to express interest in Kentucky … The bottom line is that faculty know the reputation of your institutions regarding faculty members of color. And if faculty members feel like it’s a healthy environment, they’re going to recruit other faculty of color to come to that institution.”

Noting that students are increasingly taking note of faculty diversity, Vasquez Heilig said, “We’ve created a place where students have access to diverse faculty.”

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