Faculty Diversity in Higher Education

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“Diversity” is a word that we often see associated with higher education. Colleges proudly show their diverse, talented, and qualified student bodies. Fostering a varied student population brings together different perspectives and allows students to learn and grow out of their comfort zone. 

In 2016, the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that about 73.2% of full-time faculty were White. Among full-time professors, 80% were White, 4% were Black, 11% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 3% were Hispanic, and less than 1% were American Indian/Alaska Native individuals. 

Meanwhile, close to half of the student population at the undergraduate level are students of color.

As more students of color attend college, increasing faculty diversity is critical in creating a diverse and inclusive environment. Diverse faculty bring various experiences and backgrounds to their roles as educators and researchers.

Recent research shows that faculty diversity in higher education supports the success of students from underrepresented groups and all students' intercultural competence. Students can feel seen, understood, and confident to continue in higher education.

Faculty diversity is valuable to students in several ways. Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Select Select that two of the most commonly cited reasons for diversity contributing to student success are role modeling and diversity of thought. 

“First, we know that role modeling matters. Seeing people who look like us occupy jobs or leadership positions can improve our perception that such goals are attainable. This can be particularly powerful for historically marginalized populations,” Campion stated. “Second, it is documented that subgroups of individuals—whether by gender, racioethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.--have distinct experiences from their counterparts. The notion here is that exposure to different ways of thinking is valuable.”

“Fortunately, the hallmark of college is exposure to topics and perspectives you have never thought about before. And yet, if we have homogeneity in faculty backgrounds and experiences, it could be argued that we aren't maximizing their exposure to alternative viewpoints,” she concluded. 

Faculty Diversification Must Increase

A new Nature Human Behavior analysis tapped three federal databases to find that current diversity rates in US faculty will never reach racial parity. Yet, colleges and universities could achieve equality by 2050 by diversifying their faculty at 3.5 times the current pace.

Study authors J. Nathan Matias, assistant professor of communication and information science at Cornell University; Neil A. Lewis, assistant professor of communication at Cornell; and Elan C. Hope, assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, also found that the racial diversity of US tenure-track and tenured faculty is not increasing any faster than the diversity of the American public. 

Specifically, the percentage of underrepresented tenure-line faculty members across 1,250 institutions increased by 0.23 percentage points each year between 2013 and 2020. Meanwhile, the US Census projects that the rate of these same demographic groups among the general population will increase by 0.2 percentage points per year.

“Overall, the lack of progress on faculty diversity in the U.S. is a collective failure perpetuated by our focus on institution-level changes,” they said in the analysis. 

“Fortunately, the available evidence offers hope for achieving faculty parity in our lifetime. This bold goal may seem small compared to university press releases and interminable when viewed as a hole-riddled pipeline. Yet, when pursued at a systemic level in an evidence-based manner, faculty parity could be within our reach,” they concluded. 

How to Increase Faculty Diversification

Increasing faculty diversity depends on success in various areas, including ensuring a campus-wide commitment to diversity efforts, improving hiring practices, and developing resources that support the success of faculty members from underrepresented groups. 

But colleges and universities should also lead with purpose. The current status quo is unacceptable. Institutions should break down diversity data by race, ethnicity, gender, rank, and discipline, as statistics about faculty diversity can obscure more than they reveal. 

Having a new hiring strategy flow from the top can help ensure there is no turning back.

Additionally, institutions should reallocate existing resources and shift budgets designated for other purposes to invest in faculty diversity. This move could entail setting aside open tenure lines to support faculty diversity or carving out annual funds to invest in new hires.

Boston College recently announced its commitment to diversify its teaching ranks. Of the 49 full-time faculty members who joined the college last year, 57% were women and 39% were people of African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent. 

These percentages were the highest in at least 15 years. 

And Robert Sellers, Ph.D., chief diversity officer at the University of Michigan, describes his institution’s implementation of a 5-year diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategic plan as an effort to build pathways for more diverse faculty. His focus is elevating and making BIPOC scholarship and voices integral to the public university.

For example, the university built a referral network that includes historically Black and Latinx universities to identify emerging BIPOC scholars. It also created the LSA Collegiate Fellows Program to attract early-career faculty who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity through teaching or research. 

All students benefit from different perspectives and viewpoints, as diverse faculty helps move course curriculums away from being highly Eurocentric to more representative of diverse backgrounds.

With more faculty of color and a change in curriculum, colleges and universities could prevent stereotyping and promote acceptance of diversity and equity.

Colleges and universities could achieve parity by 2050 by diversifying their faculty at 3.5 times the current pace.


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