thoughts on faculty diversity, part 2

Last week, I presented some reasons to think that faculty diversity is important. This week, I want to discuss concrete actions that might lead to more diversity. Maybe you’re a bleeding heart liberal, or maybe you just want to do right the next time someone from a really disadvantaged background shows up in your graduate program. Either way, increasing faculty diversity requires considerable effort and won’t happen by itself. Furthermore, it requires commitment. Like teaching, successfully increasing diversity will get you no reward. You will need commitment and a concrete plan.

Here are my thoughts. I phrase things in terms of ethnic diversity, but my advice is fairly generic. Adjust accordingly.

1. We must not have any illusions about the way that academia operates. The American university system is organized around 200 institutions that produce the bulk of PhDs who go on to teach in the most desirable colleges and universities. Furthermore, the best positions in any field usually go to graduates of the top 10-20 PhD programs. That’s the first lesson: if you have a talented person who is thinking about academia, don’t let them settle for second best. They have to go to the highest ranked program possible. This may be obvious to professors, but it is not obvious to students, especially those from modest backgrounds, and many don’t even apply to the strongest graduate programs.

2. Get your own graduate program in order. My observation is that minority students are the “canaries in the coal mine.” If your program is dysfunctional, students from the disadvantaged backgrounds will be the first to drop out, or fail out, or get undesirable jobs. Even if you think diversity is a bogus issue, everyone will benefit from a well run graduate program.

3. Graduate admissions: If you are on the hiring committee, look for signs of quality in students aside from the traditional one. For example, many top programs love to take Ivy League graduates. Those are strong programs, but that puts many students at a disadvantage, especially minority students who didn’t have the funds, knowledge, or access to these institutions when they were in high school. So be broad minded in looking for quality.

4. Working with the mainstream: Minority students, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, are likely to come up with ideas that are, frankly, hard to publish. Instead of just shutting them down, teach them how to translate their idea into something that *can* get published. It’s tricky, but you have to recognize where they are coming from, and then show them how to make the connection to the discipline. Otherwise, you risk sending the message “academia isn’t for people like you.” Instead, the message should be “this is how you turn your idea into something that can appeal to people.”

5. Quality time: It sounds trite, but you really need to have some quality time with graduate students. If you don’t actively do this, then you might easily forget. Some faculty make no effort to connect, leading to dissertations that never get done. Others may gravitate toward favorite students, who might be from the same group/background. So make an active effort to get people in the office.

6. Smart advice – from day 1! Get a brutally honest assessment of what it takes to make it in your field. Then tell it to your grad students – and tell them very early in the program. This is doubly important for minority students, because they will rarely get hired on good intentions and faculty connections. They need to signal they that they have the right stuff.

7. Work opportunities. If you have a project that allows for students to co-author, consider all your graduate students and show everyone how to publish in your area. Don’t just rely on the super-star student. Everyone can contribute and some will  grow into great researchers, if given the chance.

8. Hiring committees: This is where the rubber hits the road. First, don’t just rely on your faculty buddies for personal references. Second, sit down and read the applications. And don’t just look for a quick publication in the hot journal. Read the publications and the sample dissertation chapters. By going to faculty connections and hot journal hits, you are already biasing the process towards people with the connections and who can quickly work the system, rather than giving people the best opportunity to signal their quality.

Add others in the comment section.

Written by fabiorojas

August 12, 2010 at 12:15 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

9 Responses

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  1. As a retired diversity hire I applaud the post, particularly item #8. Would also suggest that faculty of diversity be hired in twos or trios to reduce isolation or spotlighting and provide an on-campus support system. Thanks for post.



    August 12, 2010 at 12:19 am

  2. Why do minority students come up with hard-to-publish ideas? Is it a language/style issue, something about the ideas themselves, or…?



    August 12, 2010 at 1:08 am

  3. Great post, Fabio. To “student,” Fabio or others might have more to say, but many/most students come up with hard-to-publish ideas. The ones who don’t have usually been previously well-mentored about what makes an idea “interesting” in an academic sense, and often come from a background that makes the academic way of looking at things seem natural, including having academic parents.



    August 12, 2010 at 5:48 am

  4. Have been published a diversity faculty – ick what a term – publication/peer review usually gives extensive commentary for resubmission.



    August 12, 2010 at 6:17 am

  5. The top 10-20 receive a lot of pointless applications. The bottom half of the job market candidates at one university might wonder if they would have been one of the top students somewhere else. If your views are unusual, then the professors most likely to hype you up are not necessarily those at the highest ranked place you can go. The opinion of the professors in your department matters, through reference letters. If you were a Rothbard-based econ grad student, would you rather have your reference letters written by the faculty of GMU, NYU, or MIT? I personally would take my chances at GMU in that scenario. One should acknowledge that some applicants aim too high.



    August 12, 2010 at 6:59 am

  6. Anon: It’s really a tough call. Academia is so stratified and based on personal networks that it’s sometimes better to be a not great student at top school rather than best at less prestige school X. At least you can use the brand name.

    Let’s use the libertarian economist example. GMU trains people well and they do get jobs. However, they are often teaching colleges. The highest ranked placement for any GMU graduate, as far as I can tell, is … GMU. They’ve hired a few of their own, the ones with the best records who are clearly accomplished economists. If teaching is you career goal, then fantastic. Same for government and industry. People in those fields are less concerned with pedigree and whatever the latest academic fad happens to be.

    But if a libertarian minded student wants to compete for top research jobs, my advice would be to go to a regular economics program and master the mainstream ideas. I bet if you were to produce a list of the most accomplished libertarian economists, most of them probably got trained at top-10 econ programs.* It’s not a coincidence.

    * To take your example, the wiki says Rothbard graduated from Columbia economics.



    August 12, 2010 at 7:52 pm

  7. Yes, that seems clear (that “hard to publish” ideas are ideas that are not “‘interesting’ in an academic sense). And certainly, I’m familiar with students who come from academic families and ‘get’ what ideas are approved of. My question is: What ideas aren’t approved of? What gets deliberately excluded?

    The implication of saying certain ideas are hard to publish seems to be that it’s the ideas themselves that are bad, whereas, “this is how you turn your idea into something that can appeal to people” suggests that the idea is the same, it just needs to be dressed up in academic jargon or fit into existing theoretical perspectives or some such. To what extent is it only the latter? To what extent does learning how to think like an academic entail actually having different ideas? I think sometimes that’s clearly a good thing, and as you become more familiar with other scholars’ work, etc., you begin to have ideas that are shaped by yet different from their perspectives and problems. But it’s not obvious to me that shaping and changing your ideas in favor of what is publishable is always a good thing.



    August 15, 2010 at 7:00 am

  8. I’m wondering to what extent minority graduate students “opt out” of the academic market. From my own experience as a recent graduate of a sociology PhD program, I never even considered looking for an academic position. When I weighed the costs: relatively low pay, the need to be able to move *anywhere* for a position, and the incredible work loads of assistant profs against the benefits: ability to set your own research agenda, flexible hours, and job security, an academic career didn’t seem worth it for me, particularly after factoring in the time, effort, and uncertainty involved in finding a tenure track position. It makes me wonder if other minority graduate students (and especially students from working class backgrounds) make this kind of calculation at some point during graduate school and decide to go the non-academic route instead. If so, this may be another example of minority and working class students acting as “canaries in the coal mine”, reacting to the dysfunction of the academic market in general.



    August 16, 2010 at 4:32 pm

  9. Following on HappyFlower’s first comment, I think that it is important not to overburden minority students with service commitments. I have seen a number of minority students (and faculty) be asked to serve on several diversity committees. In a department with few minority students and faculty, the same people tend to be asked over and over again. This makes it hard to be productive in an academic sense.



    August 20, 2010 at 1:31 am

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