The Importance of a Diverse Faculty for Broadening the Undergraduate STEM Pipeline

By Dr. Juan C. Meza

Reprinted with permission from NSF INCLUDES CONFERENCE to Advance the Collective Impact of Retention & Continuation Strategies for Hispanics and Other Underrepresented Minorities in STEM Fields, pp. 66–69, March 7–8, Washington, DC, 2017.

ABSTRACT

There is much discussion these days on increasing the number of students in the undergraduate STEM pipeline and in particular among traditionally underrepresented students. At the same time, students at many universities are demanding that the faculty composition be more representative of the changing demographics. The response from university administrators is hopeful, yet we also know that it will be challenging to meet those demands. The current process for hiring faculty can be cumbersome, archaic, and not likely to yield desired results. If this is the case, can we do anything about improving the hiring process? Here, I propose several possible strategies that could be used to improve the overall hiring process and discuss the advantages of having a more diverse faculty body on our campuses.

INTRODUCTION

There is much discussion these days on the importance of broadening participation in STEM undergraduate programs and particularly among traditionally underrepresented minorities and women.

The world is certainly changing rapidly and the student demographics are reflecting the changes nationally.
At UC Merced, 71% of the undergraduate students are first-generation and 51% are Hispanic. Across the country we are seeing similar trends, with increasing numbers of traditionally underrepresented minorities.
The same cannot be said of the faculty numbers.

Students at many universities are aware of these trends and are demanding that the faculty composition be more representative of these changes. The students are rightfully concerned with the current situation. It is not the case that faculty from different backgrounds as their own can’t be good mentors, advisors, and teachers. In fact, it is crucial that all faculty play an important role in promoting diversity within their campuses.

But faculty from underrepresented minority groups play an especially important role in retention. For many students from these groups, URM faculty represent what I call “existence proofs”. To these students, seeing a faculty member from their own group at a university means that in fact they belong at these institutions of higher education and perhaps that one day they might also achieve that status. This sense of belonging is crucial to many underrepresented minorities and first-generation students who in many cases are already unsure as to whether higher education is the right career path for them.

Minority and female faculty also play an important role in listening to issues that these students are unlikely to bring up to other faculty that they may not identify with.

Here a level of trust is almost always a part of the issue. Whether rightfully or not, students usually make an implicit assumption that someone from a similar background understands the issues that they are facing. They thus feel safer in bringing up sensitive topics related to academic issues and doing so at earlier stages. And early intervention often leads to better retention rates.

For this and other reasons, it is important for the academy to seriously consider and address the demographics of our faculty body so that it better reflects the diversity of the student body. In my experience, the importance of role models for women and underrepresented minorities cannot be overemphasized.

The response from university administrators is hopeful, yet we also know that it will be challenging to meet those demands. In a recent survey, chief academic officers (CAOs) generally believe their institution values racial and ethnic diversity in faculty hiring. In particular, 53% of CAOs strongly agree or agree that most academic departments at their institution place a high value on diversity in the hiring process. Interesting, “62% strongly agree or agree that their college will need to make hiring decisions in new ways to bring about a more diverse faculty.”

However, there is also concern whether targets for minority hiring in higher education are realistic and whether they their own colleges can reach their targets.

There are several reasons for this. For one, we know that this is a long-term problem and it will take time to change the diversity in our faculty body. The recruiting process is slow and decisions involve many people all with a strong interest in what is rightly viewed as important decisions with 20–30 year consequences and having major impacts on teaching and research directions within the university. Secondly, the budgets at many universities have been steadily declining so administrators are faced with hard decisions for allocating resources and funds for new faculty FTEs can be difficult to come by. However, this is the reason that each and every faculty hire has to be considered carefully. In my experience, if you can’t make an enthusiastic offer, it is better to wait another year.

But there are deeper issues that make diversifying the faculty body even more difficult and that is the recruitment and hiring process itself. The process of how we presently hire faculty can be cumbersome, archaic, and not likely to yield desired results.

IMPROVING THE HIRING PROCESS

I would propose that hiring processes in general are far too restrictive leading to narrowly defined pools with candidates that look all too similar. In addition, there is little to no training of most of the people involved in the hiring process, with the inherent issues that arise from this lack of training. Finally, it is unclear to me whether today’s processes actually yield better faculty in the end as success can only be defined after rather long lag times.

If this is the case, can we do anything about improving the hiring process? First of all, I think that we need to have a national discussion on how we can do better. Because this is an issue that cuts across many constituencies, all interested parties should have a say in this including: students, faculty, and administrators. If possible, it would be good to gather some data on how effective we have been in recruiting, hiring, and retaining faculty.

To be more specific about improving the process itself, I have four specific suggestions:

  1. when writing the job posting schools should use the broadest possible description that makes sense;
  2. the departments should define and agree on the criteria for the position ahead of time;
  3. schools should require a diversity statement from all applicants; 4) schools should consider using the “Rooney” rule,
  4. the search process should be viewed as a multi-year process.

PROPOSED STRATEGIES

1. Job Posting

Taking each point in turn let me first discuss the job posting. In my experience, there are many cases where a job posting has been tailored so as to essentially narrow down the pool to a few candidates (and sometimes to just one). If the overall goal is to attract the best faculty to a university, this tactic would seem to be counterproductive. Yet it persists, because it is human nature to believe that we know what talent looks like and that we can predict future success for our colleagues based on our own experiences (see Kahneman). Broadening the job posting also invites more applicants, which many search committees are reluctant to even think about, because of the extra work. However, if the goal is to produce the best candidate and thereby enhance the scholarly reputation of the university does it not make sense to attract as many candidates as possible?

2. Selection Criteria

With regard to the criteria for selection there are two phases of the search where this is critical. The first is selecting candidates from the overall pool to generate the “short-list”. The second phase is in the final ranking of the candidates who were invited to the campus visit. In both cases it is critical that all involved are agreed on what criteria are being used to evaluate the candidates. In one case I’m aware of, a couple of search committee members decided on their short list based on whether applicants had an existing grant or not. I asked them for a clarification on how that criterion was chosen and whether it had been one of the job requirements. Of course the answer was no, it was not listed as a job requirement, but it was supposedly indicative of future success. The point being however that ill-defined criteria or criteria that not everybody has agreed to, will likely yield inconsistent or unanticipated results.

This also highlights the importance of training for search committees. As we now know of course, there is implicit (unconscious) bias in all of us. And we know that even just acknowledging that bias will help us make better decisions. This and other cognitive biases have been in the news recently with the books by Danny Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Michael Lewis (The Undoing Project), both of which can provide us with greater insights on how to make better decisions. Furthermore, it is easy to be swayed that the best judges of faculty candidates will be other faculty in similar fields. As Kahneman’s work has shown, there is an innate “overconfidence effect” that leads us to overestimate our knowledge in many situations and to a large extent it is more common in experts than in lay people. Should we incorporate some of these ideas into revamping our hiring process?

3. Diversity Statements

The third point has to do with diversity statements. For many years, the norm has been to ask the candidates to provide a research and a teaching statement. Several years ago, we instituted a requirement that a diversity statement also be included in the application package. In my experience, this has been one of the more successful strategies leading us to hire 18 women faculty, and 6 URM faculty out of 34 overall in the School of Natural Sciences. In my opinion, the diversity statement has been useful for three main reasons. The first is that the requirement makes a strong statement to candidates that diversity is important to the institution. In fact, many candidates I have interviewed have told me that they applied to UC Merced specifically because they saw that a diversity statement was required. The second reason is that it reminds everybody inside the university, and the search committees in particular, of the core values the institution holds and that diversity should be one of the criteria by which to rank the candidates. Finally, and I think importantly, it allows for a natural conversation on diversity during the interview process. In my experience asking candidates about their diversity statements, I have come to a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of the diversity in our candidates.

4. The Rooney Rule

The fourth point is consideration of the “Rooney Rule”. If you’re not familiar with the rule, it is named after Dan Rooney, who was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chairman of the NFL’s diversity committee. In short, it is an NFL policy that requires league teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. My predecessor at UC Merced had a policy where search committees were allowed to bring in 3 candidates for a campus visit. In addition, they could also bring in a fourth candidate if they had a diverse visit list–I kept that policy in place. I should point out that the fourth candidate is not a requirement, but more of an incentive to see more candidates, so it’s not a strict interpretation of the Rooney rule. And in fact, several search committees have chosen to not take advantage of the extra slot. Is the rule good, bad, inconclusive? I think the jury is still out on this. The advantage is that in many cases, it does diversify the pool. The disadvantage is that too many times, the fourth candidate is viewed as strictly the “diversity candidate”. Overall, however, the data seem to indicate that this tactic does provide for a more diversified short list, and often the committee is “surprised” by the candidate who may not have looked as strong on paper. I believe this has led to more offers to URM and female candidates.

5. Multi-year Hiring Process

The final point is that universities should regard the entire hiring process as a multi-year process. In some cases, departments worry that a failed search will lead to the FTE being taken away. In other cases, search committees do not want to endure another search process. On the other end of the recruiting process, many departments don’t start to look for candidates until an FTE is secured, which means the process will secure the best candidate at that particular point in time, and neglect someone that might be on the job market one year in the future. A better strategy would be to keep an eye out on talented candidates 2–3 years in advance of possible FTE allocations–a process that would require joint faculty-administration coordination.

CANDIDATE PREPARATION

Finally, let’s consider the hiring process from the perspective of potential faculty candidates. I suggest that the academy should also do more to prepare graduate students for interviewing. Of course there are great examples of departments and advisors who mentor their students on how to prepare for interviews, but these practices need to be more widespread. I’ve seen far too many URM students go out on the job market; students that I know are smart, motivated, and resourceful. I’ve also seen many of these same students who end up without job offers because they were ill prepared for their interviews. This is what I call not knowing the unwritten rules of interviewing.

It goes without saying that even a little preparation will go a long way, but since many URM students also come from first-generation families or from smaller schools, many of them don’t know the expectations of an interview, especially at large or research-intensive universities.

In essence they are trying to make up for 20+ years of preparation that other students have had because of their upbringing. Dr. Luo-Luo Hong, Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at San Francisco State University, likens this to having two computers except one of them comes pre-loaded with all your favorite software. The computers will both do the job, but the one without the software will take more preparation before it’s ready to use. Once again, this is a place where URM faculty need to play a special role, but all faculty should contribute.

SUMMARY

The need to broaden the undergraduate STEM pipeline is one of critical national importance. To recruit and retain underrepresented minorities and women in these fields, one of the best strategies available is to have a diverse faculty body.

Reaching these goals will be a difficult but not insurmountable challenge. Our current hiring practices however are not well suited to diversifying the faculty and we need to have a national discussion on how to improve them. Finally, URM faculty (and administrators) have a special role to play from both a perspective of serving as role models for our student and promoting diversity, but ultimately everybody must contribute–it is after all a shared responsibility in our future.

REFERENCES

1. Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, 2017 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, Inside Higher Ed, 2017.

2. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.

3. Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

About the Author

Dr. Juan Meza, SACNAS Life Member, is Dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced. He also holds a position as Professor of Applied Mathematics. He has worked on various scientific and engineering applications including scalable methods for nanoscience, electric power grid reliability, molecular conformation problems, optimal design of chemical vapor deposition furnaces, and semiconductor device modeling. His current research interests include nonlinear optimization and high performance computing.

Prior to joining UC Merced, Dr. Meza held positions at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where he served as Department Head and Senior Scientist for High Performance Computing Research and at Sandia National Laboratories where he held the position of Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff.

Dr. Meza received the 2013 Rice University Outstanding Engineering Alumni Award and was named to Hispanic Business magazine’s Top 100 Influentials in the area of science. In addition, he was elected a Fellow of the AAAS and was the 2008 recipient of the Blackwell-Tapia Prize, and the SACNAS

Distinguished Scientist Award. He was also a recipient of the 2008 ACM Gordon Bell Award for Algorithm Innovation.

Dr. Meza has served on numerous committees including the National Research Council Board on Mathematical Sciences and their Applications; DOE’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee; the AAAS Council; and served on the boards for SACNAS, SIAM, the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics, and the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications.