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Diversifying faculty

Penn professor shares perspective on the failure of colleges, universities to hire more faculty of color

Marybeth Gasman isn’t shy when it comes to talking about race. As a leading scholar and author of more than 300 opinion essays on the topic, she is boldly tackling what others aren’t. Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, has been visiting institutions across the country to discuss the failure of colleges and universities to hire a more diverse teaching body.

She came to the University of Delaware on Oct. 30 to share her insights in a talk titled, “Our Nation’s Professoriate, Diversity and Racism: The Five Truths We Don’t Want to Confront.” The event was sponsored by the UD ADVANCE Institute and co-sponsored by the Provost’s Office and the Center for the Study of Diversity.

A researcher on the history of American higher education and diversity, Gasman said she began observing the lack of faculty of color over time as the country’s demographics changed. She noticed that the student body was shifting but the faculty wasn’t. Gasman said the problem isn’t a lack of candidates, but a lack of will among higher education institutions to diversify the faculty. She delivered the following “five truths” on the issue:

1. We invoke the word ‘quality’ as a strategy for dismissal of applicants of color.

Gasman said, “The only time you should be bringing up quality is if you’re saying to yourself, ‘we’d be a higher quality institution if we were more diverse.’ ”

She questioned why recruiters tend to place so much value on Ivy League degrees and mentoring by prominent people — benefits typically accessible to wealthier individuals. Gasman, who is an expert in historically black colleges and directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, noted there are many reputable African American institutions that have strong track records for sending students to graduate school.

“Challenge yourself about ideas of quality,” she said. 

2. We claim faculty of color are missing from the pipeline.

Gasman acknowledged that in fields like philosophy, engineering and physics, there are fewer candidates of color. But she said this excuse is also used for other fields, like education, business, and arts and sciences, where there are many people of color with Ph.D.s. Gasman placed fault on the lack of training for search committees, whose members she said don’t know how to go out and find potential candidates.

“We always go to the same places,” said Gasman. “Look across the country in your field and figure out who produces the most Ph.D.s of color and then set up a relationship with those institutions.”

Gasman suggested search committees use new connections and also start their own pathways.

“If the pipelines aren’t out there, you should create them,” she said.

3. Exceptions are the rule in academe . . . only for some.

Gasman said universities tend to be willing to break rules and policies to hire white candidates, but when it comes to hiring faculty of color, the tendency is to play by the rules.

4. Search committees reproduce the status quo.

“We like people like us,” said Gasman. She pointed to research showing people tend to want to hire someone they feel comfortable and can socialize with.

Gasman noted there is a tendency to eliminate candidates by saying “they don’t fit.”

“Why do they have to fit the culture?” she asked. “Think a lot about fit. Think about how often you say that. Why do you feel uncomfortable around someone who is different?”

Gasman said search committees at universities are part of the problem: They are not trained in recruitment, are rarely diverse in makeup, and are often more interested in hiring people just like them rather than expanding the diversity of their department.

5. We have the answers to diversify the faculty, but we choose to ignore them.

Gasman encouraged the audience to seek out guidebooks on how to recruit faculty of color and to advance training. She urged people to speak up to make the changes needed to improve the recruitment process.

“People of color are not going to be able to do this on their own,” Gasman said. “The only way it happens is if people really want it to happen.”

Regina Wright, associate professor in the School of Nursing and ADVANCE faculty fellow, said after attending the event, "Marybeth Gasman's ‘five truths’ about why we don't have more faculty of color in the academy were eye-opening. It was clear from her discussion that the best practices for diversifying our faculties are well known, but universities aren't doing the work to implement them. She stressed that a little empathy and a lot of intentionality go a long way. We must do more."


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