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Robert Sellers, University of Michigan’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Education, spoke recently at UD on attracting diverse faculty candidates.
Robert Sellers, University of Michigan’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Education, spoke recently at UD on attracting diverse faculty candidates.

Working harder for diversity

Photo by Cindy Hall

Michigan’s Robert Sellers shares insights on faculty diversity

When trying to solve a problem, would you seek help from four other people who know exactly what you know, or would you invite four people who know different things and have diverse experiences to help you find the solution?

It was the thought-provoking question Robert Sellers posed to a room of administrators, faculty and staff at a recent University of Delaware ADVANCE Institute event on the importance of a diverse faculty.

While seeking out people with different perspectives seems like the obvious way to approach a problem, for most people it’s not intuitive. It takes us out of our comfort zone, explained Sellers, University of Michigan’s vice provost for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Education.

“Diversity flies in the face of the way in which people traditionally exist in the world,” said Sellers. “When you come into a room full of strangers, you don’t look for people who are the most different from you — you look for the people who have something in common. It’s just a natural aspect of who we are.”

So that means we have to work to make diversity work, he explained. But while the work is hard, the payoff is great: evidence shows that having more diversity leads to better results.

“Data indicates that more diverse perspectives lead to better problem solving and more creative, successful solutions — that fits with our own experiences in life,” said Sellers. “Much of the knowledge we gain and breakthroughs we have result from individuals looking at a problem slightly differently as a function of their backgrounds.”   

If you build it, will they come?

While having a more diverse faculty leads to stronger results, it takes a great deal of effort. When it comes to faculty recruitment, Sellers said, search committees must be intentional about creating diverse pools.

“You can’t assume that you’re going to get diversity simply by having people apply,” Sellers said. “Society is not equitable, and to assume doing nothing will get you an equitable outcome is a faulty assumption. You have to be willing to take steps to create the types of pools that you want.”

Sellers further challenged committees to take a different approach to evaluating faculty candidates, going beyond quantifying their accomplishments and looking deeper into the value applicants bring to the table. He explained that what we think are objective indicators are part of a larger system that in and of itself is self-selecting and therefore limiting.

“We are at a point where we’re pushing more and more to be able to count and using counting as our analysis of excellence and evaluation,” he said. “Whether it’s citation indices, the journal impact factors … if we don’t have the ability to evaluate the work, not only is it problematic and unequally punitive, it is fundamentally unintellectual. Don’t just count. Read.”

This means working harder, Sellers said. “Counting is easy. What I’m asking is to complicate and make things harder, which flies in the face of the fundamental principles of inquiry,” he said.

Diversity vs. equity vs. inclusion

If you want diversity you must also have equity and inclusion, or it simply doesn’t work, Sellers said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion all must travel together or else we get no benefit from diversity,” he said.

But what’s the difference between the three terms? They each have a distinct meaning, Sellers explained.

“When we think about diversity, we think about it as everybody gets invited to the party,” he said. “Equity means everybody gets to dance. But the scary part is inclusion because that means everyone gets to contribute to the playlist. That means that everybody is a part of determining what happens. And that means giving up power.”

Mentors are critical to helping departments realize equity and inclusion. But mentors need mentoring, Sellers emphasized.  

He observed that we often think of mentors as being well-meaning people who want to do good and help the next generation become better. But too often, those same qualities and characteristics aren’t necessarily linked to the latest information. They tend to be based on mentors’ own experiences versus broadly considering different pathways to success. “While well-intentioned this can sometimes be damaging,” Sellers added.

Sellers pointed out that mentoring is different from advising. A key component to faculty mentorship is sponsorship — doing those kinds of things that take your status and allows others to leverage it for their own success in the field, he explained.

Sellers offered examples including inviting an assistant professor to be on a prestigious panel with the mentor, so they are in a position to move forward in the field and meet influential experts. Or inviting the mentee, if appropriate, to be a co-author or co-principal investigator (PI) on a grant or a book chapter.

“Work harder at what you value,” Sellers concluded. “You’ll end up with greater payoff.”

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