Varna Kodoth: Look around the room

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 5:07pm

When reflecting on my four years spent trying to navigate the University of Michigan as a South Asian woman, I recall only one professor who shared the same core social identities as me. It’s a harsh realization to enter a community or field of work where it is not common to find professors who look like me, talk like me or grew up like me. It’s the role of an academic institution — particularly a leading center for education, research and innovation — to create a faculty that is reflective of a diverse student body. It’s time to equally prioritize diversifying University staff and faculty positions, just as it is to create a diverse student population.

The ADVANCE Program at the University not only pursues highly effective initiatives to improve diversity but also tests whether the recommendations actually result in a more diverse faculty. For example, a recent study conducted by Denise Sekaquaptewa, Koji Takahashi and the ADVANCE program at the University and published in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion — an international journal — seeks to evaluate current departmental hiring practices and suggestions to hire for diversity. In the study “An evidence-based faculty recruitment workshop influences departmental hiring practice perceptions among university faculty,” the authors demonstrate the positive impacts of a workshop on attitudes toward diversifying hiring practices and reducing biases on both an individual and department-wide level. In doing so, Sekaquaptewa et al. highlight the importance of introducing systematic changes that require faculty search committees to practice mindfulness about social identities and emphasize how critical it is to challenge societal norms. 

The results show that even if a member of the recruiting process did not receive the formal workshop training intended to address social identities, disparities, gender, race and so on, if the majority of their colleagues within the department did attend the training, there was a positive impact on the decisions of the untrained individual. This reflects a behavioral shift across a department simply caused by opening up perspectives on partaking in more equitable hiring strategies. This isn’t just an example of successful program implementation; it clearly shows that the University is capable of setting a higher standard in which search committees make it their responsibility to reduce unconscious biases and adjust attitudes.

Additionally, constructing a faculty of diverse backgrounds is particularly beneficial to students because the content of the course is then further supported by a variety of experiences specific to the unique professor and their own path. Varied experiences are also helpful when there’s a need to make department-wide decisions. Life experiences pave the way for options that may not have been considered otherwise when making decisions about what fits best for a student population made up of many different identities. For example, it is inspiring for a female aiming to work in a male-dominated profession to see female professors making an impact in their own fields. From a student’s perspective, it’s reassuring to see a professor of similar identities at a prestigious institution like the University challenging societal norms and working on what they’re most passionate about. The University of Wisconsin-Madison makes use of “Cluster Hiring,” or interdisciplinary strategic hiring. The goal is to create teams that collaboratively pull on individual strengths to contribute to a department’s overarching goal. A main reason for this new implementation is to serve the university’s objective in increasing campus diversity. This is an interesting concept that might serve well for the U-M community.

University departments must make ongoing assessments of where they stand on the spectrum of diversity in the workplace. “Diversity in the workplace” is a buzz phrase thrown around by Fortune 500 companies in an attempt to showcase that their mission statement is intolerant of discriminatory behavior; however, it is important to look around the room. When you’re at a meeting involving executive positions, such as the chair of a department, evaluate whether or not the department is incorporating as many identities as possible. This requires rethinking and restructuring of the hiring process in the short-term. The long-term gains to the University as a whole make this endeavor worth it. 

Varna Kodoth can be reached at vkodoth@umich.edu