Recent Report Calls For More Awareness Of Faculty Diversity

The Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity released its final report on the minority faculty experience at MIT last Thursday after a two and a half year effort. Stemming from an effort to understand why a disproportionately small number of MIT faculty are members of minority groups, the report found that there are inequities in the minority faculty experience.

Of 1,009 faculty members, only six percent are classified as minorities, an increase from the four and a half percent in 2004, where the federal government defines minorities as naturalized or permanent residents who self-identified as African, Hispanic, or Native American. Since Asian residents are represented at MIT at a higher percentage than represented at the general U.S. general population, they are not considered underrepresented minorities. The numbers of minority faculty are comparable to other science universities.

Expand, clarify recruitment

The backgrounds of both minority and non-minority faculty are remarkably similar, the report found. Fifty-five percent of minority faculty hold PhD degrees from either MIT, Harvard, or Stanford, indicating missed opportunities in hiring a diverse faculty by simply not expanding the search to more universities. Fifty percent of white faculty and forty three percent of Asian faculty also hold their PhDs degrees from those three universities.

The large percentage of faculty members from three specific universities is not caused by a deliberate pipeline or network, but instead by a lack of a concerted effort to broaden the sources of applicants, the report said. Expanding the search even to just the top twenty ranked schools would increase diversity in terms of both race and background of hired faculty, said Paula T. Hammond ’84, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chair of the Diversity Initiative.

The number of qualified minority applicants could increase by building relationships with a larger network of schools and following the progress of potential faculty members, the report suggested.

A few departments have excelled in hiring a diverse faculty, such as the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, while others have not hired a single minority faculty member over the past twenty years, such as Nuclear Science and Engineering (Course XXII). Inevitably, some fields simply contain a smaller pool of minority candidates, and, Hammond said, “we have to acknowledge those differences.”

Departments that have experienced successes in the past in hiring diverse candidates “indicate the potential to experience gains in faculty even given these kinds of challenges,” and improving and expanding recruiting efforts can increase diversity gains, the report said.

Confusion about certain hiring practices also undermines the experience of minority faculty members. When a candidate is considered for a job, at the end of the search the “Provost retains access to a small number of faculty slots that can be made available to departments that … find an excellent faculty candidate who will increase diversity and whom the department wishes to hire,” according to the report. That is considered a “Provost Opportunity Hire.”

Candidates hired as an opportunity hire sometimes suffer from thoughts that they were not as qualified a candidate. As one opportunity hire told the diversity initiative staff in an interview, “That is the absolute last thing in the world that I wanted to have, to be labeled like that [an opportunity hire] … this made life difficult for me in the beginning. How could I expect them to respect me if I was a special appointment?”

Fully clarifying what this program is and how it is used would avoid the confusion that a faculty member hired by it might be the second-choice or not as qualified, the report recommended.

Mentoring needs overhaul

Once hired, a significant number of minority faculty members leave the Institute before promotion to associate professor without tenure, the stepping stone to receiving tenure, the report found. The first three to five years at MIT, the report identified, are the most critical to a minority faculty member’s career, as most of the faculty members who leave do so during this time period.

While no one reason exists as to why minority faculty leave, their lessened chance for promotion is the most likely cause. The report found that 74 percent of white faculty were promoted to associate professor without tenure, while only 55 percent of minority faculty were, indicating a large disparity that may cause minority faculty to pursue other opportunities.

Even once promoted to associate professor without tenure, it takes longer for minority faculty to achieve tenure, with a mean of 6.9 years, in contrast to a mean of 6.4 years for white faculty, and 6.2 years for Asian faculty.

The report found that mentoring of all faculty members was marked by a “[lack] of consistency, including level of commitment and a defined role for mentors,” but mentoring was notably worse for minority faculty, especially blacks and women. Experiences with mentors ranged from positive, with mentors personally supporting their mentee, to the negative where the faculty “received ill-conceived or overly-directive advice,” the report read.

Instituting a set formal mentoring process for all schools, one in which “the mentor is personally involved in the success of the mentee,” can improve all faculty member’s experiences, the report suggests. The report also recommends that each junior faculty member should receive two trained mentors involved in advocating, guiding, and reviewing their mentee.

Despite advances to ensure a commensurate experience among all faculty, hidden biases in the hiring and review process still affect minority progress, the report said. Interviews with minority faculty also revealed that some feared that subjectivity influenced the tenure process, while no interviewed Asian or white faculty member expressed the same fear.

“It requires strategic action to find candidates; for example, we can’t just wait for applications to arrive and then complain that no one from underrepresented groups is there,” Hammond said. The report suggests the only way to combat these hidden biases is to train faculty to become more vigilant of them.

Examples of how to eliminate the impact of hidden biases on the evaluation process already exists. For instance, the School of Science sponsored faculty forums from 2008–2009 to discuss how “unconscious expectations … govern our interactions,” informing and teaching how hidden biases affect their judgments of others.

Such conversations are key in ensuring impartial assessments of faculty members. “It’s those discussions that help — just an awareness about the fact these exist can really have a huge difference, because people, once they’re aware, can adjust accordingly and that allows them to act more openly,” said Hammond.

Different models researched

A significant portion of the study also examined existing programs within the Institute, and in other universities that have improved diversity, in hopes of establishing other successful programs. In particular the MIT Pappalardo Fellowships and Department of Biology’s outreach program were noted, as well as the University of Michigan’s Science and Technology Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence and the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD. Bridge Program were discussed.

One unexpected finding was the extent to which schools within MIT had promoted diversity. “I was also impressed with the degree to which a number of department heads and deans that we spoke with had already been thinking about this issue over the past several years. There’s been more thought and effort than may have been realized.” said Hammond.

While the numbers of minority faculty at MIT and other peer engineering schools are comparable, the Diversity Initiative considers MIT a leader in this field. “The top science and engineering university in the nation and the world is the place where this type of work can happen, and we hope to share this with all of our peers so that they can form partnerships together to address these problems” said Hammond.

Details unprecedented

Commissioned by Provost L. Rafael Reif in April 2007, a preliminary report was released in July 2007 which said a full report would take twelve to twenty-four months to conduct, as a “short and diminished report will not yield results substantive enough to convince and induce change, will diminish perceptions of MIT’s commitment to the effort, and could possibly damage MIT’s credibility in this critical area.”

The detailed research needed for the comprehensive study ultimately included both qualitative examination of cohort analysis of faculty progress from 1991 to 2009, and qualitative aspects such as personal interviews among eighty percent of the minority faculty, faculty meetings for both junior and senior faculty members, and a quality of life survey distributed to the entire faculty.

Even though the multi-method research took more than two years, ultimately the result provided a clearer picture of minority faculty life than seen before, said Lotte Bailyn, who headed research for the Diversity Initiative.

“I think it was very important to have these multiple approaches in order to understand better what the situation is,” Bailyn said. “I’m hoping that other universities will begin to copy it.”

Most of the MIT’s 59 minority faculty members participated in the diversity’s initiative research studies. Seventy-two percent of minority faculty responded to the quality of life survey, with 69 percent of faculty responding overall. Eighty percent of the minority faculty also participated in interviews.

“I feel honored that such a large portion of the minority faculty were willing to take part in the effort and share their experiences,” Hammond said.