Usable Knowledge: "How to Sustain Faculty Diversity"

August 4, 2017

by Leah Shafer

To retain minority faculty, focus more on creating a supportive workplace than on new programs and policies

This article was originally published in Usable Knowledge

Increasing faculty diversity is a priority for many universities. Only 22 percent of professors in the United States are nonwhite, even though student bodies are twice as heterogeneous (and continuing to diversify). Hiring practices are a vital part of increasing faculty diversity, but retention is equally critical.

How can universities retain minority faculty members — who, like all professors, are highly skilled professionals who know the ins and outs of the job, are difficult (and expensive) to replace, and are integral to the culture of their school?New research suggests it’s about relationships and climate, not formal practices or programs. Tenured minority faculty are more likely to want to remain at their school if they perceive a supportive climate that emphasizes connections between colleagues, than if their school has strategic initiatives to maximize job satisfaction.

These authentic connections were actually twice as effective at promoting workplace commitment as strategic procedures such as formal advising programs, work-life balance policies, and even diversity hiring initiatives.

The Study

A survey of associate professors at 50 universities reveals how white and minority faculty members differ in their commitment to their workplace — and what factors contribute to those views.

With Harvard’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), researcher Jeraul Mackey examined 3,679 associate faculty members who had received tenure in the past six years. Seventy-six percent of respondents were white; 12 percent were Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander; 4.3 percent were African American; 4.2 percent were Hispanic; and 1.5 percent were multiracial. Roughly three-quarters of the universities were public institutions.

The survey examined how much these professors identified with and enjoyed being a part of their universities, as well as how their universities fostered those feelings. Faculty ranked their agreement with statements such as “There is visible leadership at my institution for the support and promotion of diversity on campus,” “My department colleagues do what they can to make personal/family obligations and an academic career compatible,” and “My department colleagues ‘pitch in’ when needed.” Faculty also indicated whether they intended to leave that university within the next five years.

The Findings

Black, Hispanic, and mixed-race respondents were on average less committed to their place of work, and more likely to be planning on leaving in the next five years, than white or Asian respondents.

Across the board, though, faculty were more likely to enjoy and feel committed to their university if they felt that the school encouraged quality relationships between colleagues. These authentic connections were actually twice as effective at promoting workplace commitment as strategic procedures such as formal advising programs, work-life balance policies, and even diversity hiring initiatives.

In This Study

Compared to their white colleagues, underrepresented minority faculty members said that they perceived their workplace as a less supportive environment. But when they did feel supported, the commitment gap between white and minority faculty members was essentially eliminated.

The Big Picture: Relationships Matter

For universities, the lesson is to “focus on worker-to-worker relationships and well-being,” says Mackey, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Simply promoting minority faculty may not be enough to retain them.

It’s true that formal policies committed to aiding employees — generous parental leave, for example, or an established mentorship program — can be attractive to new hires and appreciated by long-term workers. But, says Mackey, the longer a faculty member has been at her school, the more likely she is to see strategic initiatives that have succeeded — and the ones that have failed.

A supportive work environment, on the other hand, is not quite so capricious. When an employee feels genuinely comfortable and happy around her colleagues, she feels genuinely comfortable and happy at work. “It could be the case that strategic aspects get you in the door, but the supportive aspects are what keeps you,” says Mackey. For example, while it’s important to implement a flexible parental leave program, a university should also strive to accommodate new parents back in the office. Supervisors can take care not to schedule early morning meetings, and colleagues can offer to help out with a new parent’s projects.

Still, “it’s hard to mandate people to be nice,” notes Mackey. He has two suggestions for university leaders to build a supportive environment:

  • Consistently model authentic and collegial connections, and recognize colleagues who do the same. When campus deans get to know faculty and take an interest in their personal lives, professors see that this behavior is valued at their university, and will be more likely to do the same for their peers.
  • Provide a small fund for activities that allow colleagues to get to know each other outside of the office. Administrators can set aside time and resources for faculty to volunteer together, participate in a sports league, or take each other out for coffee.

Above all else, says Mackey, “it’s very important to listen to individual feedback.” Administrators often assess workplace morale based on averages in organization-wide surveys — but if there are few minority professors, then it’s easy to miss those perspectives. Universities leaders should take care to listen to the concerns and wishes of individual faculty in deciding where to concentrate their reform efforts.