Following up on the demand for faculty diversity

Hidden Dores held a call to action and petition delivery to Chancellor Zeppos Novemebr 16, 2015.

In October, around 200 students walked out of their noon classes to participate in a “Call to Action” to address racial inclusion and systemic racism on Vanderbilt’s campus. The students marched from Central Library to Kirkland Hall to sign and deliver lists of five categories of demands to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. Among these five categories was a focus on “staff”–– a demand to diversify Vanderbilt’s faculty.

One hundred thirty six out of 920 full-time faculty members, around 15 percent, belong to a “minority group,” defined as being Asian, Black, American Indian, and Hispanic, according to statistics from the Vanderbilt Institutional Research Group. Three hundred and forty four, around 37 percent of all faculty, are women. In contrast, around 38.8 percent of undergraduate students in the class of 2019 come from minority backgrounds, and 49 percent are women.

Several parties on campus have taken on the responsibility of working to increase faculty diversity. The Provost’s office is responsible for faculty hiring, promotion, retention and development, and as such, has developed several strategies to address this issue. This is the first year in faculty hiring that Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan Wente’s approaches to hiring will be implemented, and the new faculty arriving in the Fall of 2016 will be a result of these changes.Keivan Quote 4-18-16

According to Wente, Vanderbilt has 27 hires confirmed for the Fall, and 20 of the 27 bring diversity in some way to their department or division.

Wente said this conversation is not a new one — it’s been happening on college campuses for many years. College students at other universities across the nation also made similar demands in the fall.

“Numbers, despite best efforts, have not been changing,” Wente said. “The percent of women in the basic sciences in the School of Medicine in 1980 … it’s exactly the same as it is right now in terms of tenured women. So since I started on this career path to where I am now, the percent hasn’t changed.”

Physics professor Keivan Stassun, who co-heads the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Committee under the Office of the Chancellor, believes the diversity in our faculty should match the diversity seen in our undergraduate population.

“Having gotten to the point where the Vanderbilt student body pretty closely reflects the face of America, it is a problem that the faculty don’t also reflect the face of America,” Stassun said.

As Stassun and his committee members went around campus this past academic year and talked to students, staff, faculty and administrators, it was clear that increasing faculty diversity is a priority for the entire campus.

“In fact if there’s one group on campus that has conveyed this the strongest, it’s the students,” Stassun said. “We hear from students that they really value the rich community that Vanderbilt is … and they want their faculty to reflect that too.”



According to Stassun, the traditional approach to hiring faculty is that the university asks itself who the best individuals are in each department and then attempts to hire those people.

“Your instinct might be that if you populate your team with individual all-stars, that the team as a result will be like super all-stars, but actually, when you look at it as an organization … the diverse team outperforms the team of individual all-stars every time,” Stassun said.

Stassun and his colleagues have delved into scholarly research on organizations, business, companies and universities to determine how best to populate the Vanderbilt’s faculty.

“[The research] all really clearly indicates that diverse groups of people make better things, solve problems faster and better, innovate better and in new ways, produce more creative and impactful scholarship, outperform, outpace, outdo the competition,” Stassun said. “The research is really quite clear on that.”

Senior Akaninyene Ruffin, president of the Multicultural Leadership Council and lead facilitator of Hidden Dores, the group that organized the list of demands presented to the chancellor, emphasized that diversity amongst faculty is essential because our faculty reflects Vanderbilt’s values.

“I think if we are looking to get diverse perspectives, you start with who’s bringing what to the table,” Ruffin said. “And if our faculty looks like old, white men, what are we saying? That old white men are the only ones qualified to bring things to the table at Vanderbilt University. And that’s just simply not the case.”

Ruffin added that having faculty with diverse backgrounds and traits provides role models for all types of students.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” Ruffin said. “So if I am looking to go into academia and I have no black women to look up to, how am I going to aspire to something like that? What am I going to think about my roles in academic settings?”

Ruffin also emphasized that faculty serve not only as teachers but as mentors for students. Having mentors with perspectives similar to one’s own is important for all groups of students, especially those of marginalized backgrounds because they share a common experience, according to Ruffin. Because the percentage of students from minority backgrounds is growing faster than the percentage of faculty from minority backgrounds, these faculty members take on an even larger mentorship role.

Dr. Frank Dobson, the director of the Black Cultural Center and assistant dean of students, also added that having diverse faculty teaches students how to live in a world that is diverse as well.

Dr. Frank Dobson, the director of the Black Cultural Center and assistant dean of students

Dr. Frank Dobson, the director of the Black Cultural Center and assistant dean of students

“If we look at society today, we see so many problems that are wrought with ignorance, misunderstanding, not knowing people of another culture, another race, another orientation,” Dobson said. “And so I think it’s incumbent upon higher education and the leaders in higher education to educate young minds, students, about difference, about the other, about how to live in a multicultural, pluralistic society.”

Chris Purcell, the Director of the Office of LGBTQI Life, also added that while some identities, such as black and hispanic, have departments dedicated to studying their field, there are no disciplines on campus specifically studying some other identities, such as those on the LGBTQI spectrum.

“The ability of Vanderbilt to have courses that center around LGBTQI identities depends largely upon having LGBTQI faculty here,” Purcell said. “And just because they are here doesn’t mean they want to teach. Or their discipline might not lend itself to the topic, but their presence and mentorship is important to students nonetheless.”

Wente believes we need to emphasize diversity in its broadest sense, meaning more than just racial and ethnic diversity, but also gender, gender identity, disabilities and more.

“How do you get really creative ideas?” Wente said. “How do you make innovative impact? How do you make progress? How do you really teach students to be the best leaders and make the best contributions? And that’s by really having them be exposed to excellence in all areas. So if we don’t do that, we are potentially holding ourselves back in terms of really offering students the very best educational experience.”


The biggest challenge for many of the key players working to increase faculty diversity is the “pipeline,” or the number of minority students entering and completing graduate programs, as a graduate degree is a prerequisite for a faculty position.

Professor Keivan Stassun, co-chair of the chancellor's committee for Diversity, Inclusion and Community

Professor Keivan Stassun, co-chair of the chancellor’s committee for Diversity, Inclusion and Community

“When we look at how many people earn PhDs in the United States every year in different fields and you ask, for example, how many black physics PhD students even are there to hire into our physics department faculty?” Stassun said. “The answer is, there aren’t very many.”

Because these numbers are not high enough, the problem of increasing faculty diversity cannot simply be solved through the hiring process.

“I think what we can expect to see over the next few years is all of these institutions are going to be stealing one another’s faculty of color, and it might look good for any one institution on the short term, but the net effect is that the landscape of higher education in the United States won’t have been impacted at all,” Stassun said.

Stassun and his committee believe the university needs to do more than compete for diverse talented scholars to join our community.

“We also just have to recognize that if all major universities are simply trying to consume the trickle of PhD scholars of color, we are going to run out really quickly,” Stassun said. “One opportunity for Vanderbilt to really be a leader is to not only aggressively hire faculty of color, but be producing the next generation of faculty of color.”

As a result, Stassun believes we should emphasize existing programs such as the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, which gives students the chance to get a masters degree in the sciences at Fisk before earning their PhD at Vanderbilt.

“We have these initiatives already in place that could be even bigger, that already make Vanderbilt the nation’s top producer of African American scientists with PhDs,” Stassun said. “We are already in the lead in that regard, so we think we can do even more along those lines.”

In order to increase diversity in our graduate programs, Stassun believes we need a more holistic approach to the graduate admissions process, similar to that used for undergraduates.

“Traditionally our graduate programs and our professional programs … we like to boil people down to a number, and look, if there was one number we could boil people down to and that number really accurately told us who was going to succeed … why not do it?” Stassun said. “But we know from an extensive body of literature that even though things like GRE scores do predict some amount of [long-term success], they don’t predict very much.”

There is a reason why the undergraduate student body is among the best in the nation and the world, and also quite diverse, Stassun said.

“It’s because yes, they ask you your SAT score, but they don’t just ask you that … ” Stassun said. “This full picture that we expect of our undergrads, traditionally we don’t do that, amazingly enough, when we are admitting people to be PhDs and eventually future faculty.”

The matter is further complicated when students change their minds about pursuing PhD programs in favor of another option.

“Do they get discouraged because they don’t think the environment will be supportive? Do they think it will be hard to get funding for their scholarship?” Wente speculated.

Ruffin explained that the pipeline issue is a “chicken or the egg” kind of topic, because having mentors who encourage students to go into academia is important, but those are the kinds of mentors many universities, including Vanderbilt, are lacking and need to recruit.

“This system doesn’t nurture students, so they don’t want to stay in academic spaces for a very long time because their academic experience has been so difficult,” Ruffin said.

Richard Blissett, a PhD candidate in Peabody who studies the politics of education, said that PhD programs, in particular, pose challenges because of the focus on one-on-one advisor work that is an essential part of doctoral programs. When doctoral mentors don’t have the same life experiences as their mentees, challenges arise.

“It’s really hard to get that support. You often feel alone. You kind of have the same issues you have in the field, but they are very intimate,” Blissett said. “You have this community around you that you may have came into expecting some kind of support, and you realize you don’t really and you have to latch onto the few other people of color around you and you start to feel like you don’t really belong.”

PhD candidates run into dilemmas when prospective students ask about their experiences as members of a marginalized group in the program, because while they want to be honest, they also know that attracting more minority students is essential to improving working conditions, Blissett said.

Chief Diversity Officer George Hill emphasized the need for mentorship of underrepresented groups to guide them on their way to receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees.

George C. Hill

Chief Diversity Officer George C. Hill

“There’s no question that it’s a long haul to get a terminal degree, and you can do it with the type of encouragement and role models that really stimulate you to go forth,” Hill said. “I think it’s very rewarding to go to meetings or to meet with individuals and just point out to them, ‘I was trying to achieve the same goal that you were. And with hard work and family support and institutional support and strong faith, I made it. And you can make it too.’”

Additionally, Purcell cited several challenges that arise when recruiting LGBTQI faculty in particular, such as assuring them that Nashville, as a southern city with a history of discrimination, will be a nurturing and safe space for faculty members to live with their families. He attributed a portion of the lack of diversity to departments wanting to hire people who “look like them” and who fit in with the current members of the department.

“Sometimes, if you are an LGBTQI person, being able to establish yourself as a “fit” within your department can be difficult,” Purcell said. “Maybe you would be the only queer person on the faculty, or the only gay person, or lesbian, or trans person, and the culture doesn’t lend itself to you being able to be your full authentic self.”

Furthermore, trans faculty worry about accessing adequate healthcare in Tennessee, Purcell said. The lack of data on the experience of LGBTQI faculty and staff is a hindrance to improving their experience because modern higher education is so fueled by strength in numbers.

While administrators worry that asking faculty about personal information such as their sexual orientation could make them feel more marginalized, Purcell believes it is essential to give faculty the opportunity to share and make their answers both optional and confidential.


Wente says the university has to start thinking differently about its faculty recruitment process.

Provost Susan Wente

Provost Susan Wente

“We really have to change how we think about faculty hiring and recruiting in terms of being sure that we have applicant pools that are diverse, that search committees take into account all aspects of a candidate, kind of like a holistic aspect of looking an applicant in the same way we do in looking at our students,” Wente said.

The Provost’s office is working to share the most efficient practices among deans and department chairs and create incentives to support diverse perspectives. They are also launching new systems for tracking applicant and interview pools, giving easy access to critical demographic data.

John Geer, Vice Provost of Academic and Strategic Affairs, emphasized that Vanderbilt tries to be “opportunistic” in its hiring, so that increasing diversity is at the forefront of new hires. As a part of this, Geer discussed the effectiveness of “cohort hires” of minority groups in order to maximize the chances of bringing the best minority scholars to campus.

“Let’s say that you happen to have a search that’s going on, and it turns out the best three candidates are underrepresented minorities and they’re all really good,” Geer said. “Well we have this one spot. What do you do if you’re opportunistic? You make offers to all three.”

Dobson referred to a focus on retention as one of the key strategies to increasing diversity of the faculty. For example, cohort hiring helps retain faculty because the faculty members hired can go through the process together.

“I think the positive thing about cohort hiring is that with a cohort you have people who can commiserate with one another, you have people who can support one another, you have people that are going through the rigors of promotion and tenure together, and so I think that sort of builds in a sense of camaraderie … ” Dobson said. “And hopefully that means that you would retain more of them not only because of their allegiance to the department but also to one another.”

Additionally, Dobson said that Vanderbilt can try to hire individuals who attended one of the graduate, doctoral, or postdoctoral programs, or even students who attended one of the undergraduate schools and got a graduate degree somewhere else.

The Provost’s office is focusing on creating networks between departments so that minority faculty in a department mostly dominated by non-minority groups have resources elsewhere.

The Diversity, Inclusion and Community Committee will present a proposal to the chancellor in July regarding the needs they have identified on campus related to diversity and inclusion. Some of these suggestions will address faculty diversity, according to Stassun.

One suggestion the committee will put forth is that Vanderbilt continue to link itself to other universities in Tennessee, like Fisk University, which is a historically black university.

“There are not very many places in the entire United States where you have a Vanderbilt, and a Fisk and a Meharry,” Stassun said. “ … We just haven’t recognized it, and we haven’t done as much as we could to really be more than the sum of our parts.”

One of the immediate actions that can be taken, according to Stassun, is to create mechanisms for Fisk faculty to teach at Vanderbilt and vice versa, and for Vanderbilt students to take courses at Fisk and vice versa.

“We are so close and the two student bodies really represent a great richness, really smart students, but sort of a diverse mix,” Stassun said. “And the faculty too, sort of a range of expertise and histories.”

Another News Quote 4-18-16The chancellor’s committee will also make recommendations in regard to retention of faculty.

“We recommend that Vanderbilt do a better job of retaining and of really making sure that our faculty of color are getting promoted in a fair way along with the other faculty,” Stassun said.

Vanderbilt has made further strides in enhancing faculty diversity by joining the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, according to Hill.

“It’s a network of universities which are trying to do the same thing we are doing, in terms of increasing the broad diversity of our institution,” Hill said. “So we are now a member and we will be able to make use of that resource in attracting a broad diversity of faculty to the institution.”

Vanderbilt currently has a program in the School of Engineering where post-doctoral fellows from across the nation are invited to Vanderbilt to give seminars and to interact with faculty.

“The next step is, how do we keep in touch with these individuals so that in the long run, when they’re at that stage now where they can be hired, they’ll be attracted to Vanderbilt,” Hill said.

Hill has emphasized to all deans that if over the next year they take part in such a program or develop such a program in schools other than engineering, his office will pay part of the expenses for the individuals coming to campus.

Different schools have different needs when it comes to broad diversity, according to Hill. The Owen School of Management is particularly targeting women, for example, because there are relatively few women in business schools overall. The School of Divinity would like to attract more Muslims, so that the school can vary their areas of expertise.

“So the program I described, whatever it is [the specific schools] see as an area of expertise they would like to have stronger candidates in the pipeline, that is what we are going to support,” Hill said.

There are no data to measure other forms of diverse perspectives, such as sexual orientation, gender identity and ability/disability status, but the Office of the Provost recently distributed a survey to faculty members anonymously asking about these characteristics and measuring job satisfaction, said Geer. In concert with George Hill and a committee of others, Geer formulated 10 Vanderbilt-specific questions that focused on asking about the experience of underrepresented groups, he said. The survey, Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), created by Harvard University, was distributed last week, and the results will be available this summer, Geer said.

Wente says that administrators will have the issue of faculty diversity as a priority until the “fabric of the university” is changed forever.

“If diversity hiring is just an add-on, we won’t have changed how we do our recruiting and we won’t have made the progress we need to make,” Wente said. “We need long-term sustained change … we have to change how we do it day-in, day-out. It’s trendy right now to say we are going to launch this new initiative. No, it should be something we’ve been doing forever.”

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