University News

Structural bias poses obstacles to faculty of color

From hiring to promotion, structural racism limits opportunities, stretches responsibilities

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2014
This article is part of the series Pervasive Prejudice

Updated Monday, Dec. 8 at 6:12 p.m.

The third in a three-part series exploring race and racism at Brown.

At a faculty meeting last month, President Christina Paxson announced her plans to double the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty members within the next decade — a goal Paxson calls “very ambitious.” In order to double in a decade a proportion that has remained in the single digits for the entirety of the University’s 250-year history, administrators and faculty members say the University must grapple with elements ingrained in its culture.

These structural factors have limited underrepresented minorities to 8.1 percent of the faculty, second-highest in the Ivy League but still a far cry from the 18.6 percent of undergraduates.

The second part of this series examined the way a largely white faculty affects the experiences of students. This story explores the structural factors that have long shaped the faculty’s racial demography, stemming in part from a culture of racial bias and inequality ubiquitous in the United States.

Hiring shaped by bias

A constant factor in conversations about diversifying the faculty is the pipeline: the pool of current and future applicants for faculty and administrative positions. Because fewer people of color — particularly underrepresented minorities — complete doctoral studies than whites, there are fewer candidates of color for assistant professorships and even fewer for more advanced academic positions.

Faculty members and administrators often invoke the predominantly white pipeline to explain why the vast majority of Brown professors are white. On the surface, it makes sense that more white candidates would be chosen from a largely white applicant pool.

But often ignored in a discussion of the pipeline problem are the reasons for its continued existence — structural racism and the conscious and unconscious biases that play a role in perpetuating it, even among relatively progressive faculty members and administrators like those at Brown, said Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

“The pipeline is what it is because of racism,” Rose said.

Studies suggest that unconscious bias in favor of whites influences all individuals’ vision of the ideal researcher or professor, regardless of their personal background or beliefs. Whiteness thus remains a considerable asset in obtaining a faculty post — a factor that, compounded with broader social inequality and more widespread opportunities for white people to obtain doctorates, makes diversifying faculty a difficult task.

Multiple people said they have witnessed this unconscious bias manifest itself first-hand.

“I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever been on a search committee where someone … has not said something like, ‘Well, diversity’s fine, but excellence should come first,’” Rose said.

Thinking this way not only sets up excellence in scholarship and faculty diversity as conflicting goals, but also ignores that unconscious bias governs ideas about who is a better fit for the job in the first place, Rose added.

Even when a search committee goes into a hiring process with intentions to give underrepresented minorities a fair shake, other qualities may ultimately take priority, said Associate Professor of History Naoko Shibusawa P’14.

“Vested interests in a department can end up militating against well-intentioned, stated goals,” she said. As a result, “diversity becomes deprioritized by the point the hiring decision is made.”

Structures set up by the University to encourage diverse hiring practices may not always be effective, either.

For example, faculty search committees are required to have a diversity officer responsible for “making sure (minority candidates) have access and get consideration” in the hiring process, said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12.

But because some department chairs, who select diversity officers, do not fully appreciate the importance of diversity, officers without strong interest in diversifying the faculty are sometimes selected, he said.

Last year, Jamelle Watson-Daniels ’16, a black student concentrating in physics — a department that has 26 faculty members and zero underrepresented minorities — interviewed some diversity officers in collaboration with McLaughlin.

In her interviews, Watson-Daniels found that there was a “huge misunderstanding of what that position is supposed to look like and why that position exists in the first place.”

Some science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculty members have expressed fear that a strong commitment to diversity would mean selecting weaker candidates, McLaughlin said.

“A huge part of the problem is the attitudes of individuals who are involved in the process,” he said. “There’s this idea of objectivity in science … (and that) race shouldn’t have anything to do with” hiring.

Uphill battle for advancement

Even when a scholar of color leaps over such obstacles and lands a teaching position at Brown, challenges still abound on the road to securing tenure.

Faculty members of color do “double duty,” bearing the burden of extra responsibilities because they act as a support system for students of color, said Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

A great number of students have come to see Bogues over the years “because they felt something happened to them and they couldn’t quite explain what that was,” he said, adding that the number of students that sought his advice was so high because “there weren’t faculty (members) of color elsewhere that the students could go to.”

The University frequently calls on faculty members of color, particularly those in the social sciences and humanities who study race, to host talks or other events intended to reach out to students of color, Shibusawa said. The “demands on our time — that is huge.”

But Shibusawa and other professors also expressed their willingness to advise students.

“Mentoring is neither ‘double duty’ nor burdensome, but part and parcel of productive and satisfying academic, intellectual and creative work,” wrote Brenda Marie Osbey, visiting professor of Africana studies, in an email to The Herald. “Mentoring new generations of thinkers and writers was one of the primary reasons that I came to teaching,” she added.

Still, the additional duty of responding to the needs of students of color decreases the time and energy minority faculty members have to dedicate to responsibilities such as teaching, researching and writing, Bogues said.

In this sense, a lack of faculty diversity is self-perpetuating: The paucity of faculty members of color can make their jobs harder and their quests for tenure more difficult, diminishing the probability that assistant professors of color will receive promotions and remain at Brown for more than a short period of time.

This same self-perpetuation arises in regard to mentorship. Because there are few senior faculty members of color, mentorship opportunities available for junior faculty members of color are scarce, and those who must act as mentors take on yet another form of responsibility.

Bogues said a relatively small number of mentors poses a problem because mentorship plays a key role in supporting young faculty members of color in a potentially hostile environment.

“I consider myself fortunate to have been and continue to be the beneficiary of mentoring by most if not all of my undergraduate professors (at Dillard University), as well as by professors with whom I never studied,” Osbey wrote.

Beyond duties of mentorship and advising, faculty members of color must also contend with the challenge of asserting authority in a society that has refused to afford them that authority, Bogues said. This challenge becomes even more daunting when dynamics of gender and race compound, a phenomenon known as intersectionality, he said.

For example, when entering a classroom, black female faculty members may wonder, “What is it that people have in their heads when they see a black woman?” Bogues said.

This, too, can be seen as a form of double duty, because women of color must work harder to establish themselves as authority figures, he added.

Toughest at the top

Both everyday racism and pressure to attend to the needs of students and junior faculty members of color make for an uneven playing field.

But these factors alone do not account for the strikingly small number of full professors and senior administrators of color at Brown — figures even lower than those for assistant professors.

Though underrepresented minorities account for 12.4 percent of assistant professors this academic year, they only make up 4.8 percent of full professors, according to Office of Institutional Research data. The vast majority of senior administrators are white, including the president, provost, dean of the College and the dean of the faculty.

Finding suitable candidates for higher-level faculty and administrative positions presents a formidable challenge because they are usually “unique positions, and they often carry with them broad sets of responsibilities” for which few are qualified, said Liza Cariaga-Lo, associate provost for academic development and diversity. Those who are qualified will be highly coveted by other universities in addition to Brown, she added, meaning that a considerable number of candidates to whom the University makes offers may choose not to come to College Hill.

But — like challenges to diversify faculty — challenges to diversify the administration could be surmountable.

“If you were taking diversity seriously, you would also be self-reflective,” Bogues said.

Though administrative diversity has not gotten as much attention recently as faculty diversity, it, too, has an impact on the experiences of students of color, several people said.

A more diverse senior administration would improve the University’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to issues affecting students of color, Paxson told The Herald, adding that diversifying the administration must take place alongside hiring more faculty members of color.

“The perspectives that are brought into decision-making by a diverse group of administrators really do make a difference in the quality of service we provide to students and how we respond to students,” Paxson said.

‘Culture change’

Multiple administrators said the only way to change the faculty’s whiteness is to actively combat the ideology fueling it.

“We’re really talking about culture change,” Paxson said of University efforts to diversify the faculty. Diversity must “be something that just naturally comes to everybody’s minds when they’re conducting a search.”

By announcing a clear numerical goal, Paxson put pressure on University Hall to consistently reevaluate its progress toward sculpting a faculty in which 17 percent of members identify as underrepresented minorities by 2024, McLaughlin said. If the 8.1 percent figure has not jumped significantly within a few years, administrators will know they must “change somehow more progressively and radically what we’re doing in order to achieve that goal,” he said.

In fact, Paxson’s plan has already pushed the University to bolster its diversification efforts.

“The truth is we haven’t had as professionalized an administrative approach to this as we do now,” McLaughlin said.

Bogues agreed that it would take a “very strong signal” from University Hall to encourage all departments to hire underrepresented minorities, adding that departments receiving funding to fill new positions must be urged to conduct diverse searches.

The University has regulations in place to monitor the diversity of applicant pools for all faculty searches, but numerical requirements for the proportion of candidates of color considered have not been set.

Instead of quotas, the University requires that every faculty search committee submit a hiring plan to McLaughlin and Cariaga-Lo, both of whom must approve the search committee’s plan to include diverse candidates in the applicant pool, Cariaga-Lo said.

Additionally, after a search committee has identified the candidates it would like to interview, it must make a report that justifies how it selected preferred candidates, Cariaga-Lo said, adding that she compares the candidates chosen to the diversity of the initial pool in order to check for unconscious bias.

The University will not approve search plans for departments that continually fail to hire underrepresented minorities, McLaughlin said

Still, rules and regulations are not enough to bring about real change in ameliorating a lack of faculty diversity, Paxson said. Cariaga-Lo’s attempts to “bring department chairs and faculty (members) in as partners in diversifying their faculty” play a vital role in the process, Paxson said.

“If you don’t get (faculty members) on board — if they’re not willing and enthusiastic participants — you won’t make great progress,” she said.

  • Sean Ling

    To Brown Corporation: make me the Dean of Faculty, I will deliver a truly diverse, and better quality, Brown faculty in 10 years.

    • Rebo Kirstensteuer

      So that Paxson can appoint committees to discuss the possibility of reviewing your suggestions? Good luck.

    • No Thanks!

      If the thinking and quality of your work as Dean would be anything like your posts here on the BDH site, then no thank you.

      • Sean Ling

        Which of my posts made you uncomfortable, the ones on the handling of Prof. Vanessa Ryan’s alleged plagiarism, or on the Kelley protest? I stand by all of my posts, and I use my real identity.

  • Abdul Mergood

    I think Brown University should appoint Bill Cosby as the advisor and point man for diversity issues. His actions and values are consistent with how Chris Paxson is running this place anyway. Besides, Temple University and the U.S. Naval Academy just got rid of him. But our standards are not as high at Brown University.

  • Example at Harvard University

    What is the “correct” percentage of the faculty to be filled by persons of color?

    African-Americans constitute 12.5% of the national population. Is that the correct target percentage for our faculty?

    I would be willing to support a 12.5% target for the Brown faculty being African-Americans as soon as Harvard University is willing to support a target of 12.5% for its men’s basketball team being African-Americans.

    Seriously, what is the difference between Brown University being underrepresented by faculty members of color and Harvard University being overrepresented on its basketball roster? At Harvard, there appears to be a blatant systematic and aggressive discrimination against male basketball players who are white and Asian. Where is the outcry and outrage against this systematic discrimination?

    Is it possible that, at the far right-hand tail of the population distribution curve, from which are selected both Ivy League professors and Division I basketball players, there are fewer African-American academics and more basketball players?

    This isn’t discrimination. It’s part of the wondrous myriad of the human condition, the mosaic that is homo sapiens. We’re all equal, but not all the same.

    There should be no quotas for African-American faculty members at Brown until the day Tommy Amaker starts one black player and four white guys.