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School of Engineering takes measures to hire diverse staff

Department looks to student-faculty collaboration to recruit diverse candidates

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Over a year after the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan mandated the University diversify its faculty — and with no new faculty from historically underrepresented groups to show since the release of the DIAP — the School of Engineering is ramping up its efforts to hire women and underrepresented minorities in a new faculty search. Student-faculty collaboration is at an all-time high for the school in its faculty recruitment process, leaving the inhabitants of Barus and Holly with new initiatives and high hopes.

Engineering Town Halls, an initiative started at the end of the spring semester by the School of Engineering’s Student Advisory Board composed of both students and administrators, serves as the only forum where undergraduate and graduate students come together to discuss the direction of the school. These collaborative conversations produced a new procedure to address the success of faculty search processes.

Historically, final candidates had to deliver a lecture to engineering graduate students as part of their application process. Graduate students would then give feedback to faculty and administrators, which helped inform final hiring decisions, said Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson. The new student-created initiative will institute a candidate-led talk that targets undergraduate students. Undergraduates will then be able to give feedback through an online survey, said Student Advisory Board member Ayisha Jackson ’18.

Engineering undergraduates expressed excitement about their new role in choosing faculty, and said they hope to see more candidates from historically underrepresented groups hired this year, Jackson said.

Having diverse faculty members has had a positive impact on undergraduates in the department. “I’m taking (ENGN 0810: ‘Fluid Mechanics’) right now, which is being taught by one of the very few women engineering professors, Jen Franck, and so many girl engineers have been talking about how awesome and great it’s been,” Jackson said, adding that Franck is good at explaining concepts and not assuming students have “background knowledge.”

Faculty also look forward to increased undergraduate participation in the faculty hiring process.

“We are so pleased to have administrative leadership partnered with student leadership,” said Associate Dean for Programs and Planning in the School of Engineering Jennifer Casasanto. “I think that it’s making a big difference right now in engineering.”

Additionally, engineering students and administrators are looking to the University’s Target of Opportunity program to aid the search. The program is tasked with ensuring the pool of candidates is as diverse and inclusive as possible, Larson said. “We are focusing on candidates that are enhancing our diversity,” he said.

These new initiatives come in response to an unsuccessful first attempt to recruit HUG faculty.

Last year, the School of Engineering launched its first round of faculty searches since the May 2016 implementation of the DIAP, which calls for building a faculty “that represents the diversity of our society, and is a model of inclusiveness.” The school conducted four traditional searches and one search through the Target of Opportunity program. The five total searches produced one hire who is not a member of a historically underrepresented group. Two candidates remain in negotiation with the school, and the other two recruits elected to join other institutions, Larson said.

Larson explained the candidates’ decisions to turn down the University’s offers, citing size and location.

“Sometimes people want to be at a bigger university because there are more people that you can collaborate with in your field,” Larson said. “Very often we struggle with that issue. Another issue is sometimes there is a spouse or significant other that would benefit from a major urban location — Boston, New York, (Los Angeles), San Francisco.”

But Christopher Rose, associate dean of the faculty for special initiatives and professor of engineering, said that the University’s size can serve as a competitive advantage against other elite universities. The interdisciplinary nature of smaller institutions is well-suited for attracting HUG candidates, he added.

“It’s harder to find a particular niche and stick in it when you’re a (member of a) HUG,” said Rose, who is the only black professor in the engineering department. “The most successful folks that I know that are HUGs have either invented a new area, or sit on the (intersections) of areas and thereby invent something brand new. As a group, women and minorities are a ready-made set of minds for bridging across disciplines.”

Both Larson and Rose said they are optimistic about future success in hiring HUG faculty, and credited their confidence to the University’s administration.

“Although we have a long way to go, I think Brown’s magic power is … this willingness to do for the world as opposed to greedily for one’s self,” Rose said.

The School of Engineering is now looking for a new professor of electrical engineering. The search committee, which includes up to eight faculty members, will convene to review the applications by the end of the calendar year. Larson said he is looking for a strong academic background and promising trajectory in candidates.

“I would like to call it a holistic review. In other words, it’s not just by the numbers,” Larson said. “We also look at the background of the person, what their trajectory is. There is no simple numeric algorithm you could come up with and say this is the best person.”

Rose, on the other hand, would like to see a more data-driven review process, which he believes plays to the advantage of HUG applicants.

“In my experience, HUG candidates in the sciences tend to have to be a lot better just to be where they are,” Rose said.

Larson expects interviews to take place in February and early March and to make an offer to the top candidate by the end of March.