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Recruiting faculty who care about diversity

Because our Chief Diversity Officer, Lakesia Johnson, thinks that my department is particularly thoughtful in its approach to recruiting and hiring candidates who are committed to supporting diversity (and who may even embody diversity), she suggested that the Associated Colleges of the Midwest invite me to a panel on hiring best practices. These are my notes for the talk. As is often the case, I deviated from the notes. They feel less essay-like than many of my postings, but that’s how things go sometimes.

I had not originally realized that these comments would be addressed to both faculty at liberal arts colleges and faculty at R1 institutions. I must admit that I think the two types of institutions face very different challenges. I hope some of these still apply to the R1 participants.

Hi. I’m Sam Rebelsky. I chair the Computer Science department at Grinnell College. I am also designated Campus Curmudgeon, and I have the nametag to prove it.

I’ll admit that I found it a bit strange to be invited to be on this panel. I know that the Mellon grant at the core of this workshop focuses on the humanities and the social sciences, and, barring the Digital Liberal Arts, CS does not seem to fit in that classification. I’m also in a discipline with severe pathway problems. Last year, there were 1500 or so Ph.D.’s awarded in computer science. Of those, about 18% went to women. 15 (and that’s 15, not 15%) went to people who self identified as Black or African American and 25 went to people who self identified as Hispanic.

I also worry that you heard about most of our key practices in this afternoons workshop.

But Lakesia tell me that my department thinks carefully about diversity issues, and Lilly tells me that it’s useful to hear the practices grounded in examples. So I’ll talk to you about some of our practices.

Consider why you value diversity.

Michelle gave this one away. Your department should begin by discussing what role diversity plays in the search and why you value diversity. That underlying philosophy will help ground all the other work you do. It can inform your ads, you conversations with people about the position, your selection process, and more.

Here’s what I normally say about my own discipline.

Computing technology is changing the world. If we don’t have a diverse group of voices building these technologies, we will not create the best world we can - we need different voices. As computer scientists, we have a responsibility to bring in that diverse group of voices.

I am fortunate that most or perhaps all of my department agrees with that sentiment.

Rethink how you prioritize candidates.

I will admit that my approach here is a bit controversial. We all have a line somewhere in our heads. Candidates above the line are likely to achieve tenure at the institution. Candidates below the line are not as likely to do so. And some we’re not sure about. But once you’ve decided that candidates are above the line, you can consider other issues as you rank them. And, if you really value diversity, their approach to diversity may be more important than the number of journal articles they have published or teaching awards they have won. I’ll also admit that it’s very hard to predict who will be excellent; does number of papers published while you have an advisor and not additional burdens really predict how many you will publish once you are on your own, with additional teaching and service burdens? I’m not sure. I know that teaching awards from other institutions are not predictive of teaching success at Grinnell.

I think it’s important to discuss the above the line approach before you even start looking at candidates, so that you don’t argue about it while also looking at candidates. As department chair, I will admit that I pushed this approach very hard, and I will continue to do so. I am fortunate that many of my colleagues agree with this perspective, particularly when presented in the above the line way.

[I didn’t say this, but I think this above the line issue is different at small colleges and large research universities. One faculty member will not make the difference at a place like Grinnell; students don’t choose Grinnell based on the number of papers our faculty publish or the total grants received. In a research-oriented graduate department, I think the issue is much more complex, and much more complex than was presented at the meeting. National rankings don’t generally focus on how supportive you are of undergraduates or how diverse your program is. They focus on issues like where your faculty are publishing, how much those papers are cited, and how much money your department is bringing in.]

As our workshop this afternoon suggested, you should consider implicit biases and how you will address them.

There’s good evidence that we have all sorts of implicit biases that affect how we read applications. Including issues of race, gender, and intersectionality. We may look differently at men and women, at Americans and international applicants, at whites and people of color, at people at top institutions and people at lesser institutions.

We have found it useful to explicitly consider these biases in advance, so that we can be aware that they may affect how we read applications and assess candidates in interviews.

In past discussions, I have I also seen both implicit and explicit biases about experience in the liberal arts. I’m fortunate that I can point to top faculty at Grinnell who we would eliminate based on institutional and liberal arts criteria, which also tend to exclude certain groups.

Involve people from outside the department.

Lakesia told you about Grinnell’s Equity Advocates program. The Computer Science department did something similar, even before the program was put into place.

We’ve already found that it’s useful to have people from outside the department in various parts of the selection and interview process, even when they aren’t on the search committee. We had a faculty members from Math and the Library meet with all candidates. The faculty member from the Library also went to every talk and joined us for dinners with the candidates. We had a senior staff member attend all of the sample classes. Because that person could focus on how the candidate was interacting with students, and not on the content, we got very different perspectives.

Linda talked about building trust within a department. I think this worked well because we had trust with these people.

Involve students

Because we care about diversity, we have a relatively diverse student population within our department. Writing about that population, and having on-campus candidates meet with our students has significantly helped our search process. We also have wonderful students, and I hear from candidates that meeting with our students is a highlight of our interview process.

We are increasingly trying to bring students to conferences that relate to diversity in the discipline so that Grinnell is on the radar of potential candidates. Our students represent Grinnell well; people who meet them, whether potential candidates or not, remember Grinnell positively, and those memories carry on when they talk to potential candidates.

That is, of course, part of a broader strategy. As Linda suggested, You should prepare for recruiting even in years in which you are not recruiting. Support for diverse students, presence at conferences related to diversity, outreach activities, and more can be helpful.

Provide thoughtful on-campus visits.

I heard from many candidates, including those who did not accept our offers, that they had particularly positive experiences when doing on-campus visits. Here are some of the things our department does.

  • Offer candidates a chance to meet with people outside the department. Someone from the Early-Career Faculty group is always a good idea. Someone in an allied discipline that they might collaborate with can be useful. Someone that they are willing to say is similar to them in some way (we had at least one candidate with young children who asked to meet with other parents of young children; I know not all candidates are so forthcoming). [The earlier speakers suggested making at least one of these meetings hidden to the search committee and department, so that candidates could feel even more free to ask for visits with, say, an LGBQTA+ group or a religious leader.]

  • Let them meet with students. Our students are one of our great strengths - they are thoughtful, articulate, and inquiring people. All of our candidates reported meeting with students as a highlight. (It may be necessary to bribe students to meet with candidates; many of us offer a modicum of extra credit for attending candidate talks and the informal reception beforehand.)

  • Include breaks in the schedule. We had regular fifteen-minute times for people to pause and regroup.

  • Give candidates a temporary office, if at all possible. The temporary office provided our candidates with a place to pause and regroup, to prepare their class and public talk, to meet with some people, and more.

  • Remember that it takes time to move between places. Don’t make the end of one meeting and the start of the next meeting the same if the meetings are in different buildings.

  • Transport the candidate to and from the airport yourself; don’t rely on a driver. We pick up the candidates at the airport, and we bring them back to the airport. This gives us a chance to chat more, and it tells the candidates that they are important to us.

I should also mention some administrative issues.

Read the ads the school actually posts.

Lakesia tells you that there are lots of eyes on the ads. But sometimes those eyes are blinded by institutional processes.

Since some venues charge per word, the College will sometimes shorten the carefully crafted advertisement. I discovered that our online ads said nothing about diversity or about Grinnell being a liberal arts college.

Tenure-track Computer Science starting Fall 2015. Asst Prof (PhD) preferred; Instructor (ABD) or Assoc Prof possible. Area open. Details/instructions:

I was fortunate that Carleton was searching at the same time, so I could show my Dean the Carleton ad, which talked about it being a top liberal arts college, among other things, with this ad.

More generally, you should pay attention to the parts of the search that aren’t necessarily under your control. Try using the application site. Make sure you see what automatic letters look like. Ours address candidates by first name, which I find offensive.

Provide additional information on the department Web site.

We had a essay on our work related to diversity on the department Web site, along with an essay about teaching at Grinnell. I think those were helpful. I also know that many candidates looked carefully at our curriculum, and how we approach it. It helps that all of our courses are on the public Web, rather than hidden behind a password-protected intranet.

Finally, Lakesia reminds me that we never stop thinking about ways to do better.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-26.