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Measuring Faculty Perceptions of Diversity

Work by HGSE’s COACHE project reveals wide gaps in how faculty of different racial and ethnic backgrounds perceive progress in diversity and inclusion on college campuses.
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A recent faculty job satisfaction survey by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE), the research-practice partnership based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revealed significant disparities in perception between faculty of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. As more colleges and universities take steps toward diversity and inclusion, these findings suggest that university leaders need to do more to ensure that the work translates into meaningful change and success for everyone. We spoke to Kiernan Mathews, director and principal investigator of COACHE, about what the survey data means for higher education institutions.

Was anything about the survey results surprising?

Since George Floyd's murder, there’s been a kind of newfound awareness of where the seat of change really needs to be in the academy. It's not the Black faculty, Hispanic, and Latinx faculty. It's not the Indigenous faculty who have to “fit.” It's the white faculty — the majority faculty — who have to change the broken system they perpetuate, who have to accommodate new perspectives, and broaden their definitions of excellence. We’ve been an equity-minded project since 2005, but the events of this year have emboldened COACHE to better interrogate the privilege of white faculty in the academy.

The surprise is how wide the gap is between white faculty who feel that their colleagues and leadership are fully in support of diversity and inclusion and Black faculty who don't agree that their colleagues and leadership are doing what they can. These data show an 18- to 20-point difference in the percentage of white faculty and Black faculty who agree that leadership and colleagues are committed to supporting and promoting diversity on campus. It’s a stark difference in what white faculty feel to be true and what Black faculty know to be true with respect to the support and promotion of diversity.

What are the implications of this, and how could it affect the support and promotion of diversity?

The question for presidents, provost, and deans is, is your visible leadership on diversity that you are touting in the university magazine, putting on your website, showing to prospective faculty and students — is that visible leadership and diversity actually changing campus culture? Or is it just making white faculty feel better about themselves and their institutions? What the data shows is that white faculty are thinking that we’re doing great. My president says the right things, the faculty and my colleagues in the department say all the right things, but that’s not necessarily what Black faculty see. What they’re telling COACHE — and this is echoed in our qualitative data — is raising questions about whether that visible leadership is really effecting systemic change. It may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient for sustained scrutiny of the status quo. This makes the faculty who’ve benefitted from the status quo for decades very uncomfortable.

How do colleges and universities truly make an impact on diversity and inclusion?

An institution can start to move from illusion to reality by forming genuine partnerships with organizations in this country that are seeking collective action on systemic change in the academy. There are many organizations out there like the Aspire Alliance or SEA Change at the American Association for the Advancement of Science that help institutions hold themselves to account for their rhetoric.

The question for presidents, provost, and deans is, is your visible leadership on diversity that you are touting in the university magazine, putting on your website, showing to prospective faculty and students — is that visible leadership and diversity actually changing campus culture?

The broader change that we think needs to happen is instead of viewing diversity as just a matter of numbers to actually see diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging as assets that will change our institutions — including tenure and promotion — for the better. That kind of change doesn’t happen from behind a desk. Judy Singer once told me that this work is “retail work — not wholesale work.” Sociologists say, “Culture happens on the shop floor,” so I used to tell provosts and deans before COVID to check their FitBits at the end of the day. If you haven’t gotten in your 10,000 steps then you’re probably not doing the work required to really change your institution for the better.

What can we expect next from COACHE?  

COACHE just started asking about professors’ student loans. Because talking about our debts is taboo, we suspected that this is an area where the privilege of white faculty goes unexamined. Sure enough, more than half of Black, pre-tenure faculty carry student loans, but somehow, only 37% of white, pre-tenure faculty do, even at this early stage of their professional careers. We will be looking at the size of those debts, too, and what steps colleges can take to ease these financial burdens — or at least, make them more equitably distributed.

In COACHE’s model, we share our data with scholars to advance their careers doing equity work in and on the academy. So if they want to investigate the student debt of faculty, or the experiences of LGBTQ faculty, or of faculty with disabilities, or the impact COVID-19 is having on professors’ decisions to leave or stay at their universities … or any number of other issues, they can collaborate with us to paint a more accurate portrait of who faculty really are today.