University Diversity

Diversity in the workforce is a challenging issue for many organizations, but it’s particularly critical for universities. This is partly because many universities are publicly funded, which might imply that they have a larger responsibility to represent the population that financially supports them. And universities that teach about inclusivity and equality should surely be expected to live those values in their own operations.

But another reason is that universities are large and very visible organizations. Unlike workers at companies whose operations are largely unseen, workers at universities interact with large numbers of people – students, communities, governments – every day. So if there is a lack of diversity in the workforce at universities, it will be far more noticeable than it might be in other types of organizations.

Statistics Canada collects data on gender diversity among post-secondary instructors, but it doesn’t collect data on racial, ethnic or international diversity in that occupation. So I was very interested in this recent study by the TIAA Institute in the US. The report doesn’t only track demographic diversity among university professors; it also looks at how much diversity there is at each level of the professorial ranks. Generally, new university professors are hired as assistant professors, and then have to apply to be promoted to associate professor and then full professor; tenure (guaranteed employment) is usually awarded at the associate professor level.

According to the TIAA’s data, between 1993 and 2013 the number of women professors in the US increased more quickly than the number of male professors. In fact, the number of women professors with tenure increased, while the number of male professors with tenure slightly decreased. But when the researchers looked at the changes in the numbers of women in all professorial ranks, they found that the percentage of women in tenured positions actually decreased, and that the positions with the largest increases in the number of women were non-tenured and part-time positions.

Diversity is beautiful. (credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust/Flickr)

Diversity is beautiful. (credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust/Flickr)

The report also found some significant changes in racial and ethnic diversity among university professors. While the majority of professors at all levels are white, the number of white professors is declining, and there are increases at all levels in the number of professors who are Asian-American, underrepresented minorities, and non-resident aliens (non-American citizens who were educated outside the US). The researchers noted that while there are still relatively small numbers of non-white women professors, those numbers too have increased. There may also be variations in diversity rates among professors in specific academic disciplines, but the report wasn’t able to obtain data to investigate that.

The report gives another reason why diversity among university professors is important. It points out that “[professors] serve, too, in important ways as role models for their students; for that to occur for all students, diversity in the faculty ranks is crucial” (p. 16). That same theme was echoed in another article I read recently, which discussed demands for more demographic diversity among university advisors and counselors. The interviewees in this article spoke of how important it was for advisors and counselors to have the appropriate “cultural and racial awareness” to work with diverse groups of students. It’s also possible that minority students might be more likely to seek help from advisors and counselors if they saw ethnic and racial diversity among staff in those positions, because they might feel those staff could better understand what they were experiencing.

The difficulty with trying to improve the amount of diversity among university professors – and among advisors and counselors too – is that these are specialized jobs that require fairly lengthy training. So there is a relatively small number of people qualified to fill those jobs. And if there isn’t much  diversity among candidates applying for those jobs, building a diverse workforce is even more problematic. But in my own academic discipline, there’s an initiative that takes a different approach to increasing diversity among university professors – not by encouraging diversity in hiring (although that’s important too), but by supporting student diversity in graduate programs that train students to be professors.

The Ph.D. Project encourages minority students to complete Ph.D.s in business. Since its formation 22 years ago, 90% of its members have completed their Ph.D. programs (higher than the average completion rate for business Ph.D. students) and more than 1,000 of the graduates it supported have become professors at business schools. But the Ph.D. Project sees its influence reaching beyond the academic world; it also has the goal of increasing workplace diversity everywhere by demonstrating to students, through faculty diversity, why workplace diversity is beneficial. In its words, it strives to “to improve the preparation of all students by allowing them to experience the richness of learning from  faculty with diverse backgrounds; and [thus] to reach the goal of a better prepared and more diversified workforce”.  That kind of ripple effect can be very powerful. And that alone is a compelling reason for every academic discipline and every type of post-secondary institution to have a diverse workforce.

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