U.S. academia won’t achieve faculty diversity at current pace

On one of their walks to catch up during the pandemic, Neil Lewis Jr. ’13 posed a hopeful question about faculty diversity to his Department of Communication colleague, J. Nathan Matias. 

“I made an offhanded comment – which Nathan took seriously,” Lewis said, “and it was something like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if by the end of our careers we could be done talking about problems of faculty diversity?’” 

That offhanded comment turned into a two-year project to figure out how to meaningfully address the faculty diversity challenges American universities have spent so much time talking about. The project involved detailed analyses of a trio of federal datasets and reached a pretty sobering conclusion, which is summed up in the title of their paper, “U.S. Universities Are Not Succeeding in Diversifying Faculty,” published Dec. 5 in Nature Human Behavior. 

In addition to Matias and Lewis, the paper was co-written by Elan C. Hope, director of research and evaluation at Policy Research Associates and a former associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University. 

While the study’s findings may be humbling to universities, they also offer some direction for the future.

At the current rate of diversification, the authors claim U.S. colleges and universities will never achieve racial parity – defined as parity in the U.S. professoriate that is proportional to that of the general population. However, they claim, the academy could achieve parity by the year 2050 by increasing faculty diversification by 0.78 percentage points over the current rate of change.

Diversity in higher education has been in the news recently, with the pending Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, and Matias said the stakes – and emotions – are high. 

“Americans are asking right now how higher education can serve the common good for everyone in the future,” Matias said. “A lot of people have been working hard on these questions for a long time. Our analysis can help universities work smarter.”

Matias and the group conducted modeling across 1,250 higher-education institutions in the U.S from the 2013 to 2020, using data from the U.S. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. They found the percentage of tenure-track faculty from underrepresented backgrounds increased by less than a quarter of a percentage point annually. 

For that same period and into the future, the U.S. Census projects that the population of those same demographic groups will increase by 0.20 percentage points per year. By the year 2060, the authors wrote, professorial diversity will still be 22 percentage points behind the general population at the current rate of change. 

“This finding is going to be disappointing to some people,” Matias said. “We’re hoping people, like good scholars, will ask why this might be and how we can change it.” 

The authors noted that one of the explanations people often come up with for lack of diversity is the “pipeline issue” – the idea that a sequence of independent institutional problems is leading to a shortage of qualified Ph.D.s to hire. To investigate the pipeline idea, they used National Science Foundation data to estimate how many Ph.D.s from underrepresented groups could have been hired but have not been.

They found that between 2007 and 2019, more than 45,000 Ph.D.s from underrepresented groups were not hired into tenure-track positions, a number that grows by thousands every year. Also, they wrote, the pipeline repair model spurs institutions to make institution-level efforts at diversity, which fail to address the issue on a macro level.

“If you imagine yourself as the keeper of one part of this pipeline or ‘assembly line,’” Matias said, “then you’re not necessarily looking up and imagining how you might collaborate across the ecosystem.” 

At the very end of the paper, the authors issue a challenge regarding why Ph.D.s from underrepresented backgrounds may not be hired due to being seen as less qualified: “[I]f it is the case that underrepresented Ph.D.s are less qualified on average, it would be worth asking a different question about their training: Why would U.S. institutions systematically provide lower-quality training experiences to their Ph.D. students from underrepresented demographic backgrounds than they provide to their white students?” 

“It’s an important point,” Lewis said. “If you have the assumption that people who are getting their Ph.D.s and happened to be from minoritized backgrounds are, on average, lower-quality scholars than whites, then you also have to give me an explanation for why that would be the case.” 

Lewis hopes that well-meaning administrators who’ve worked for a long time at diversifying higher-education faculty will see this as a call to action – and not a personal affront. 

“There’s this sense that, ‘Well, we’re good people trying to do the right things, and you’re saying the things we’re doing aren’t working,’” he said. “It might be interpreted by some as a sort of personal attack, and that’s not what it is. When you look at it at a systemic level, we can see that regardless of how good people’s intentions have been, they haven’t necessarily led to the kinds of outcomes we might hope for. Reminding people of those distinctions between intentions and impact is sometimes hard.” 

Matias likened the kind of change that’s needed to taking out a mortgage on a new home. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars might seem impossible at the start, but if you make monthly payments over the course of decades, you can enjoy the benefits right away while also achieving your long-term goal.

“That is the way we’re hoping that this data can inspire hope,” he said, “by helping people think about how change accumulates over the long term, particularly if we make early and systemic investments that pay off over time.” 

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Rebecca Valli