Why DEI initiatives are likely to fail (opinion)

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I recently called a friend who led diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to recruit underrepresented minority (URM) faculty to his institution during the last hiring cycle. These efforts frustrated him, as he had nothing to show after his meticulously planned sequence of activities: workshops to create DEI awareness on campus, diversity training for search committee members, targeted postings of faculty positions on newsletters serving URM groups, etc. Despite good intentions and the institutional support these efforts received, his institution could not hire a single Black or Hispanic faculty member. He said he felt good about what his institution attempted to do but was disappointed with the outcome.

Unfortunately, DEI initiatives today have become prime examples of feel-good activities that, sadly, will not lead to tangible results, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Why do I believe that URM faculty recruitment efforts are most likely to fail?

The Data

Let us first look at the data, which show that more than 1,200 universities offer four-year or above degrees in physical science, nearly 800 offer four-year or above degrees in engineering and more than 1,800 offer four-year or above degrees in business administration and management. Almost all these institutions are committed to recruiting URM faculty and are competing with each other to grab the best candidates.

Compare these data with the number of doctorate recipients in these disciplines. According to National Science Foundation data, of 6,247 doctorate recipients in physical and earth sciences in 2020, only 79 were Black and 246 Hispanic. Even in non-STEM fields such as business, the situation is dire; more than 1,800 institutions with four-year business programs vied for 150 Black, Hispanic or Native American new doctorate recipients in 2020.

These data are public. Yet institutions are cranking up their faculty-diversity recruitment efforts, knowing well they are unlikely to succeed in their endeavors. They may soon believe that they had done all they could, which is dangerous, because all of their wasted energy and disappointment will lead to DEI fatigue, disappointment and resentment.

I am not suggesting we should do nothing because the scenario seems hopeless. I am saying we must not fall into the trap of feel-good activities but instead must focus on bold long-term actions.

Before embarking on the DEI journey, institutions should eliminate DEI tokenism. Tokenism is a common problem in which universities, and even private companies, resort to symbolic efforts to hire a few URM employees simply to show that they champion diversity. They parade their DEI employees with great pride and fanfare. Yet tokenism actually hurts both those employees and the organization itself, because token candidates are under microscopic scrutiny all the time, which prevents them from reaching their full potential and demoralizes them. URM employees want to be treated with respect and dignity, so they will flock to places where they are valued for what they bring to an institution and not solely for their race, ethnicity or gender.

How Do We Attract URM Faculty?

We can absorb valuable lessons from institutions that serve URM populations, particularly historically Black colleges and universities. They have consistently produced a disproportionally large number of Black students in STEM disciplines: of all Black doctorate recipients, nearly 30 percent of them earned their bachelor’s degrees from an HBCU.

Even though DEI efforts to recruit URM faculty are likely to fail in the immediate future, they could create a steady stream of candidates in three to five years if we take meaningful long-term actions to this end. We must start as follows: (1) build partnerships with such URM-serving institutions as HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions; (2) provide research opportunities, funding and mentorship for undergraduate students to pursue Ph.D. degrees; and (3) improve K-12 engagement.

Build partnerships with HBCUs and HSIs. Ph.D. recipients from HBCUs are highly qualified and in high demand, and they will not fall for diversity tokenism. Remember what happened to Nikole Hannah-Jones? She was nominated for a tenured journalism position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But when the trustees made a mockery of her nomination, she decided to go to the historically Black Howard University School of Communications to assume its first Knight Chair in Race and Reporting and establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

If a renowned journalist like Hannah-Jones can be mistreated publicly, what are the chances for a brand-new Ph.D. graduate? They may be reluctant to accept a position at an institution with no track record for equity and inclusiveness.

The best way to attract the new generation of URM faculty from HBCUs and HSIs is to reach out to them early on. Send your team annually to meet with doctoral students and invite them to visit your university and teach a course there, perhaps in the summer. Show your commitment to them by providing support and resources. Introduce them to various community engagement projects at your institution and the roles they can play in those projects. Give them generous start-up packages. If you do all this, just maybe they will consider joining you when they graduate.

Support undergraduate students to pursue Ph.D. degrees. About 13 times more international students (temporary visa holders) obtain Ph.D. degrees in engineering than domestic URM students in the U.S. do.

Unfortunately, the U.S. university system does not provide enough deliberate support for undergraduate students to pursue graduate studies in STEM.

Mentorship programs should begin while students are still in their undergraduate programs and continue through their graduate education. Undergraduate research is a formative experience, and it increases the likelihood of attending graduate school. At the graduate level, programs such as California State University System’s Doctoral Incentive Program, which provides financial and mentoring support to promising doctoral students, should be expanded.

K-12 outreach. A university without a strong K-12 outreach program is like a tree without roots. A strong K-12 outreach signifies a consistent engagement of K-12 students and teachers with college faculty and students. Faculty members not involved with local K-12 systems may have more difficulty understanding their students’ backgrounds and empathizing with them. Close to 50 percent of undergraduate students who start out in STEM majors drop out of STEM, either switching to a non-STEM field or graduating college without a credential, and a disproportionate number of them are URM students.

Effective youth outreach programs such as California State Polytechnic University, Pomona’s Femineer program and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SEED Academy provide promising models for how colleges can increase the number of STEM students by improving the K-12 pipeline. Working with local school districts is low-hanging fruit. If a university has no effective K-12 STEM outreach program, DEI initiatives are but cheap talk.

These are but a few ways to foster DEI in university faculties by going beyond conventional DEI initiatives to focus on the whole person and the qualities, skills and experiences URM students can bring to further a university’s teaching and research missions. Key to these efforts is: building genuine relationships with the institutions most likely to produce qualified URM candidates for faculty positions—namely the HBCUs and HSIs that commit to help URMs get to a higher educational level—providing support for URM students to pursue doctoral studies, and establishing K-12 outreach programs that help youth prepare for such opportunities early. DEI hiring initiatives must recognize URM candidates as valued contributors to a university community, not just token Blacks, Hispanics or women who would be closely watched or even doubted.

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