A Mission for Greater Faculty Diversity — Oakland University’s Diversity Advocate Program

Fall 2021
Joi M. Cunningham, Cynthia E. Miree, C. Michelle Piskulich, Deirdre G. Pitts and Jason A. Wasserman

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are having a moment at the moment. Indeed, for many higher ed HR professionals, this moment feels more like a movement finally receiving its due.

The educational value and ethical imperative to increase diversity in higher education is now widely recognized, yet even where student populations increasingly reflect the demographics of the region or nation as a whole, faculty diversity often continues to lag significantly behind. For example, while the number of minority students rose 17 percent from 1997 to 2017, the number of minority faculty rose only 10 percent. There are numerous reasons for this. Some, such as the effects of implicit bias, cut across many contexts, while others are specific to the particular nature of academia and the arc of faculty careers. But ultimately, the hiring process is often where the rubber of faculty diversity meets the road. With this in mind, how can HR professionals help ensure that the faculty hiring process contributes to the larger mission of crafting more diverse, inclusive and equitable institutions of higher education?

Shaking Up Search Committees

Faculty serving on search committees play a central role in the process of recruiting, evaluating and hiring their future colleagues, and research shows that the composition and training of search committees plays an important role in their ability to make good on larger institutional commitments to diversity. Recognizing that both thoughtful and intentional action is needed to support effective search practices, Oakland University’s Academic HR team developed the Diversity Advocate Program that focuses on providing faculty members with concrete, actionable best practices for inclusive hiring, while also making space to engage in dialogue and, when necessary, to ask and work through difficult questions in a collaborative setting.

The program trains designated members of Oakland’s faculty hiring committees to serve as Diversity Advocates (DAs) throughout the hiring process, from recruiting candidates to selecting a finalist. DAs receive research-based training on the institutional value of diversity, best practices for recruiting a diverse applicant pool, mitigating bias in evaluating candidates, facilitating difficult conversations among hiring committee members, and creating an inclusive environment for newly hired faculty. Existing models, such as Oregon State University’s Search Advocate Program, guided the development of Oakland’s program, which was then revised and refined through extensive conversations with faculty involved in the hiring process. First initiated in the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, the program has since been implemented successfully across the entire university.

By training faculty to serve as advocates for diverse search pools and equitable search processes within a committee of their peers, the program benefits from the professional expertise, shared values and existing relationships of trust among faculty.

Keeping Equity Front and Center

A key feature of the Diversity Advocate Program is captured by its name: by training faculty to serve as advocates for diverse search pools and equitable search processes within a committee of their peers, the program benefits from the professional expertise, shared values and existing relationships of trust among faculty. Further, while all members of the faculty hiring committee are able to (and often) receive DA training, designating one member of the committee as DA allows that person to keep questions of equity front and center and helps distribute the cognitive load in what is often a very demanding process. Rather than diffuse the responsibility for interrogating bias to all of the committee members — where it often gets lost amid their many other tasks — appointing a particular committee member to take lead on this facet of the process guarantees it remains part of the conversation.

Additionally, making the DA a voting member of the faculty hiring committee ensures that the questions or concerns they raise are not seen to be of secondary importance. As a result, rather than making the pursuit of diversity an outside imperative or fair hiring practices another box to tick off, the Diversity Advocate Program creates space for critical self-reflection within academic departments and plants the seeds for larger collective cultural shifts.


Small Changes Yield Significant Gains

Like many other aspects of academic culture, faculty searches are often heavily governed by convention; they are conducted in “the way we have always done it.” However, research on faculty diversity reveals that seemingly small changes to these procedures can often yield significant gains. For instance, one study showed that simply reading diversity statements before other documents in the application file increased the representation of women and minority faculty in the candidate pool. Careful attentiveness, paired with clear evaluation guidelines, can help mitigate common cognitive biases, like unconsciously preferring candidates who are similar to the current faculty or assuming that candidates with degrees from prestigious universities will be the most qualified or the most likely to experience long-term success within the faculty position. There are also many aspects of the hiring process, from the language used in job postings to the itineraries of candidates’ campus visits, that can send — or fail to send —important signals of inclusion. Therefore, a key feature of the DA program is to inspire and equip faculty members to revisit these norms and procedures with equity in mind.

Program Successes

Since the rollout of the Diversity Advocate Program in 2018-2019, more than 120 people at Oakland University have participated in the training. As of 2020, all faculty searches are required to have a designated and trained DA, and beginning in 2021, all members of faculty search committees will receive training on equity and bias.

According to program evaluations, faculty who participated in the DA training found it valuable and felt it prepared them well for meaningful participation as search committee members and DAs. However, the most important measure of the program’s success, along with other related efforts, has been an increase in the percentage of Underrepresented Minority (URM) faculty at the university: from 52 URM faculty in 2017 (the year before the DA program began) to 59 in 2020.

Inspiring Incremental Progress

Of course, an initiative like the Diversity Advocate Program addresses only one part of the larger DEI landscape. On Oakland’s campus, it works in concert with an increasing number of programs and initiatives designed to diversify the professional pipeline, evaluate faculty equitably and promote an inclusive campus climate. While the process of institutional change is never straightforward, the Diversity Advocate Program offers one example of how incremental progress at one level of the institution can lead to widespread transformation over time.

A Snapshot of Oakland University’s Diversity Advocate Training Program

The Diversity Advocates training course (available both in person and online in a self-paced environment) includes readings, videos, assignments, resources and templates that serve to advance the understanding, awareness and presence of DEI efforts among faculty at Oakland University. Topics covered in the training include:

  • defining and differentiating diversity, equity and inclusion,
  • institutionalizing DEI (how to make DEI a part of the fabric of the institution),
  • articulating the role and expectations of a Diversity Advocate,
  • unconscious bias,
  • building candidate pools,
  • assessing application materials,
  • committee deliberation and advocating for DEI,
  • the interview process, and
  • building inclusive environments for hired faculty.

Diversity Advocates also have opportunities throughout the training to mimic parts of the hiring process, such as analyzing job advertisements, participating in mock hiring committee meetings and discussing different situations they may encounter in the hiring process and ways to respond.

About the authors: Joi M. Cunningham, assistant vice president, academic human resources; Joanne Lipson Freed, associate professor of English in the college of arts and sciences; Cynthia E. Miree, professor of management in the school of business administration; C. Michelle Piskulich, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Molloy College; Deirdre G. Pitts, associate dean for academic, faculty affairs, and diversity & inclusion in the school of medicine, and Jason A. Wasserman, associate professor in the department of foundational medical studies in the school of medicine, all of Oakland University. 

Oakland University’s Diversity Advocate Program was awarded CUPA-HR’s 2021 Inclusion Cultivates Excellence Award. Check out the Special Awards Issue to learn more about this award.

©2021 Joi M. Cunningham, Cynthia E. Miree, C. Michelle Piskulich, Deirdre G. Pitts and Jason A. Wasserman. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.