Higher Ed’s Diversity Obstacles

Most colleges and universities say they embrace diversity and inclusion, but many are falling far short. A new book, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence, explores how and why academia has failed to sufficiently diversify faculties, and why merit is often overlooked as a factor in hiring and advancement.

The authors are Virginia Valian, a distinguished professor at The Graduate Center, CUNY, and director of Hunter College’s Gender Equity Project, and Abigail Stewart, professor at the University of Michigan.

“Academics are sincerely committed to the merit principle, but do not realize what the obstacles are in practice to observing the merit principle,” said Valian. The authors describe a range of obstacles and behaviors that work against this meritocracy, including putting value on social class and not being adequately inclusive of people from different demographic groups. “Women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other groups do not advance to faculty positions in numbers proportionate to their presence in the population,” they write.

One of the biggest obstacles, ironically, is good intentions. “People think that because they intend to be fair, they will be fair,” said Valian. But research shows that when people reassure themselves of their lack of prejudice, they are more likely to make biased decisions. These are often small decisions, such as not listening to a suggestion from a woman, or slightly undervaluing a woman’s achievements, but they compound over time. Another issue is a “naturalization” of the status quo – or the expectation that the academic world is and always will be dominated by white men.

The authors hope their book will raise awareness of these tendencies and provide tools and recommendations for change. What’s required is not haphazard efforts at inclusion but systemic change in procedures. The book suggests practices for how to recruit faculty, how to evaluate candidates, how to ensure that departments are run fairly, how to evaluate people for promotion, how to help all faculty thrive, and how to ensure that faculty are nominated for prizes and awards.  “One important principle is to bring out the best in people, regardless of their similarity to current faculty,” says Valian.

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An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence
MIT Press, 2018

Work By
Virginia Valian (Distinguished Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools
Hunter College
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
“Two Nobels for Women—Why So Slow?” (Nature)
“Q&A with Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian” (MIT Press Blog)
“Why Diversity in Academia Remains So Elusive” (GC News)

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