Toward More Equitable Academic Searches

An intricate, multicolored glass sculpture by artist Chihuly at the Joslyn Art MuseumLast month, I read with interest this Psychonomic Society post from several of my Vanderbilt psychology colleagues: “Organizing a Faculty Cluster Hire to Promote Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Psychological Sciences.” Authors Autumn Kujawa, Lisa Fazio, Duane Watson, and Kris Preacher ran a faculty cluster hire in the 2021-22 academic year to support their department’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion in teaching and research. In the post, the search committee details the processes they used for this cluster hire, and they weigh in on what seemed to work well and what they would do differently in the future. There’s a lot of good advice for running searches in the piece. Having run a lot of staff searches over the years and participated in both staff and faculty searches, I was struck by several moves my psychology colleagues made in their cluster hire.

For instance, the Vanderbilt committee wanted to “reduce the burden on candidates” and so they didn’t ask for cover letters or letters of reference with initial applications. It turned out that not asking for a cover letter was a mistake, since that confused some candidates. However, they write, “not asking for letters of reference with the application was a huge success and a decision we’d 100% make again.” I can see that. For staff searches, I find cover letters very useful (and would want to request them as part of applications), but I rarely seek out the perspectives of references until we’re down to a finalist or two. At that point, I generally would rather talk to a reference than read a letter from them. Not asking for reference letters up front makes life easier for both applicant and recommender, without sacrificing the value of having a recommendation.

Since the cluster hire was meant to support the department’s equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts, not only did the committee request diversity statements from applicants, they started their review process by reading those statements. Other documents were included as part of the applications, including a CV, research and teaching statements, and writing samples, but it was the EDI statements that informed the first review of applications. That strikes me as an unusual step, but one that’s in line with the department’s goals. My go-to is to ask for cover letters and CVs and read those first, but I can see starting with another document if that’s more in line with the search goals. And for those going in this direction, the Vanderbilt committee wrote, “To further increase transparency and equity, we recommend that future searches include information on how applicants will be evaluated – including rubrics – in the job ad itself.” There’s no need to make candidates guess how their applications will be evaluated!

As that quote suggests, the committee didn’t just read applicant EDI statements, they evaluated them using an EDI rubric developed at the University of California at Berkeley. This rubric is new to me, but it looks useful, and I can attest to the value of rubrics when reading position applications. While it adds a layer of coordination and work to the search process, I find it helps ground the search committee’s deliberations in the position’s identified priorities and in the materials submitted by applicants. I’ve found it helpful to develop and refine the application rubric with the search committee as a way to clarify their priorities and reflect them in the rubric. And with EDI in mind, there’s some evidence that this use of rubrics can combat bias in the faculty search process. A case study by Mary Blair-Loy and colleagues published this year in Science showed that the use of rubrics was associated with an increased rate of hiring women faculty in an academic engineering department. (Hat tip to Jose Antonio Bowen for that reference.) Rubrics might also help address some of the bias that can emerge in faculty search process around vaguely defined terms like “fit.”

When the Vanderbilt cluster hire moved to the meeting stage of the search process, they conducted many of those meetings via Zoom, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those meetings, they wrote, “we mailed a gift box of snacks with a welcoming note to applicants (we used Snack Magic to organize) and scheduled casual group meetings in addition to more formal individual meetings.” Not surprisingly, the applicants appreciated the collegiality and welcoming approach for these meetings. The mention of “formal individual meetings” reminded me that individual meetings between applicants and department faculty seem pretty standard in faculty searches, but I’ve rarely used this approach with staff searches. Given the collaborative nature of work at a center for teaching and learning, I’ve found it more useful for individual applicants to meet with groups of people on the hiring end. For instance, I might schedule a time for a semi-finalist to meet with the center staff or a finalist to meet with half a dozen campus partners. Doing so adds transparency to the search process, allows my colleagues and I to learn from each other’s questions for applications, and leads to fewer meetings for applicants, which some appreciate.

The cluster hire piece is full of other good advice, like posting regular search updates to Twitter for increased transparency, something I had never thought to do. See the article from my Vanderbilt colleagues for more. What moves have you made (or seen others make) in academic searches in the name of equity, diversity, and inclusion?

Update: When I shared this post on LinkedIn, Lillian Nave linked to a fantastic article she co-authored about using universal design for learning (UDL) principles for more inclusive campus interviews. It’s full of useful advice for conducting more equitable faculty searches.

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