Why Diversity in Academia Remains Elusive

October 9, 2018

Why is it so hard for colleges and universities to diversify faculty? That's the subject of a new book co-authored by Distinguished Professor Virginia Valian.

an inclusive academy valian

Why is it so hard for colleges and universities to diversify faculty? That’s the subject of a book, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence, by Distinguished Professor Virginia Valian (GC, Psychology, Linguistics, Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences/Hunter, Psychology) and co-author Abigail Stewart (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. One of the biggest obstacles, ironically, is good intentions. “People think that because they intend to be fair, they will be fair,” Valian added. But research shows that when people reassure themselves of their lack of prejudice, they are more likely to make biased decisions.
The book offers ideas for how to change hiring and retention procedures — including recruitment, evaluation, and promotion of faculty — to counteract these tendencies.

Professor Virginia Valian. Photo credit: Paul Rozin

In an interview with MIT Press, the authors said that people are often influenced by the status quo even when they think they’re being fair. As a result, they may assume that the underrepresentation of women and people of color in a workforce is due to “abilities and accomplishments” rather than problems with the hiring process.
“People don’t want to think that they are biased, perhaps especially in academia,” they told MIT Press. “But the data suggest that we are influenced in our evaluations of others by our reactions to their personal histories, their similarity to us, and our schemas. It’s partly our belief in our own good nature, and our reluctance to see that our good will is not enough, that perpetuates the status quo.”
They added that people tend to “overestimate talent in some groups and underestimate it in others, and we are more comfortable with people who are familiar — like us. Our cognition is fallible in areas that have nothing to do with education, gender, race, or ethnicity, or even with others being different from us.  We are, for example, too influenced by single examples. If we experience rude flight attendants on a plane, we don’t want to fly that airline again, even though that occasion might have been highly atypical. When you add in similarity in terms of education, gender, race, and ethnicity, those fallibilities are exacerbated.”
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Valian and Stewart said one problem is “a belief in the essential goodness of the institutions and their procedures, which can lead to anxiety that changing them will risk their good qualities.”
What about search committees that say they are unable to find “qualified” candidates from underrepresented groups? “Our easy answer is look harder — women and people of color are there,” the authors told Inside Higher Ed. “Our more complicated answer is to learn what the potential applicant pool looks like so that you can at least match the pool's percentages. … Then you have to figure out how to encourage applications from groups that might be skeptical about your sincerity, following up with phone calls.”
Ultimately, though, the authors argue that institutions should be seeking diversity not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because of the impact a diverse workforce has on promoting innovation. “Innovation requires different perspectives, and diverse groups work well if everyone has an opportunity to contribute from their own unique perspective,” they told MIT Press.