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How cluster hires can promote faculty diversity and inclusion (opinion)

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The use of cluster hires as a part of a strategy to diversify the faculty at colleges and universities has been highlighted in the news media in recent months. I was disappointed, however, by the comments in Inside Higher Ed of Matt Reed, who argued, “In the absence of tremendous influxes of money, cluster hiring means grouping the set of hires you would have done in a given year into a smaller number of departments.”

From my experience initiating cluster hires at two public universities, neither with “tremendous influxes of money,” such hires are a key component of what should be a comprehensive approach to both diversity and inclusion. There are many ways to initiate and carry out cluster hiring initiatives as part of an institution’s diversity and inclusion goals.

Here I outline how this played out at two different institutions and at two different scales — in a departmental and a collegewide context. Even though these case studies come from large campuses, they were both in resource-constrained environments in public universities, and the hires were funded only through retirements and resignations. The size of the institution matters less than a long-term commitment to diversity and inclusion by the academic leadership and the willingness to take a creative campuswide approach to faculty recruitment and retention.

Sharing Subfields’ Strengths

My first experience was at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as the chair of the department of anthropology. Back in 2005, those of us in the department’s faculty broadly recognized that: (1) we had a decided lack of diversity in the department, even though some its academic strengths were critical theory and social justice, and (2) no matter who served on the search committee and how we advertised, we were not attracting a very diverse applicant pool. Part of that was due to the colonial legacy of the discipline. But it was also a result of the fact that, given that anthropology traditionally has four subfields, we had been letting each subfield caucus take the lead when it was “their turn” to have a hire.

Thus, the discussion tended to focus on shoring up the department’s historical subfield strengths, as opposed to meeting departmentwide priorities. We had lost a number of faculty through retirement and budget cuts, and we knew that even though we were unlikely to be able to replace them all. We needed a focused strategy to increase diversity.

After a number of departmentwide conversations and a pivotal daylong retreat, we decided to propose a cluster hire to the dean, one that focused on racism and social inequality in the Americas. We also indicated that we sought candidates who were “integrated into the communities they study” as a means to build on the strong community engagement tradition of the department. We proposed that the next four hires — whether it took four years or 40 — would be in the cluster, one for each of the subfields.

The dean took to this so favorably that we, in fact, were able to hire five faculty over four years. Her budget, I am sure, did not grow substantially in those years. But by demonstrating such a strong focus — both intellectually and in terms of diversity goals — we were more effective in arguing for the resources we needed to make this work.

The cluster hire was one prong of a multiyear strategy for intentional cultural change in the department and part of a comprehensive effort to support inclusion. It was accompanied by changes in our curriculum, in our graduate student recruitment and in our approach to mentoring. In the case of the latter, I worked with all of our pretenure faculty members to build a network-based mentoring model that was connected to our campus’s mutual mentoring program. Mutual mentoring is a network-based model of support that encourages the development of a wide variety of mentoring relationships to address specific areas of knowledge and expertise. An alternative to the traditional top-down, hierarchical approach to mentoring in the academy, it has been shown to be often more inclusive of women and minorities.

The program was successful in that it helped recruit and better retain an extraordinary faculty. That, in turn, allowed us to recruit a more diverse graduate student cohort as well. The scholarship that has come out of the department over the past 15 years on issues of race and social justice is simply stellar.

Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion in a Rural Setting

My second experience in supporting a cluster hire to promote diversity and inclusion is in my current role as dean of Harpur College of Arts & Sciences at Binghamton University, one of the university centers in the State University of New York system. The college has more than 40 departments and programs across the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences and the arts. We have the same budgetary fluctuations and constraints that all public universities have, especially those that are part of large state systems. There have been years when we have not been able to replace faculty members at the rate that they retire or resign from the college.

Traditionally, the dean solicits hiring proposals from each department and program annually and then makes decisions about allocating hires with the approval of the provost and in the context of the college budget. Like most universities, especially in a relatively rural setting, our College of Arts & Sciences struggles with recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty. But even in the context of the college’s curricular pressures, research priorities and budgetary parameters, my leadership team has worked with our chairs and directors to support the diversity and inclusion goals of the institution in a number of concrete ways — none of which required significant financial investment.

  • First, we reframed one of the associate dean roles to focus on faculty development and inclusion throughout the tenure and promotion process. While the college had conducted a diversity self-study and made some attempts to support diversity and inclusion, coordination of those efforts requires leadership from the top. Such college-level leadership also signals the importance of inclusion to the college and campus.

In the end, we received more than a dozen proposals for positions as part of this cluster hire, some as joint appointments across multiple departments. By asking departments to think through how their hiring needs intersect with such a cluster, it has allowed them to consider the relative diversity of their disciplines and subfields, how they might partner with other departments and programs on an interdisciplinary hire, and how well they have articulated and made good on their departmental diversity and inclusion goals. Colleagues from several departments have indicated that the announcement of the cluster inspired them to think differently about the hiring process and to reconsider their long-standing priorities. Thus, this initiative has already had an impact on the college, even for the departments that will not be able to search this year.

I recognize that this type of cluster hire, one with a cross-disciplinary research and teaching focus, would not be appropriate or effective for all disciplines across the arts and sciences. But initiating such a program demonstrates an institutional commitment to the issues of equity that we seek to promote. It also makes us all more mindful of other ways we can continue to build on our diversity and recruitment efforts.

The bottom line is that we cannot wait for an influx of resources in higher education in order to recruit, retain and support a diverse cohort of faculty, staff and students. Cluster hires are one way to do this. Each college and university should stay focused on its core values and priorities — in times of scarcity and in times of plenty.

Elizabeth S. Chilton is dean of the Harpur College of Arts & Sciences at Binghamton University.

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