Black male faculty member in classroom

In the last decade, higher education student bodies have become more diverse, but the faculty at most institutions increasingly do not reflect the diversity of the students they teach. Colleges and universities have recognized this imbalance, and many have committed to hiring and retaining a more diverse faculty body. While there have been gains in recent years, a new report from the Government Accountability Office found that some groups—Black and Hispanic professors in particular—are still underrepresented at higher education institutions. 

Many colleges and universities are doubling down on their efforts, and for good reason. They recognize that improving minority representation in academia is about more than hitting a quota—it’s about creating a supportive campus climate, ensuring student success, and recruiting and retaining talented faculty. 

Ultimately, it’s about making the institution more inclusive, effective, and attractive to the highest quality professors and researchers. 

What Is Faculty Diversity? 

Faculty diversity means more than just racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. A diverse faculty should also represent a range of abilities, social statuses, sexual orientations and gender identities, religions, viewpoints, and scholarly interests.  

The impact of representation in higher education cannot be overstated. For example, if a student with a hearing disability encounters a professor with a similar disability, they may start to see a future for themselves in academia. A new path has appeared for them—and now they are more likely to pursue graduate school and research opportunities. 

The Importance of Faculty Diversity in Higher Education 

Having a diverse faculty benefits students, the institution as a whole, the larger research community, and the faculty members themselves.  

When your faculty members come from a variety of backgrounds and have varied interests, your institution can offer a greater range of programs and research opportunities. Faculty with unique perspectives can also broaden classroom discussions and introduce students to new ideas. 

Improved Student Engagement and Retention 

Achieving faculty diversity enhances underrepresented students’ educational experiences. Minority faculty can provide much-needed support and opportunity for growth and development to students from similar groups. For example, Black students may feel more comfortable talking about their challenges to faculty members with whom they have shared experiences.  

A more supportive and inclusive educational experience results in improved academic performance, and we’ve seen time and time again that increased faculty diversity leads to better graduation rates for students from underrepresented groups. In fact, performance gaps between white and minority students—e.g., dropout rates—fall significantly for minority students in classes taught by minority faculty members, with long-term positive effects on retention and degree completion. 

Enhanced Learning Environments and Campus Climate 

Today’s students are looking more closely at faculty diversity and representation when choosing which institution to attend. When you have a diverse faculty body, you attract more students from underrepresented groups to your institution, which itself has a host of positive effects.  

For example, students’ learning outcomes improve when they informally interact with other students from different racial groups. In particular, these students show improved intellectual engagement, self-motivation, and civic and cultural engagement. Students’ critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills also improve from interacting with students from different backgrounds than their own. 

Increased Opportunity and Better Preparation for the Real World 

The skills students develop in interacting with a diverse faculty and student body also prepare them to successfully interact with the people they will encounter in the real world. 

Students graduate into a multicultural world, where the majority of work settings will involve interacting with people of different races, faiths, abilities, and viewpoints. To succeed in these settings, students must recognize the value of different experiences and know how to communicate in a way that is sensitive to these differences.  

Students exposed to diversity during their time in higher education are also more engaged citizens as adults and, in general, better prepared for all facets of adult life

How to Close the Diversity Gap 

It’s easy to understand why colleges and universities are eager to increase faculty diversity—it’s good for students, faculty, and the institution itself.  

Nevertheless, many institutions have struggled to make significant progress. Improving diversity in higher education requires addressing multiple challenges, including shortcomings in recruitment and promotion practices as well as pipeline problems (that is, an insufficient number of new Ph.D. graduates from underrepresented groups).  

Here are a few steps that institutions can take to improve their recruitment process and long-term faculty retention: 

Recognize and guard against unconscious bias: One threat to increasing faculty diversity is unconscious bias, or social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. To combat this threat, institutions should examine policies and practices for any potential discriminatory effects. Hiring committees, in particular, should be aware of unconscious bias and take action to combat it.  

Focus on education: Consider providing all of your employees with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training. Your training program can include multiple levels, including materials that establish a baseline of knowledge and programs that enable faculty to deepen their understanding of DEI issues.  

Create community groups and support systems: Encourage the creation of groups, such as Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), that give employees a sense of community and a support network to either fall back on when facing challenges or celebrate with following professional successes. 

Rethink hiring practices: In addition to targeted training and education on DEI issues, an essential step to increase faculty diversity is to improve your hiring practices. For example, institutions can circumvent affinity bias by auditing applicant pools against earned doctorate survey data from the National Science Foundation.  

Promote Diversity in Higher Education With Interfolio 

While improving your hiring practices is one important part of increasing faculty diversity, progress also depends on examining your academic review policies and processes. 

Is your university doing all the right things to appropriately influence faculty applicant pool diversity? 

Universities that hire faculty through Interfolio gain a new level of applicant pool data, equitable committee work, and consistency that enables them to reach diverse academic hiring outcomes. 

You can learn more here about how we can help your institution reach its diversity goals—and enjoy the many benefits that come from faculty diversity.