Diversity initiatives have been a part of higher education agendas for decades in America, yet faculty and leadership demographics have remained largely the same. University presidencies continue to be white and male dominated, with faculty of color making up only 17% of leadership positions and 31% of faculty positions overall—percentages which have barely changed over the decades.

After the civil rights movements of the 1960s many colleges and universities recognized that creating more inclusive campuses required diverse leadership and began instituting what were known as “minority affairs” roles. Largely located at the department level, these positions were some of the first attempts at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives made by America’s elite educational institutes.

In the past several years, racial justice and equity movements nationwide have led to a resurgence in popularity of DEI initiatives. Today, two-thirds of American universities have chief diversity officers, with at least thirty major institutions having created these roles in the past five years alone. Additionally, dozens of educational institutions have pledged millions of dollars in DEI funding towards recruiting and promoting underrepresented scholars across the nation.

While the resurgence of DEI initiatives shows a national interest towards more diverse representation in higher education, faculty and leadership demographics have remained largely unaffected by these efforts. In today’s case study, we look at the barriers that underrepresented scholars continue to face in securing leadership roles in higher education and what steps can be taken to truly create more inclusive campuses.

American Council on Education (2021)

Limited Success

In 2015, Yale University pledged $50M to  increase faculty diversity; by 2017, they were faced with an interesting paradox—the number of underrepresented faculty members had actually decreased over two years. Faculty who had joined with the hopes of creating more inclusive campuses were confronted with a long history of inequity that left them struggling to succeed, indicating that money alone might not be enough to solve the problem. 

Across the country, many faculty have found themselves similarly disillusioned by promises of equity and inclusion, despite the hefty funds that come with them. A recent national survey of faculty members by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education found that only 58% of Black professors felt their departments and colleagues were truly committed to diversity and inclusion work, in comparison to 78% of their white colleagues. Only 60% of underrepresented faculty felt like they “fit in” at their institutions overall. 

At Yale, more than a dozen professors cut ties with the institution after their concerns about department culture, resources, and stability remained largely unacknowledged. With limited progress, other institutions similarly continue to struggle to recruit and retain faculty and leaders committed to diversity and inclusion.


Consensus on the exact measures that need to be taken to ensure the success of diversity initiatives remain unclear, even though it is apparent that underrepresented members of campus communities continue to struggle to feel supported. Subjective hiring and promotion practices are often cited as primary barriers that inhibit underrepresented faculty and staff from advancing to positions with decision making power. Employers who follow the “homogeneity incentive”—or the incentive to select candidates who are similar to them and presumably fit more easily into the organization—tend to overlook minority candidates in hiring processes and often resist hiring people from non-peer institutions, further gatekeeping historically excluded populations from faculty and leadership positions.


Harvard University Graduate School of Education (2020)


Similarly, legacies of discrimination that still exist within the American higher education system, especially at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) continue to inhibit support for underrepresented scholars. Support and mentorship networks are often representative of and advantageous to white, male faculty who aspire to leadership roles. Contrastingly, many faculty of color describe challenges they must overcome when entering top positions including muting their own cultural uniqueness, feeling ignored, marginalized and lacking mentorship opportunities.


Meaningful Intervention

Metrics and qualitative information around the types of diversity interventions that might have the greatest impact remain unclear. Many critics question whether titles such as ‘Chief Diversity Officer’ misleadingly indicate that only a handful of people should be in charge of creating campus environments when the responsibility lies in the hands of all. Yet others question whether funneling millions of dollars into diversity initiatives and pipelines truly creates more opportunities for underrepresented scholars, when other institutional challenges such as departmental culture and pressure to “fit-in”  present larger, non-monetary barriers.

Cohort hiring—the idea that underrepresented populations are hired in groups to develop a strong community and support system—is an intervention that has been shown to increase retention, particularly for underrepresented groups. Similarly, collaborations across institutions and between departments for creating mentorship networks have similarly proved effective in addressing underlying institutional barriers facing faculty and leadership.

A number of leadership workshops and bootcamps have sprung up in the past decade or so to better support rising faculty and especially faculty of color as they strive to move up in their careers. One such program, the Academic Leadership Institute (ALI), is innovative in that it seeks to increase the representation of rising leaders committed to issues of DEI, including faculty of color, by providing a forum for more intentional and scalable mentoring of next-generation leaders. Founded by Dr. Earl Lewis and Dr. Dwight A. McBride in a partnership between the University of Michigan and The New School. ALI, now in its second year, brings together a growing network of current and former university leaders of color, including presidents and provosts, with those who have demonstrated leadership and a commitment to DEI principles. The Institute was designed to promote honest and authentic conversations in a safe space for rising scholars, in which diversity, equity, access, and inclusion are foundational principles.

ALI coordinator Dahlia Petrus hopes that the program will “spark a movement that transforms higher education through its elevation of leaders who can lead this transformation; leaders who know that the value of diversity strengthens American democracy.”

In our next post for this series, we will focus on the unique ALI approach to issues of diversity in academe.


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