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Want a Diverse Faculty? Learn from Minority Serving Institutions

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by Daniel Blake


In a provocative opinion piece in September 2016, my adviser and the founder of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), Dr. Marybeth Gasman, critiqued majority colleges and universities for their insufficient efforts to recruit diverse faculties. She suggested that these institutions “visit Minority Serving Institutions — institutions with great student and faculty diversity — and ask them how they recruit a diverse faculty.”

As a research associate for CMSI, I regularly conduct interviews with MSI faculty members. I plan to pursue a faculty position after completing my doctoral studies, and these interviews allow me to imagine my future and gain insights into this line of work. In addition to developing an understanding of their various responsibilities and how they manage them, I also am fundamentally curious about why they chose this profession in the first place. This curiosity stems from my somewhat nontraditional path to doctoral studies in higher education and the constant soul-searching that accompanies my faculty aspirations.

Most of my undergraduate coursework was centered on the Middle East and learning the Arabic language; I aspired to become a foreign service officer. During my early 20s, my focus shifted toward making an impact domestically, and I balanced three education-related jobs for three years before pursuing doctoral work.

My decision was partially driven by intellectual curiosity sparked by my own experiences in college as a Black male student who was underrepresented in an elite environment, and a desire to make a difference for students who might face similar challenges.

Yet, it was also pragmatic — I had discovered that my bachelor’s degree was limiting my career mobility and planned to return to school to enhance my educational credentials. Enrollment in a Ph.D. program was a means to achieve this aim without going into further debt, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted without first acquiring a master’s degree.

My program has flown by so far. I am wrapping up my last semester of coursework and honing in on a dissertation topic, and entry into the job market seems fast-approaching. With much of what I read about faculty highlighting either the dearth of faculty positions or the Herculean demands placed on professors, my interviews with MSI faculty members are a refreshing exercise.

Among my most pressing questions are the ones that I have most recently faced or will grapple with as I complete my program: How did they become interested in their disciplinary field? Why did they decide to become a professor? How did they attain their faculty position?

After listening to and analyzing their narratives, I recently published a study on this topic. In it, I argue that institutions interested in increasing faculty diversity should pay attention to the motivations and values of the diverse scholars that they are trying to recruit.

Prior research on academic career motivations, including national surveys, has repeatedly shown that academic freedom and autonomy are the primary factors that draw individuals to pursue the professoriate. This finding has been consistent across institutional types (e.g., comprehensive state college, private nonsectarian college, religiously-affiliated college, public university or private university), yet previous work has not disaggregated MSI designations from these broader categories. National surveys also have not distinguished how such motivations might vary by social identity of faculty members.

In my qualitative study involving 15 MSI faculty, of whom 14 are scholars of color, none of the professors mentioned academic freedom or autonomy as motivations to enter the academy. The predominant motivations among the professors that I spoke with were opportunities to make a difference in their communities, whether through teaching or through using their platform to promote social change, and training the next generation to continue such efforts. In some cases, their desire to become a professor was specifically tied to becoming a professor at an MSI, motivated by a sense of responsibility to help the institution in its mission to educate marginalized communities.

Also of note in my sample were the individuals who entered academia later in their careers in order to engage in this meaningful work. Their narratives disrupt traditional conceptions of academic pipelines as linear trajectories through undergraduate and graduate studies directly into tenure-track faculty positions.

As I discuss in my article, future research is needed to shed further light on these phenomena, yet I believe that this study offers lessons that majority colleges and universities can learn from. The significance of community uplift as a motivation for these faculty members suggests that the explicit prioritization of professors who are interested in scholarship and service to marginalized communities could be leveraged for the diversification and retention of faculty at postsecondary institutions across the board. Institutions could market positions in ways that resonate with individuals interested in helping their communities, and reframe the professor role as one that is action-oriented and capable of bringing about change. Yet, they must not simply espouse this rhetoric – they must be intentional in ensuring that their practices truly support and encourage such work.

Sole individuals, including role models and mentors, also proved to be pivotal in influencing the professors that I interviewed to pursue and accept faculty positions. Institutions interested in recruiting a diverse faculty should be deliberate and strategic in leveraging social networks and identifying role models and mentors who may be able to recruit talented applicants from underrepresented backgrounds for their positions. These are actions that some people already undertake without reminders, but institutionalized and incentivized processes might lead others to think deeply and creatively about potential candidates for roles.

MSIs successfully recruit diverse faculties because their institutional missions and cultures align with the values that scholars of color often care about. I plan to continue studying faculty in my research, as much of the literature in the field of higher education is focused on students and administration and does not center these essential members of the academy. I don’t yet know where my academic career will take me, but I hope to land in a position with diverse colleagues at an institution that values our commitment to uplifting others.

Daniel Blake is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a research associate with the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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