Faculty members discuss diversity
As a Jesuit university, Loyola welcomes the free exchange of ideas between everyone on campus. It’s at the heart of who we are.
This is the first in an occasional series of discussions about diversity at Loyola. Check back in the fall for a round-table talk with students.
In that spirit, we brought in eight faculty members to talk about faculty diversity and inclusion—and why it’s so important at a university.
The format was simple: We gathered around a table, turned on a recorder, and talked. It didn’t take long for people to show how passionate they are about trying to improve diversity at Loyola.
For this discussion, we gathered the following eight faculty members:
- Rodney Dale, PhD, Department of Biology (at Loyola since 2012)
- Aaron Greer, MFA, School of Communication (2008)
- Geraldine Rosa Henderson, PhD, Quinlan School of Business (2014)
- Harveen Mann, PhD, Department of English (1990)
- Juan F. Perea, JD, School of Law (2011)
- Erika Piedras-Renteria, PhD, Stritch School of Medicine (2001)
- Elizabeth Vera, PhD, School of Education (1993)
- Neil Williams, JD, School of Law (1989)
Even before the first question was asked, several participants started talking about diversity and the value of having an open discussion about the issue.
Some wondered, however, if having a conversation with only diverse faculty members would just be “preaching to the choir,” as one put it. Others, meanwhile, were skeptical that their voices and suggestions would be heard by upper administration.
Below is an edited version of their conversation. (Note: For the sake of time, not all participants had a chance to answer every question.)
Neil Williams: This is a special moment in time—in particular, for the University itself. We’re in a leadership transition, but I would hope that as a result of what we say here that we will get the ear of the next president and the provost, and we will be included in a broader discussion with them.
Rodney Dale: I was not sure about coming to this while still in the tenure process, but I agree with Neil. If there’s an opportunity (to improve things) I’m going to take it and hope for the best.
There’s been a lot of talk recently on college campuses about “diversity” and “inclusion.” Those words can certainly mean different things to different people. How would you define “diversity” and “inclusion”?
Elizabeth Vera: I think that there’s sort of the large view of diversity, which I think is inclusive of all underrepresented groups. In the case of Loyola, we have some very serious problems around race, particularly around the recruitment and retention of African-American students. So there’s that context that defines diversity for me, and then there’s sort of a larger vision of diversity that I have—which is gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, religion. Under that umbrella, there’s a lot of diversity here. But when you kind of pull back and say, “When we’re talking about Loyola, where are the pockets of inequity?” I think we can be much more specific about that.
Harveen Mann: What I’ve found in my conversations with people is that the idea of diversity gets “hijacked.” When you talk about racial and ethnic diversity, people deflect, and they talk about other kinds of diversity. Immediately they say, “Let’s talk about this (other) group, or the third group, or the fourth group.” And race and ethnicity, again, take a back seat. Yes, diversity of all sorts is very important. But at this point the University needs to focus its attention on racial and ethnic diversity first.
And why is it important for a university’s faculty to be diverse?
Erika Piedras-Renteria: You need diverse voices. Being a Hispanic here, it’s always been shocking to me that I never had a Hispanic professor—ever. You feel isolated. And I know that students seek someone they can relate to or connect with. I’ve been very lucky to attract undergraduate students who seek out my laboratory for more than the science; they come for the environment that I create. It’s about the culture, it’s about who you are. That’s what you need.
Mann: But it’s also very important—and I’m going to use old-fashioned terms here—for the white kids to be taught by a Hispanic faculty member or other minority. I’m an Indian woman who teaches in the English department, so I am very much a foreigner in that sense. But what I admire about the students—and what is reflective of their open-mindedness—is that not one of them, in the thousands I have taught, has ever written in their evaluations, “How dare an Indian woman teach me English.” And that’s what I hope they continue to learn and value: that you don’t need a white professor to teach you English or any other subject.
Aaron Greer: I think people also bring very different experiences to the classroom. I see it all the time. It’s not that my white colleagues don’t do this, but it’s probably not their first instinct. They’ll show a Spike Lee film, but they’ll do it as part of “Diversity Day” or something. But that might be my default. The students often won’t seek these different things out on their own, so sometimes you have to bring the horse to the water, so to speak.
Perea: The most important meaning of race, I think, is lived experience. And because of vastly different lived experiences due to color and other aspects of race, persons of color often have different knowledge of the world and a different sense of what’s important. I think faculty diversity matters because of that different knowledge and awareness. It also matters with regard to the production of knowledge that grows out of that different awareness. There doesn't appear to be any good reason for this institution to continue to be unrepresentative in its faculty and in its students. It’s purely a matter of fairness and commitment to getting it done.
In 2010, only 13 percent of all PhDs awarded to U.S. residents went to black or Hispanic graduates. In some fields that can create a huge supply and demand problem when it comes to hiring minority professors. What can be done now to help turn the tide?
Geraldine Rosa Henderson: It’s not a pipeline problem in my field. We have tons of people who have degrees from excellent places with excellent credentials who do not get considered because of the way the search process is conducted. When you say you want to bring someone in to work in a particular field, you start the search and say, “Oh, we want somebody whose work is in a very narrow subfield in a particular discipline.” That already compromises the search because it’s now narrowed down just to people who are in that very specific subfield. So instead of looking at the field as a whole, instead of looking at the “best athlete,” as we used to say, we’re now looking for someone who does this very narrow thing. It’s a flawed process with a flawed outcome.
Piedras-Renteria: We do have a pipeline problem in the STEM sciences, and we can’t address it just by throwing money at it. We must start from the very beginning, and we have to bring high school students to the lab. In my case, I work with students from Cristo Rey High School, and I keep them for three or four years. That’s the population we need to get, not someone who is already a PhD and who is going to get a fellowship. We need to tap into people who don’t even think of a certain area—whether it’s business or science or any other discipline—as a possible career. I think that’s where we are lacking.
Dale: I love Gerri’s comment about the “best athlete” out there. If you’re the best athlete, and you happen to be a person of color or any underrepresented group, you have offers before we even are ready to do a phone interview. Some schools have gotten really good about timing this. As soon as August 1 comes around, they have their ad out, everything is ready to go, and they will extend a job offer before other schools have even started their search. So we need to do a better job with timing our searches.
Vera: My rule when I was in the job market was, “I’m not going to be the only one.” So I would not apply to departments where there were no other people of color. I was very lucky that in my program we had an extremely diverse faculty. But I think in other departments, where there isn’t that diversity, I wouldn’t want to be the only one. And we also have some departments that have horrible track records of not tenuring faculty of color. So if you’ve seen a department chew up and spit out all of its minority faculty for the past 10 years, why would you want to be the next one?
Mann: I want to go back to the “best athlete” idea and that people are wooing these candidates. You have to be willing to spend extra resources if you really want these candidates. But I have found the administration balking when it comes down to making such decisions. A colleague of ours said that at Oakton Community College—and it sounds Draconian, yes, but maybe it’s what Loyola needs to do—they said, “Either you hire a minority faculty member or there will be no hires at all.”
But just earning a PhD doesn’t solve the diversity issue. Talk a little bit about the unique challenges that minority professors face after they get hired.
Dale: There’s a lot of extra pressure. We all feel like we’ve been helped by others and now we want to give back. I’ll have students in my office at all hours because I want to help them. But what is that doing for your time for writing papers or doing research? And I don’t think it’s just a minority or underrepresented issue. I think a lot of times it’s a socio-economic issue. I have a colleague who is pushing hard to help minority students, and he’s not a minority. He is just a person who is passionate about helping students reach their goals.
Perea: One challenge can arise if a minority professor studies issues concerning minorities. Sometimes research about race is not taken as seriously as other subjects. I’ve committed myself to studying the legal history of race and the way that law actually reinforces racism. While this has not arisen at Loyola, at other institutions my research has been discounted because I write about race and racism.
Greer: You’re going to be asked to represent minorities—or feel the need to represent minorities—on all sorts of committees or faculty meetings. And there are all kinds of pressures that go with that. It’s a difficult position to put people in. Just in terms of the social pressures and the politics of the department or school, it’s hard.
Henderson: It’s not just the students of color that come for mentoring. I mentor all kinds of students because teaching is my calling. I love it. I love the students. I don’t have children, and I consider my students my children. I really do care for them. But I also know I need to protect my time and myself because at the end of the year, I have to get all of the other aspects of my work done. And it can be very difficult.
Let’s turn our attention to Loyola specifically. You’ve all been here for a while and know the University very well. What would you tell a colleague who was thinking about coming here to work? The positives? The negatives?
Piedras-Renteria: I think Loyola is making a good effort to increase diversity in the faculty ranks, at least in the Maywood campus. There have been several initiatives there to improve recruiting of underrepresented minorities. But there’s a lot of work to be done. So I would recommend Loyola, but we still have issues to address.
Vera: One of the challenges in a place like Loyola is that so many initiatives depend on individual leaders. It’s hard to know what has legs, what’s going to last. Our new president will start in the fall, and I hope she will embrace our current initiatives. She’s our first female president, and I would like to think that bodes well for improving diversity across campus.
Williams: As far as the law school is concerned, I would tell them that in the last 10-11 years, we’ve really enhanced faculty diversity. I think we’re moving toward developing an atmosphere that’s more inclusive and respectful. I would also tell them that you have to realize that no matter where you go, this is a never-ending battle. It’s like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill; you’re never going to get to the top. Nevertheless, you have to keep pushing and not give up.
Greer: The School of Communication, like the law school, I think has been pretty good in terms of increasing faculty and staff diversity over the past five or six years. I’d also say that Loyola takes its social justice mission very seriously. The negative for me is not so much the lack of diversity in terms of faculty and staff—it’s the lack of diversity in terms of students. It hurts my heart. I can go whole semesters and not have a black student in any of my classes. I think seeing that can affect potential faculty members.
Henderson: The fact that we’re a Jesuit university, the fact that we have such a concern about others and social justice, I just assumed that we had diversity here. But when I got here and I found out I’m the only traditionally underrepresented minority in the business school as a faculty member, I was shocked. It’s perplexing to me. It’s a paradox. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
Loyola’s faculty has become more diverse over the past several years, but it’s still overwhelmingly white. So if you were in charge, what are some things you would do to make the University more diverse?
Williams: There was a point that Harveen made earlier that I think is important. The idea of saying to deans, for example, that if you don’t hire a diverse candidate for this slot, it won’t be filled. That would be one thing I would do. The other thing I would do, and this starts with the new president and new provost, is make sure that the schools are headed by deans and administrators who have a genuine commitment to diversity—people who live and breath diversity. I think minority recruitment also should be one of the metrics we use to measure a leader’s performance, not just something worth 2 or 3 percent, but it should be a major component of their performance evaluation.
Perea: I second that. There has to be accountability. And, at least in legal education, I don’t think it’s a supply problem. I think it’s a matter of committing resources and making the effort, and having specific goals and accountability for those goals. So I would make diversity hires and a diverse student body a measurable criterion and evaluate administrators based on their demonstrated, measurable results. You have to create incentives for people to do the right thing.
Dale: I think we need to be very careful about saying there are incentives to hire minorities. Because we need to think about what that could mean for the person who is hired. What will their colleagues say and how will they be seen in their department? We need to hire the best athlete, not just fill a quota. It has to be done in a way that does not leave someone thinking, “Did I get this job because I earned it? Or did I get it to fill a box or help the University achieve a set number?”
Greer: We need to make minority recruitment and hiring a priority. I think it should be one of the foundational legs of our strategic plan. Also, instead of just hiring one person to replace somebody, we should be doing cluster hires so we can change a program or a department or a school. Next, and I don’t know what the cost of this would be, but I would like to see us pivot a little in terms of our admission approach (and recruit more minority students). That’s not specifically addressing faculty, but it has a trickle-down effect. It’s really about creating the right culture and reputation. It’s not just about creating a pretty United Colors of Benetton poster. It’s about what we stand for as an institution.