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Why we need better data on faculty diversity (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed


An excellent and diverse faculty is vital to individual colleges and universities and to our communities, states, nation and globe. A diverse faculty brings diverse perspectives, and these diverse perspectives enhance teaching and advising, research and scholarship, clinical practice, and engagement with the community and world.

Yet, at most U.S. colleges and universities, the faculty is less diverse than the students. And the diversity of faculty declines as academic rank increases. In fall 2020, women represented 58 percent of undergraduates at degree-granting institutions nationwide, but 53 percent of assistant professors, 47 percent of associate professors and 35 percent of full professors. Black academics represented 13 percent of undergraduates but 7 percent of full-time assistant professors, 6 percent of associate professors and 4 percent of full professors. Hispanics represented 21 percent of undergraduates but 5 percent of assistant professors, 5 percent of associate professors and 4 percent of full professors.

To improve faculty diversity, college and university leaders need data. Qualitative data are useful for probing the experiences of faculty with different identities in particular contexts. Quantitative data are also essential, especially for documenting patterns of inequity and raising questions about how bias and other forces lead to observed differences.

What Data Do We Need?

To improve faculty diversity, we need data that address three questions: What is the diversity of faculty? Is there equity in measures of faculty success? And what are the experiences and working conditions of diverse faculty?

At the foundation of any effort to improve faculty diversity must be data that document the social identities and background characteristics of faculty. Without these data, we do not know if we are making progress in diversifying the faculty and where greater progress is needed. Measures of faculty diversity should include variables that have been collected in national faculty surveys, such as age, race/ethnicity, disability status, marital status, number of dependent children and whether they were born in the United States. We also need data to describe aspects of diversity that are still less commonly measured, including sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation and political affiliation.

Identifying response options for survey questions about sexual orientation and gender identity is not without challenge. Respondents may not identify with proffered categories or resist using labels; self-reported sexual orientation and gender identity may be fluid; and preferred terms may vary by age, place and other characteristics. Terminology has also changed over time and will likely continue to evolve into the future. Yet without data on sexual orientation and gender identity, researchers and leaders are unable to consider the inequities that LGBTQ+ faculty experience and the institutional supports they need.

Collecting data on other background characteristics can further inform understanding of advantages that accrue to some groups. Available data suggest that the nation’s faculty are less diverse than relevant comparison groups in terms of socioeconomic status. Drawing on data collected from a survey of tenure-track faculty in eight disciplines (anthropology, biology, business, computer science, history, physics/astronomy, psychology and sociology) and other sources, one study concluded that faculty members are 12 to 25 times more likely than members of the general population to have at least one parent with a Ph.D.

Data describing the institutions from which faculty members receive doctoral degrees can also inform understanding of (the lack of) diversity of perspectives and the potential advantages and disadvantages that different faculty members have. A study of employment records of nearly 300,000 tenured and tenure-track faculty members employed between 2011 and 2020 at 368 Ph.D.-granting universities found that 80 percent of those with doctorates from U.S. institutions received those degrees from only 20 percent of U.S. universities. About 14 percent of domestically trained tenure-line faculty members in the analyses received their doctorates from one of five universities: from Harvard or Stanford Universities, or from the Universities of California, Berkeley; Michigan; or Wisconsin at Madison.

These data have implications for the viewpoints that are and are not represented among faculty, as well as the extent to which all faculty have needed supports. Faculty whose parents have Ph.D.s—and faculty educated at the most common feeder institutions—may have more information about what is required to gain access to tenure-line positions and receive tenure, as well as networks that provide access to other resources and assistance with navigating adversity.

A second critical question is whether faculty members of different social identities and background characteristics are equally likely to achieve success. In order to enable all faculty to thrive, we need data that tell us whether faculty members of different groups vary systematically in the types of positions that they hold (e.g., tenured/contingent; full-time/part-time), or in academic rank, tenure, productivity and salary.

The many recent articles related to faculty burnout illustrate the need to also include other aspects of faculty life as measures of success, including mental health and well-being. Work-related stress and anxiety may be especially high for faculty members from marginalized groups and, left unaddressed, may lead them to leave their faculty positions.

A third category of questions pertains to the experiences and working conditions that contribute to inequity among faculty. Women faculty members and faculty members of color spend more time than white male faculty members advising students and serving on committees, activities that take away from time on research and are typically given less weight in salary, tenure and promotion decisions. We need data to document how time demands vary across groups and consider how to better align time allocations with what is rewarded in tenure, promotion and salary determinations.

Also essential are perceptions of the culture and climate for different groups of faculty in different institutions, departments and academic disciplines. Indicators may include whether all faculty members perceive that they belong and are treated fairly; that diverse perspectives are valued in faculty hiring, tenure and promotion, as well as in the curriculum; and that diverse faculty members have access to opportunities for career advancement and leadership development. In this highly polarized political environment, we should also consider whether faculty members perceive that their institution values diverse perspectives and protects faculty members who may be attacked for their views.

Data describing how different faculty members perceive the availability and utility of institutional supports should also be collected. Institutional supports of interest include: resources for caregiving, mental health and wellness; extensions of the tenure clock; dual-career hiring; and attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in hiring, tenure and promotion processes.

What Data Do We Have?

Despite the clear need to improve faculty diversity, we lack a source of recent, nationally representative, individual-level data to address these questions. National data are needed as, at many institutions, the numbers of faculty in a given group are small, especially when multiple and intersecting identities are considered. Small cell sizes limit the ability of an institution to draw conclusions about faculty in a group, and information about these groups may not be reported given the importance of protecting individual identities. Nationally representative data can address these issues and provide benchmarks that university administrators can use to understand how faculty work and life at their institution may compare in relation to peer institutions.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, provides national institution-level data on some faculty characteristics (e.g., distribution of faculty of different racial/ethnic groups by academic rank). While useful for monitoring institutional trends over time, data that are aggregated at the institution level cannot tell us how the characteristics, experiences and working conditions of different groups of faculty vary within institutions or across academic disciplines.

The National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF), also sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, provided nationally representative, individual-level data about the employment status, workload, productivity, working conditions, satisfaction and demographic characteristics of faculty members at two- and four-year, public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities in the United States. The survey was last administered in fall 2003, with earlier administrations in 1987, 1992 and 1998. Data from the NSOPF were used to generate many useful insights about the diversity of the nation’s faculty and how faculty work and life vary across groups. But these data now describe faculty members working at colleges and universities nearly 20 years ago.

What Do We Do?

In spring 2022, the National Science Foundation awarded $1.5 million to the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California “to develop and pilot a national survey that will provide a contemporary understanding of postsecondary faculty in the United States.” This effort may signal increased interest by the federal government in ensuring that college and university leaders have the data they need to improve faculty diversity, equity and inclusion.

In the meantime, colleges and universities, scholarly associations, scholars, and others need to proactively advocate for and work to advance the collection and use of needed data. These data should document the progress—and lack thereof—in creating a more diverse faculty. They should show how characteristics, experiences and measures of success vary among faculty and how this variation differs based on characteristics of institutions, departments and academic disciplines in which faculty members work, as well as across academic ranks, appointment types and other characteristics of employment. These data should be examined critically, with the goal of identifying how racism, sexism and other biases contribute to observed differences and how institutions can act to ensure that all faculty members have the supports and resources they need to thrive. With a foundation in this kind of comprehensive data, we can all continue to advance toward our shared goals of greater diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in our faculties of the future.



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Why we need better data on faculty diversity (opinion) |
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