Faculty Value Diversity, Though Time and Funding Are Barriers
Faculty Value Diversity, Though Time and Funding Are Barriers

Faculty Value Diversity, Though Time and Funding Are Barriers

A study finds professors from underrepresented groups more actively engage in diversity and inclusion activities.

Jun 3, 2019
Chia-Yi Hou

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In a survey of 469 tenure-track faculty members in ecology and evolutionary biology, nearly 92 percent of respondents report that they participate in diversity and inclusion activities, and more than two-thirds of respondents say these activities were “relatively unimportant for tenure decisions.”

Non-white, non-male, and first-generation faculty members are more likely to engage in diversity and inclusion (D&I) activities than professors who are white, male, or come from college-educated families. Non-white professors are especially more active in recruiting minority faculty, serving on diversity committees, and engaging in outreach to diverse K-12 classrooms. In addition, tenured professors engaged in these activities at higher rates compared to non-tenured professors.

The team that conducted the survey, published today (June 3) in Nature Ecology & Evolution, was “unsurprised that underrepresented groups participated more,” says coauthor Theresa Laverty, a postdoc at Colorado State University, but this is the first time it has been quantified. 

Laverty and Miguel Jimenez say they were inspired to do the study after their lab discussed a paper published in 2017 in Science on why diversity and inclusion is important in science. So they sent an online survey by email to 2,361 faculty members at ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral programs, excluding Colorado State University.

Of the respondents, more than 87 percent identified as white or Caucasian, about 52 percent as male, and 22 percent as first-generation college graduates. Half of them were full professors, with associate and assistant professors making up about 27 and 23 percent, respectively.

Respondents said that the biggest barriers to engaging in D&I activities are time and funding, with half of respondents stating that insufficient time is a major limitation and another nearly 30 percent saying that it is a moderate limitation. Factors that are less important are knowledge of best practices, not being part of the job description, or not being valued by the institution. Time and funding being barriers may explain why “faculty that were already tenured tended to engage in these activities more than early career faculty,” says Jimenez.

Although faculty may value D&I activities and believe their institutions also value them, time spent on these tasks may not be recognized by the institution. “It’s a double edged sword,” says physicist and astronomer Ramón Barthelemy of the University of Utah whose work focuses on diversity and inclusion in academia and who was not involved in the report. Faculty members from underrepresented groups may be motivated to give back and think about ways of improving the situation, but this results in greater “service loads” than their peers, which may take time away from tasks that are recognized by tenure evaluations, says Barthelemy. 

Half of respondents felt that they valued D&I more than their peers. But the fact that the majority of respondents cares about and engages in D&I activities is encouraging, says Jimenez.

Non-white and non-male professors may participate in these activities more because it is part of their “personal goals and mission,” says Mareshia Donald, who is the Program Manager at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research and has experience with D&I program design and management in industry and academia. Donald, who was not involved in the study, is also unsurprised by the results but says it’s possible that future studies could be helpful if it can offer finer detailed data, for example, to understand how D&I responsibilities stack up and how the work is distributed.

Engagement in D&I activities is difficult to include in evaluations, more difficult than counting how many papers a faculty member publishes, Jimenez tells The Scientist. “We think it is something that can be done and worthy of finding a way to do that,” says Jimenez. It’s important that institutions make it explicit that they do care about D&I activities, and it should be clear to the faculty and important for tenure, says Jimenez. 

Some granting agencies are starting to require diversity and inclusion clauses, such as to ensure anti-discriminatory practices or requiring D&I training for staff, says Donald, so that may be one way to get D&I into the bottom line. Ideally, D&I wouldn’t be siloed, but woven into each aspect of what institutions and professors do, Donald tells The Scientist.

“We’re seeing the shift in values where people recognize having a more diverse community is better for science in many different ways,” says Laverty.