Case Study: Transforming Hiring

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I was first encouraged to talk with Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University at Buffalo, by Evviva Weinraub Lajoie, UB’s Vice Provost for University Libraries. “She’s looking at different ways of approaching hiring and thinking about how to bring different voices into the hiring process,” she told me.1 Hiring is of course one of the ways that we try to create change on campus, but there hasn’t been much transformation created in the hiring process itself. Hiring is subject to a wide range of campus-level policies that are designed to keep the process fair, but whether the outcomes it produces are indeed fair — or even more, are capable of creating the deep cultural change on campus that we need today — remains an open question. As a result, I was excited about the prospect of hearing a new approach.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Schulze came to her role at UB from the University of Delaware, where she served as associate dean for the humanities, and prior to that from Penn State University, where she was chair of the department of English. One of her key goals as dean was to build a more racially diverse and equitable faculty, one that can better support the university’s increasingly diverse student population. This change was a top-level university priority, she noted in our conversation, both because prospective students were increasingly making their decisions based on the representation that they see on campus, and because UB was at the bottom of the AAU rankings for faculty diversity. But transforming the racial and ethnic makeup of the faculty would require more than the usual attention to good hiring practices; an entirely new approach, and a new mindset, were in order.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Schulze had two key things working in her favor. She had previously worked with Teri Miller, the late senior vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and chief diversity officer for the SUNY system, on a grant designed to establish the Center for Diversity Innovation at UB. As a result, Schulze had a track record of success and the attention of her provost and president. And, crucially, she had what she called “the secret sauce of SUNY,” which is a state of New York policy permitting targeted hiring: “If we’re underrepresented in a particular category of individual I can go out and say ‘there’s a job for you here if you want it,’ rather than ask you to apply for an open search.”2

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 But the thing that Schulze believes made this transformative program work didn’t come from above — not from the state, and not from the upper administration. It succeeded thanks to her recognition that however hierarchical UB might appear from the outside, it is in fact a very bottom-up culture. As a result, as she says, she “rounded up the entire college, and had every department in the college identify individuals that they would want to approach.” The next step drew on a radical form of transparency:

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Rather than just leave it at that we took it [to the college], so that every department shared with every other department all the individuals they wanted to approach. We had a discussion of how they could all work together, what we were going to do to support them, how they would create new intellectual areas or build on things we already good at. Then we had the departments report to each other, and actually rank their candidates. That was done sector by sector inside the college — so the arts and humanities did it, then social sciences did it, then natural sciences and math. And then we came together as an entire college… so that everybody saw every other individual that every department wanted to recruit. We came up with a ranked list out of the entire college. And that to my understanding was the first time that the college had ever come together as an entire college to think about things that could go on across all disciplines, across all departments, and think about what we were going to all build together. On the basis of that, we took a giant report up to my provost that had 125 names on it.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 That report asked for a lot of money, Schulze says, but it was backed by her confidence that the college, working together, could pull off this transformation. And the provost came through with “one of the biggest investments the university had ever made,” allowing the college to go forward with an initial recruitment for 33 new hires.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Schulze managed the recruitment efforts herself, because she wanted to communicate to all of the candidates being recruited that this was a college-level initiative, that “we know we need to change things, and here are all the things we’re going to be doing.” At the time she and I talked, the college had successfully hired 15 new faculty members and was still in active recruitment with another eight. Given the complexities presented by COVID-19 and other personal factors, several candidates immediately said that they couldn’t consider the offer, but Schulze was able to leave the door open, saying “that’s fine for now, but if things ever change for you, give me a call.” That openness led to one additional hire.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Asked what made this initiative most successful, however, Schulze noted the importance of its bottom-up orientation, and the process of getting every member of the college faculty to understand that “if we’re going to participate in this, certain things have to change. They have to change culturally. They have to change policy-wise. They have to radiate up from the bottom, and then we have to have everybody in alignment before we do this.” That approach is particularly necessary in the academy, as Schulze pointed out the number of universities that she’s seen pour money into initiatives conceived and pushed down from above, but to no avail. The success of her approach, however, led the upper administration to ask her to report to the other colleges on how it was done, and at least one has already created a similar bottom-up initiative leading to nine more hires.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 But Schulze notes that the work is not done, and that what’s ahead will require even more transparent communication:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The onus on us is to retain all these individuals. So that’s what we’re working on now. What are our major retention plans we’re going to put together? How are we going to round up the resources to do that?… And that again is not something that I’m making up. It’s something that we’re asking these persons directly. You know, anything that you kind of imagine without actually directly consulting the constituency is probably not going to work.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Focusing on retention at the outset is a crucial shift in perspective in hiring, as is the kinds of open communication with candidates, and with and among departments, that Schulze’s initiative fostered. Developing a college-wide recognition of the depth of cultural change needed in order to transform a campus requires a commitment to such communication, as well as to collective decision-making processes.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 It’s important to note, of course, that a policy like SUNY’s, enabling targeted hiring practices, is not available on many campuses. As a result, it might thus be easy to wave off Schulze’s initiative as impossible, as dependent on that secret sauce to succeed. But it’s worth considering how such a policy might similarly be developed and instantiated from below. How might a council of deans, a provost, a university-level diversity and equity officer, and a president come together to present such a policy change to their board of trustees? How might that board be inspired to commit to such change, and where necessary, to promote it to the state level?

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 This is an instance where something I ordinarily recoil from — the university’s obsession with rankings — might be turned in our favor. As Schulze noted:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The AAU talks all the time about the levels of representation inside the AAU [institutions]. At some point, when the schools that control the AAU are able to say “we have X percent representation,” they will flip a switch inside the AAU and say you have to have that level of representation to be a member. And that will be a game-changing moment. A bunch of schools will just fall right out.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Our institutions are driven by rankings to compete all the time. How might we bring together a collective that insists that we become competitive in ways that really matter?

  1. 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  2. Lajoie, Interview.
  3. This and all quotations that follow in this case study derive from Schulze, Interview.
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