Why we fail at hiring Black faculty in biology departments

Today was a day of reflection. How have we gotten to this sorry point in the history of the US? What have I personally contributed to the problem? What have I personally contributed to the solution? How can we do better?

Know that we all breathe the same air, that problems that impact the Black community first, hit the rest of us. Know that much of our problems of social justice, of fairness, of understanding what our rights are, fail because of the legacy of slavery, and the despicable prejudice against Black people that still permeates our society.

What can I do about it? First, understand my own power. Second, understand what has happened. There is no answer short of radically changing how we do things.

I learn from reading. I may never understand what it is to be Black in America, but I can read and empathize. I put  African-American interests on my Book Bub readings, so I can get books suggested daily. Three books I have read recently that moved me are Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, my friend, Rafia Zafar’s Recipes for Respect, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Each powerful in its own way, they help me understand the experiences of others. Read these books and keep reading as I will. Understanding comes slowly. There are hundreds of books worth reading.

I fear we will read these and other books. We will march, as I did last week, mask cinched tight. We will put Black Lives Matter signs in our yards. We will be among the righteous.

And then we will go to our faculty meetings. We will evaluate job candidates and imagine we are being fair. After all, don’t the same standards apply to every one? Can we not count publications and grants and evenly choose the person with the most shiny beads in the currency we have chosen to count? Does not everyone have an equal chance at assembling their little pile of shiny beads? Would it be fair to look at anything except those beads?

I have now been a tenured or tenure track professor for 40 years at two institutions. I have sat through many hiring decisions. I know all about those shiny beads. I myself have lots of them, and the accolades that come with it. So I think I can speak with some authority on baubles like these beads. The first thing to know is that they are easy to count. The second thing to know is that they mean little.

We are not very good at predicting who will be an excellent professor (whatever that means) ten years from now. Actually, we are terrible at it. The remarkable Richard Tapia once ran an all-day workshop at which he discussed this. He mentioned that he was not the first choice of the search that hired him. He further mentioned, if I recall correctly, that one of Rice University‘s few Nobel Laureates, Richard Smalley, was not in the top two or three choices of the search that eventually hired him. When I think back over the years of the people we interviewed and the people we hired, I can say that we made some great choices, but we also let some great people go.

But one thing is sure. Counting those beads has not led us to a diverse professoriate. What if we quit doing it entirely and look instead at excellence, look at it directly in the eye? What if instead of beads we consider ideas? What if instead of beads we consider what a person will do for our program and our institution? What if instead of beads we look for promise? To do this we might actually have to read papers. We might actually have to look at the entire person. We might have to accept our inability to measure excellence and consider the importance of diversity. We might have to understand that a White man who has had the benefit of great mentoring and achieved many beads might not actually be better than someone else with fewer beads harder fought for with a lack of mentoring? Might the latter person, properly mentored, actually be the better hire, both for reasons of leadership, but also innovation, creativity, and new perspectives?

As a White woman I cannot contribute to the running Twitter feeds on inappropriate things said to Black professors. But I could give quite a list of inappropriate things said about Black candidates for jobs, or graduate school. Listen to yourselves.

We need to rebuild this thing from the bottom up. We have failed as departments in hiring the best people. We will keep failing as long as we hold onto our belief that we can pick the best candidates. We will keep failing as long as we love our shiny beads. We can do better. When?

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in diversity, Jobs, White male bias. Bookmark the permalink.

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