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Equity-mindedness in Academic Hiring Practices

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
September 7, 2018

When diversity initiatives are viewed as only benefitting targeted groups, a stigma is formed around those who benefit while simultaneously breeding resentment in those who are unsure of the true impact of diversity. This sentiment is at the core of a growing counternarrative, which purports for every opportunity created to increase diversity, an opportunity is taken away from a white person—oftentimes, a white male. From this perspective, white males are the ones who are being forced out of the workplace to make room for other groups.

One recent example of this narrative was argued by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. While Cohen acknowledges diversity is an “overdue goal” and “the treatment of women in the workplace has been dismal,” he unwittingly reduces diversity initiatives to a quota system. According to Cohen, “The past does not obliterate the solemn obligation to treat people as individuals, not primarily as members of a sex or race. Fairness demands it. Democracy requires it.” These statements get to the heart of the counternarrative pushing back against diversity initiatives by arguing for fairness and using democracy to refute the premise of diversity initiatives. This thinking belies the flawed contention of a level playing field. In fact, the outright rejection of historic and ongoing institutional insults inflicted upon non-Whites and other groups obfuscates the moral imperative of diversity initiatives in hiring practices. Arguing that these are issues of the past attempts to nullify the ongoing reality for job seekers expecting equality of opportunity in the midst of institutional racism, bias and the perpetual burden of historic injustices.

Cohen scoffs at the idea that being a white male has historically been an unalloyed privilege. Accordingly, Cohen contends a hiring official claimed a woman was chosen over him because, “the company needed a statistic.” If the words of the manager are true, two important lessons can be gleaned. First, kudos to the company for seeking to increase diversity; they are welcoming diversity and all of the added benefits. Second, senior and hiring managers are responsible for clearly communicating diversity goals and aims, when and if necessary. The failure of managers to effectively communicate diversity aims can contribute to a culture of resentment, potentially ostracizing new hires and breeding discontent among those who believe they have been systematically wronged.

On the other hand, if an organization (or panel) rejects the assertion diversity is necessary, due consideration should be given to examining for evidence of institutional racism (not a given). Institutional racism is “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Dr. Camara Jones contends institutional racism is normative and manifests in material conditions and access to power. Racism is a system of structuring opportunities and assigning value based on race, which is a social construct. As a result, some individuals are unfairly advantaged while others are unfairly disadvantaged. The real issue of institutional racism is that it takes a way the ability of the entire society to function at an optimal level. In this regard, addressing institutional racism is an important aspect of equity-mindedness.

One of the most important areas where equity-mindedness is needed is in academic hiring practices. Academic institutions should see themselves as agents of change with broad appeal and influence. In this purview, being equity-minded in academic hiring practices is a moral imperative. But, academic institutions have been slow in increasing diversity in faculty and senior administration ranks. One of the biggest challenges is overcoming microinvalidations, which are actions that exclude, negate or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings anymore exponential reality of people who represent different groups. One common microinvalidation experienced in hiring practices is when search committees argue they unable to find a diverse pool of qualified candidates. The basic supposition in this argument is that diverse candidates do not meet requirements. Convening diverse pools of qualified candidates requires leveraging partnerships and networks beyond human resources and involve all levels of the institution. The ability of an institution to develop pipelines and programs that will (in the long-term) generate the type of diversity the institution would like to realize requires innovative thinking and long-range strategic planning.

I will present these and other equity-minded hiring practices at the 2018 NASPAA Conference in Atlanta, GA.


Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Human Services and Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research focuses on social equity, cultural competence, and racial and ethnic health disparities.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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