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Washington U puts new focus on diversity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2010 - When Luis Zayas hears of a professor he thinks would be a good candidate to join him on the Washington University faculty, he begins planning his serenade.

Wipe those images of a strumming guitar and a fair maiden on a balcony out of your mind. This serenade is one of the many efforts the university is making to try to improve a less-than-satisfactory record of diversity on campus.

Based on a recent report on the number of minorities and women on the faculty -- and how much they are paid -- the effort is needed. But Washington University is far from alone in the need to try to make its faculty look more like the population it serves -- a goal many colleges are seeking both out of a spirit of fairness and as a way to attract a more diverse student body.

"The face of America is changing," says Diana I. Cordova who studies campus diversity for the American Council on Education in Washington. "An increasing number of our students are going to be Hispanic and African-American, and it is important that both the faculty and leadership of universities reflect that.

"They serve as the role models for students and serve as their mentors. It is a front-and-center issue, given the changing demographics of our country."

In such a climate, says Edward S. Macias, the provost at Washington University and its point man on diversity, no campus can afford to be complacent, even if recruiting and retaining a broadly based faculty have been a priority up until now.

"A place like Washington University is probably one of the most diverse and equitable places in our community," Macias adds. "Look at our student body. Look at our faculty. Look at the diversity in geographical background, in religion, in ethnicity, in intellectual interest. It's really quite amazing. It's a very warm, welcoming climate.

"But we also hold ourselves to very high standards, so we want to be able to be a model for not only our community, but for other institutions. I think that is really where we are headed. While we may be concerned about some issues, if we step back and look at what we have, it's really quite impressive."

NEW REPORT, FAMILIAR CONCERNS

Since he became provost in January 2009 -- in his second time around in the position, having served from 1988 to 1995 -- Macias has made diversity one of the major initiatives of his office.

"We welcome difference on this campus," he said in a statement shortly after he took on his new role, "in the form of gender, race, ethnicity, geography, socioeconomic status, age, politics, philosophy, disability and sexual orientation."

To make that vision a closer match to reality, Macias sought suggestions from a variety of groups on campus, with four specific goals in mind:

  • Increase the proportion of women and underrepresented minority groups in the faculty at all ranks through hiring, retention and promotion.
  • Increase the number of women and underrepresented faculty in leadership positions.
  • Ensure that the university pays all faculty members equitably.
  • Foster an intellectual and administrative climate where all members of the faculty have opportunities to contribute to the direction of the university.

As the various groups met during the subsequent year, Macias visited the campuses of several universities that Washington U. considers to be its peers, seeking to find out how they are dealing with such issues. His office put together an update on diversity that was issued to the university in April.

It included a pay equity report whose numbers were a sometimes stark reminder that as hard as the university may be working to maintain a diverse faculty and a welcoming atmosphere, the results do not always match the effort.

In every school on the main campus, for example, the analysis showed that women on average are paid less than men. The disparity was greatest in the Olin Business School, where it reached as high as $12,878; in the Brown School of Social Work, it was as high as $8,709, and in the schools of law and fine arts, it topped $6,000.

The salary analysis was not conducted in terms of racial groups. But numbers from the Missouri Department of Higher Education for the university overall show that diversity in faculty positions often lags behind.

For example, the men/women ratio for faculty members at Washington University for the fall of 2009 was 65-35 percent, compared with 53-47 for the United States as a whole, 55-45 for Missouri and 53-47 for Illinois.

In terms of racial diversity, Washington University again trailed in the percentage of African-American faculty, with 3 percent, compared with 6 nationwide and in Illinois and 4 in Missouri. It was the leader by far in Asian faculty members with 14 percent, compared with 6 each for Illinois and the U.S. and 5 for Missouri.

(See tables for more detail on the numbers at individual schools in the St. Louis area.)

Because the report came out toward the end of the academic year, Macias said he hasn't heard much reaction, but he knows the numbers and the conclusions are a topic of conversation on campus.

"People have read it and are concerned," he said. "There has been a lot of talking, both between faculty and by faculty with their deans. One obvious concern is the major conclusion that women are paid less than men."

He explained that similar studies have been done a number of times before, with attention paid to whether the discrepancies were statistically significant. This time, Macias said, that factor did not come into play as much as a general feeling that pay needs to be more equitable.

FIXING THE PROBLEMS

Macias also said the university would try to tackle the question of diversity in a number of ways, including:

  • Mentoring. He wants to make sure that new faculty members are brought into the Washington U. community in a way that helps them make a smooth transition. That ease of entry is not limited to campus life but also to schooling for the family and other areas. "Mentoring is a key issue we want to do as well as we can," Macias said.
  • Leadership development. New hires need to get to know the institution well and be exposed to areas that will help them learn what they are good at as well as what opportunities are to move into positions of leadership.
  • Ombudspersons. Macias says he hopes to name during the next academic year someone who could be a sounding board for faculty members who have concerns but may not feel comfortable going to their boss. "It's meant to be an informal place, where you can go to someone who is neutral and discuss issues and hopefully find informal ways to solve them," Macias said. "We have many ways to deal with these, but those become very formal."
  • Exit interviews. When someone leaves the university -- and Macias says that doesn't happen all that often -- he wants to find out why. Anecdotally, he says, you can learn a lot from such conversations. "It's not all actionable stuff," he said. "It may be very specific to the person. Someone might leave for a very personal reason, or it might be something institutional that we can learn from. If we do it often enough, we can see some trends."

Mary Ann Dzuback, a faculty member for 23 years who studies the history of higher education, says these kinds of approaches are helpful, particularly at a place like Washington University, where a centralized administration may not be as strong as individual schools and departments.
Macias' focus as provost has helped change things, she added.

"He has done a lot to get himself up to date on these issues," said Dzuback, who is part of the provost's diversity work group. She noted more help from the administration on issues such as family leave policy and child care.

By creating subcommittees on campus, she added, the provost "has done the best he can to put the issue into the grass roots, where the change is really going to happen. He has helped make people think about it."

Such efforts are what Cordova, at the American Council on Education, says are good ways to approach a tough problem.

"I think many schools are doing this," she says, "and it's always nice when we hear of another example of an institution that is moving in this direction.

"We're seeing a higher number of minorities getting graduate degrees. Throughout the pipelines is a cadre of well-trained minority faculty out there. You need to recruit them and make sure they have the support mechanisms to thrive.

"Right now, we really need to focus on increasing both access and the educational attainment levels of our students if we are to reach President (Barack) Obama's goal of having the highest proportion of higher education graduates in the world."

Having a diverse faculty, Cordova added, is the best way to make sure you have a diverse student body as well.

"It's a matter of working with your community," she said. "It's reaching out to high schools and having that link between your college faculty and high schools and making sure that your students are well-prepared. It's providing the support they will need, financial and other kinds of support as well. There is a lot you can do even within your own community."

FACULTY SERENADE

And there are also specially targeted techniques, like the serenade approach of Luis Zayas, a professor of both social work and psychiatry at Washington U.

Zayas, who also is a member of Macias' diversity work group on campus, said the serenade project is a pilot effort funded by the provost's office as an innovative approach to wooing likely candidates to the university. In terms of ingenuity, it puts online sites like Match.com to shame.

"The idea is we would go out there and find -- that's the key word, find -- some of the best young scholars in some underrepresented groups," he said. "They don't know we are necessarily looking for them. We find them, then do as much information gathering on them as we can.

"Then we decide, is this someone we should serenade to consider Washington University as a place they might be able to pursue their future."

If so, then the serenade begins.

"We begin with a cold call, tell them we came across their name, have gotten to know them and we'd like to talk to them. Then we court, woo, cajole, invite, do anything we can to at least have them consider us. If things go as we expect, they'll say I'll talk to you. Then we really pursue it to see if it is a real fit. It can be one thing on paper, but another thing in reality."

Zayas said the pursuits have been going on for 18 months. It's not poaching, he says. Instead, "It's the American way.

"It is really a matter of letting other people know that we are here. It's based on the idea that there are really lots of good people out there who are not on the market and not going to apply, but we've got to beat the bushes to bring them out.

"A lot of people are well liked at their universities and don't have any reason to move. We've got make a compelling case that will dislodge them, if you will. It's ultimately their decision."

Has the serenade worked its magic so far? Has it borne fruit?

"We've got one on the vine," Zayas said. "How's that?"

He explained there is a Hispanic woman who almost wouldn't take his call - she's happy where she is, her husband is happy. He invited her to campus anyway, just to give a talk.

"When she arrived, she said, 'I'm here to give a talk. I'm really not interested.' But she blew us away. By lunch, she was saying, tell me more, and by the end of the day, when I put her into a cab, she was saying, I'm interested.

"She's not going to be coming here any time soon, but clearly the message we got back from her is that she is interested. It's not just that she wowed us. We wowed her. I think that's a tribute to what has come from the provost's office."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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