How the University of Houston is diversifying its faculty—on a budget

The University of Houston has made swift, significant strides in recruiting and retaining underrepresented faculty members—and did so “on a shoestring budget.” Those gains—including a 42 percent increase in tenure- and tenure-track faculty of color between 2014 and 2019—suggest a potential model for institutions urgently looking to diversify and retain their faculty despite pandemic-constrained budgets, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Texas institution launched its efforts after receiving a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to recruit and retain women and women of color. Viewing the grant as a “stimulus” for its faculty diversity activities, Houston used it to discover best practices, Erika J. Henderson, Houston’s associate provost for faculty recruitment, retention, equity, and diversity, explained to The Chronicle. According to Henderson, the “real value” of the grant was allowing administrators to plan for “institution-level investments” of $100,000 or less that would remain in place. 

Improving recruitment and hiring practices

Early in the process, Houston created a 42-page tool kit for its search committees and established mandatory training sessions to help remove biases from evaluations and to encourage university stakeholders to intentionally recruit candidates, instead of waiting for them to appear. Those initial efforts, faculty say, sparked valuable departmental discussions about diversity goals.  

In the last five years, Houston has seen a 41 percent increase in overall applications, including a 70 percent increase in applications from Black candidates and a 52 percent increase in applications from Latinx candidates. 

“If you want to recruit a more diverse faculty and retain a more diverse faculty, you have to find those people. You can’t just wait until you stumble upon them,” Amy Sater, chair of Houston’s biology and biochemistry department, told The Chronicle. “You have to invite people to apply, and you have to make sure that people have the resources that they need to establish their research careers here.”

Establishing networks of support

Supporting underrepresented faculty—and ensuring they aren’t asked to assume undue service burdens—is crucial, Houston administrators say. The university provides all faculty members with career-planning and networking services, as well as access to on-demand resources from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, a $20,000-a-year expense. 

The institution also has established an Academic Women in Leadership initiative and an Underrepresented Women of Color Coalition, which includes 68 members and is funded by the provost’s office. The coalition convenes members at least monthly, offers small seed grants, encourages collaboration, and provides role models. “You see all these people, some of them who look like you, and they’re succeeding,” says Renita Horton, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “You hear the stories and the different paths that they took.”      

Houston is a positive example of how universities can do more with less, The Chronicle notes. Some institutions have been able to designate hundreds of millions of dollars for diversity efforts, but “if it were just about money, the richest institutions in American higher education would have solved this problem,” says Christianne C. Hardy, a special assistant to the president at Dartmouth College.

“If you view these plans as solely a financial investment and don’t see that underneath, it is really a lot of human activity that cuts across the institution, you’re not really understanding it very well,” Lubna Mian, associate vice provost for faculty at the University of Pennsylvania—which is investing more than $140 million in faculty excellence and diversity—told The Chronicle.

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