“Unbelievably slow” progress in hiring diverse faculty


Courtesy of Flickr

Mandy Fales-Williams hopes Iowa State will become more diverse over the next 10 years.

Payne Blazevich

Steffen Schmidt, a former professor of political science at Iowa State, spent 50 years working to increase diversity among faculty within the department, but realized the various challenges in attracting potential hires early on.

Schmidt was born and raised in Colombia. He was hired by Iowa State in 1970 for a Latin American politics position and was told he was one of the first Latino professors at the university. As the political science department grew, Schmidt actively worked to recruit a diverse pool of candidates but found it more difficult than he anticipated.

“One of the great obstacles to success was the realization that the number of Blacks, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics with degrees required for a research one level university, normally a [doctorate], was small,” Schmidt said.

According to Schmidt, a lack of qualified diverse candidates has made it difficult to form a “deep bench” of potential hires. Attractive candidates may also choose to accept other jobs for a variety of reasons, further limiting the pool of candidates for Iowa State, Schmidt said.

Oftentimes, qualified diverse candidates were attracted to other jobs that Iowa State couldn’t compete with due to financial compensation as well as the fact that the job was in a more attractive area of the country or that the workplace was naturally more diverse based on the local population, said Schmidt.

Because the pool of qualified candidates is so small, losing a potential candidate to another job makes it even more difficult to bring in diverse faculty members, Schmidt said. In regards to recruiting diverse faculty, there are a variety of other reasons why there is a limited number of qualified candidates.

A Not-So-Diverse Pool of Candidates

One of the main contributors to the lack of a diverse pool of candidates is the level of socioeconomic and racial inequality in U.S. public schools, according to Amy Erica Smith, an associate professor in the political science department. Because public schools are not equally funded, resources differ from school to school, Smith said.

“Kids from different backgrounds end up going to different kinds of schools, and they end up with very different levels of resources coming out of their K-12 experience,” Smith said.

While undergraduate programs at Iowa State work to recruit students of diverse backgrounds, they can’t fix the larger societal issue, according to Smith. With a limited number of students with diverse identities working in doctorate programs, a resulting feeling of isolation can make it more difficult to finish.

According to Mandy Fales-Williams, chair of the department of veterinary pathology, the taxing nature of pursuing a doctorate can be incredibly difficult to manage. She faced financial stresses and moments of self-doubt and turned to people she trusted for encouragement and advice. Without a strong support group, finishing her education would have been even more difficult, she said.

A support group could consist of encouraging faculty members or friends from classes, Fales-Williams said. However, with the small amount of diverse faculty and graduate students, there are less opportunities to make those connections.

“A lot of humans, when we feel isolated and we don’t feel welcome, then we don’t persist in that environment,” Fales-Williams said.

According to a study from college factual, 89.2 percent of Iowa State faculty identify as white, compared to 80.4 percent adults that identified as white according to an Ames census from the U.S. Census Bureau. Similarly, 11.74 percent of graduate students and 10.13 percent of professional students identified as multicultural, according to the Spring 2022 Multicultural Reports for Iowa State.

Although Ames is a predominantly white area, the Iowa State faculty has an even greater percentage of white people. Furthermore, a little over 1 in 10 graduate or professional students are of a multicultural identity. Facing these statistics, students with diverse identities have to meet the rigors of a graduate or professional program with a significantly smaller number of people that look like them, compared to a white student, according to Fales-Williams.

A general feeling of isolation can make it more difficult to attract and retain diverse faculty, said Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department. Because Iowa State is starting with a deficit of diverse educators, it has been a challenge to recruit diverse faculty to an area where they know they will be in the minority, according to Shelley.

Feelings of isolation can sometimes be reinforced by unanticipated cultural norms, Shelley explained. He said that the political science department was unable to retain a diverse faculty member, in part due to the lack of a good barber shop in Ames. Although he said this was not a deal-breaker, it was another reminder about the vast cultural difference faced by faculty members with diverse identities.

In another instance, a candidate was qualified and interested, but elected to remain in Atlanta because the construction market offered more lucrative opportunities for her husband’s job, Shelley said.

Another deterrent to hiring diverse faculty is a lack of hiring from Iowa State departments. According to Shelley, there is an unofficial hiring freeze due to budget constraints. Without active hiring, there isn’t an opportunity to bring in diverse faculty members.

While the factors limiting the pool of diverse candidates are widespread, the Iowa State administration and department heads have worked to step up their inclusivity and recruiting methods.

Strategies Moving Forward

Departments across Iowa State have recognized the lack of diverse faculty members and have worked to implement various strategies to combat the discrepancy, as well as promote diversity, equity and inclusion across campus, according to the Division of Academic Affairs 2020-21 Diversity and Inclusion report.

The report includes the steps that each college has taken to improve the level of attention on diversity and inclusion topics. While a portion of the actions taken involve diversifying the curriculum and increasing diversity training for faculty members, there has also been action to help recruit and develop potential diverse faculty members.

Iowa State’s Graduate College hosted summer welcome sessions for new enrollees of underrepresented communities, according to the report. The intent was to create a more inclusive environment as well as create connections for students that are less represented by the faculty and student body.

“The goal is to assist in the new students’ transition to life as a graduate student at Iowa State University and to the Ames community,” according to the report. “Topics discussed to date include building a supportive community and fully understanding the benefits of graduate assistantships and the expectations associated with them.”

Another effort to promote a more inclusive environment on campus was the establishment of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee in the political science department. Smith, who established the committee, said that intent was to better understand and represent student and faculty perceptions.

“It’s super important work. I’m really committed to it and value it. I think it’s essential for the department of political science to be able to provide education about [DEI] to all of our students, not just ones with minoritized identities,” Smith said.

Departments across Iowa State are taking steps to establish their own DEI committees. According to the report, all departments in the college of agriculture and life sciences have active DEI committees.

One factor that may result in the most amount of growth in diverse faculty is time for potential recruits to develop, according to Fales-Williams. Right now, the department of veterinary pathology is targeting recruits that graduated in the early 2010s, said Fales-Williams. She believes that with more time, the processes to help diversify the graduate student population will lead to an increase in faculty diversity.

“I would say that I’m very hopeful that in 10 years, we’re going to see bigger change,” Fales-Williams said. While there are only two faculty of color in her department, five out of her 10 graduate students are of diverse identities, noted Fales-Williams.

“Change is happening, but it’s unbelievably slow,” Fales-Williams said.