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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Columns

Why diverse student bodies are not enough


Katie Santana/The Cougar

Three years ago, the University of Houston won a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to recruit more women and women of color into science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Within a year of receiving the grant, Erika Henderson was hired to work with the provost’s office and enhance the level of diversity in UH’s faculty.

Though diverse student bodies have been the focus of substantial public policy reform and media attention, diverse faculties are equally important contributors to social progress. This is what Henderson and the University hope to address moving forward.

Higher education, meanwhile, has an invisible diversity problem.

Cutting down biases

Henderson believes that the UH model for diverse faculty members is ahead of most institutions that understand the benefit of diversity and actually implement necessary changes in their recruiting processes.

In the short time she has been here, Henderson’s office has already improved diversity levels among UH faculty. Part of her PowerHouse Recruiting Tool Kit strives to encourage a diverse array of professors to apply to the University and eliminate potential bias from the recruiting process.

Part of eliminating that bias lies in screening for the qualifiers for the open positions, and then providing a diverse pool of candidates who meet those qualifiers, which ensures that minority candidates are not passed over in the hiring process.

In an interview, Henderson acknowledged the social benefits of having professors from a variety of backgrounds and the strength of diversity within a model of institutional productivity.

While many universities, including UH, have offices dedicated to diversity and inclusion, Henderson’s position as assistant provost for Faculty Recruitment, Retention, Equity and Diversity work is located directly within the Provost’s office, where University policy is made.

“I think that speaks to the deep commitment that UH has made to providing diversity to an already diverse body of students,” Henderson said. “I think that the University of Houston is providing a model for the future.”

White male majority

It is important that students are exposed to a variety of professors from different backgrounds.

The dynamics of authority in a relationship are unique in the social context of the U.S. Our social dynamics, which often deal with complicated issues of race, gender and status, are challenged when we must face one another in situations where the traditional structures of authority and privilege are exchanged.

These exchanges with authority are good because they teach students that their impact and access to opportunity will be granted to them through ability — not privilege.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, the University boasts 2,617 faculty members.

More than 60 percent of UH’s faculty are not professors, but of the 438 members (16.7 percent) who are professors, 71 percent are white, and squarely 82 percent are male. Whether they are full-fledged, associate, assistant, lecturer, adjunct or visiting professors, no less than 47 percent at a time are white, and more than half of them are male.

Compared to the 311 white professors accounted for this year, UH has hired just 86 Asian-Americans, 22 Hispanics, 14 African-Americans, two international and three unknown full-time professors.

Diverse professors build within students a mentality of success based on merit, wherein opportunities for success are more equally dispersed. These opportunities and experiences with professors from a variety of backgrounds give students a firmer grasp on their education.

When faculties are not diverse, students are vulnerable to thinking that intellectual authority is 50 percent more powerful when it comes from a white source, which reinforces narrow thinking that has proven itself to be so psychologically violent.

Without diversity in academia, students and professors alike might be vulnerable to the perception that knowledge remains in the hands of an exclusive sector of our progressive society.

Connection with students

Diverse faculties offer minority students the opportunity to see themselves represented in the prestigious field of academia, increasing their likelihood of success.

When minority students are taught by professors who uniquely understand their background and the psychological and practical obstacles that they face, those students are better positioned to overcome those obstacles.

Cultural anxiety might prevent another professor from reaching out to guide students, which unfortunately leaves glaring disparities in the quality of education and the opportunities that some students receive.

The University has demonstrated its commitment to student diversity.

It should continue to seek out excellent professors who would be considered minorities in their field so our students can enjoy an especially meaningful education from professors who offer a breadth of experience.

Assistant opinion editor Mia Valdez is a creative writing senior. She can be reached at [email protected].

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