Can cluster hires move the needle to advance faculty diversity?


Importance of Faculty Diversity and Rationale for a Different Approach

The inherent relationship between the diversity of participants and excellence in outcome is apparent in all human endeavors. However, despite efforts by many institutions to increase the participation of underrepresented students and postdocs in scientific research and academia, faculty diversity, particularly in senior positions, has been woefully inadequate. This is a problem because as intellectual leaders, faculty have an especially important role to play in respecting and valuing different perspectives and creating an inclusive environment.

To meaningfully change the status quo, faculty and academic leadership must have a shared understanding of the challenges faced by underrepresented individuals and a strong commitment to removing historical or systematic barriers to full participation. Faculty diversity is essential, since, in addition to contributing to a more excellent and inclusive environment, those with personal experience as an underrepresented minority are particularly effective in mentoring students with similar life experiences or backgrounds.

While many of us embrace equity and inclusion, building a diverse faculty requires intervention to remove barriers that continue to affect historically excluded populations. Such intervention will bolster faculty efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the classroom and lab. This column describes an emerging strategy, the “cluster hire,” as a mechanism to make an immediate impact on faculty diversity that was successfully implemented at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2018–2019 through a group effort called The Life Sciences Initiative. 

[B]uilding a diverse faculty requires intervention to remove barriers that continue to affect historically excluded populations.

Key to the initiative was recognition that biology research is increasingly multidisciplined, with frequent joint appointments and collaborations across departments, but without coordination of hiring efforts or communication regarding best search practices. We therefore built a team of 22 faculty and staff from 6 departments and across 3 colleges. We reasoned that working together would enable us to pool our resources and cast a wide net to recruit a cohort of excellent new faculty researchers in the life sciences who also have a strong track record of contributing to DEI.

Our goals were to strengthen the applicant pool, improve the candidate evaluation process, and perhaps most importantly, support these faculty hires and make lasting changes that improve campus culture. Our initiative was funded in part by the Advancing Faculty Diversity Program of the University of California Office of the President, which we leveraged to obtain a one-time allocation of five campus FTE. We were fortunate in this regard, but the success of our initiative has inspired enough enthusiasm across campus that future cluster hires can rely on departments or units working together with existing FTE to make significant and lasting changes in search and hiring practices that can finally move the needle on advancing faculty diversity.

Strategies of the Berkeley Life Sciences Initiative Cluster Hire

Two innovations were most impactful in identifying the most excellent candidates. The first was the breadth of the search, which included all topics related to life sciences and attracted nearly 900 complete applications. Having a large, open area search attracted a much more diverse applicant pool than traditional searches, as well as many candidates working in inter- or multidisciplinary areas, which the departments and the university saw as a significant strength of the effort.

The second innovation was to perform an initial screening evaluation of statements on DEI, which were previously optional for some departments but are crucial to identify those individuals with a strong commitment to and history of mentoring students from underrepresented and underserved populations or who have made other significant contributions to advancing DEI that may not be apparent on a CV, such as mentoring activities and personal experiences overcoming obstacles. The explicit emphasis demonstrated Berkeley’s commitment in this area and brought applicants who stated that they otherwise wouldn’t have applied.

Each DEI statement was redacted to reduce unconscious bias and evaluated by at least two committee members using a rubric to quantify accomplishments, depth of understanding, and future plans. To ensure consistency, all reviewers completed training to counteract bias as well as a calibration exercise prior to the evaluation. Notably, candidates did not need to be part of an underrepresented group, nor have a particular identity, to submit a DEI statement that was sufficient to advance. DEI statement screening reduced the pool to 214 candidates, whose applications were then transferred to departmental ad-hoc search committees for full review. As a result, 22 short-listed candidates were interviewed following similar processes across departments. 

Remarkably, there was nearly universal buy-in from faculty in participating departments. 

Key elements common to the interview process across departments included time set aside during the seminar or chalk talk for the applicant to describe their efforts and vision in advancing DEI. All candidates met with a panel of students and postdocs familiar with the initiative, as well as with an equity advisor. Assessment rubrics were uniformly applied and, importantly, departments participating in the initiative were required to utilize similar processes in their other ongoing searches. Throughout the searches, we had strong support from the Office of Faculty Equity and Welfare, whose website contains many resources including the rubrics used:

We didn’t want this to be a one-time experiment, but rather a tool to evolve and make lasting changes to search practices and to build a supportive community across disciplinary and departmental boundaries. Remarkably, there was nearly universal buy-in from faculty in participating departments. We believe that this was a result of the excellence of the short-list candidates, who were all highly qualified and sought after by other institutions. One issue concerned department members who were seeking to hire new faculty in a narrow topic area. Thus, an important factor in the success of the initiative was that most participants in the search were open to new ideas and looking to hire the best candidate who could add a new dimension to their department.

Outcome and a Promising Road Map for the Future

As a result of this rigorous search and review process, 5 outstanding new faculty members were recruited, with an additional 7 hires from participating departments making a cohort of 12 new faculty. This made an immediate and substantial impact far greater than a few isolated hires in separate departments would have, and promoted a positive and inclusive community across traditional boundaries that we anticipate will help support and retain these faculty as their careers advance, as well as aid in future recruitments.

Importantly, the cluster hire definitively underscored that an emphasis on excellence in contributions to DEI as a selection criterion did not diminish excellence in scholarly accomplishment. In fact, our preliminary analysis of candidate short lists indicates a correlation between strong commitment to advancing DEI and excellence in research and teaching. As a part of their recruitment packages, each new faculty member received funds to support their DEI efforts with few restrictions. Projects underway range from financial support of promising underrepresented students and trainee researchers, who would otherwise have to work off campus to support themselves or their families, to departmental level hiring of consultants to redevelop graduate admissions practices and provide DEI training and materials for review committees. In addition to enabling the new faculty to engage in these efforts, these projects are also building community, as the cohort is encouraged to network and collaborate. We also envision that these funds will help address the significant and invisible time cost of mentoring and its potential impact on the establishment and success of their research programs, for example by enabling faculty to opt out of teaching for a semester. Our long-term goal is for the university to provide funds for DEI efforts to all new faculty hires, and to continue supporting those efforts that prove effective.

[O]ur preliminary analysis of candidate short lists indicates a correlation between strong commitment to advancing DEI and excellence in research and teaching.

Recruiting outstanding new faculty with a commitment to advancing DEI at Berkeley is only the first step in transforming the culture in the life sciences on our campus. Ensuring the success of our recruited faculty requires sustained measures that highlight the value of contributions to DEI to our entire community and raise the expectations of work in this area so that all faculty understand that it is their responsibility to engage in these efforts.

One concern was that the cohort faculty would feel as though they were being evaluated differently or asked to make different contributions than other faculty. In this regard, the term “diversity hire,” which implies that these faculty are different, should be entirely avoided. Instead, we emphasize that the new faculty possess another dimension of excellence that their colleagues can aspire to. While departments have clear expectations for performance in research, service, and teaching, evaluation of contributions to DEI are often only vaguely defined and not evaluated evenly. Thus, another long-term goal is to incorporate career-stage expectations for these contributions in the written faculty standards for advancement and promotion, raising the bar for everyone with respect to DEI efforts. 

Can cluster hires move the needle on faculty diversity? Many are betting on it. Similar initiatives have been carried out at other University of California campuses, and the National Institutes of Health has announced a new program called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST): Funds would go to up to four universities in 2021 to support hiring of 6–10 faculty each and to promote their career advancement as well as campus-wide activities to promote culture change. While this may appear to favor large departments and universities, several units can collaborate on a single proposal. At Berkeley, the best unexpected outcome of our initiative was the surge of activity and excitement that brought together faculty, staff, students, and postdocs in various ways, promoting lively debate and a sense of shared commitment for lasting cultural change. Although it will be years before we can evaluate the success of cluster hires, the process itself has a strong, institutional-level impact in creating positive change.

Recommended Reading and Resources

Bhalla N (2019). Strategies to improve equity in faculty hiring. Mol Biol Cell 30, 2744-2749.

Gibbs KD, Basson J, Xierali IM, Broniatowski DA (2016). Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US. eLife 5, e21393.

Nielsen MW et al. (2017). Opinion: Gender diversity leads to better science. PNAS 114, 1740–1742.

Price EG et al. (2009). Improving the diversity climate in academic medicine: Faculty perceptions as a catalyst for institutional change. Acad Med 84, 95–105.

Valentine HA, Collins FS (2015). National Institutes of Health addresses the science of diversity. PNAS 112, 12240–12242.

Report on Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering:

About the Author:

Rebecca Heald is professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.