Please focus more on inclusion so that diversity recruitment efforts can work


I realize that recruiting students from underrepresented groups in STEM is not the most popular broader impact when scientists are actually implementing federally funded research projects. That said, I see a lot of folks putting so much time and effort to recruit minority students. And folks working to provide opportunities to minority students. I find this heartening.

But I also find this disheartening, because we have been doing this for decades and we’ve seen very little progress. At the current rate of change, it doesn’t look like we’ll have genuine equity in STEM.

Do I want you to scale back on diversity recruitment? Well, yes, I do — if your department isn’t an environment that is supportive of the people that you’re recruiting. Instead, I’d like you to put efforts into creating an inclusive environment. If we keep bringing minoritized folks into white spaces that don’t fully include and accept our peers, then this recruitment is actually counterproductive.

The more I listen, the more I hear stories from scientists who are recruited into as a part of diversity efforts, and then are subjected to a hostile environment once they arrive. For scientists who are familiar with diversity initiatives, this is not a shocking revelation — this is simply the way things have been.

Diversity initiatives don’t work unless you already have inclusion for the recruits. Because people will leave, or if they don’t leave, they won’t thrive.

So, please — if your space is not actively good for minoritized scholars, please stop recruiting them until you get your crap together.

In the last few years, I’ve reviewed dozens of NSF proposals, and seen far more in the context of panels. Recruiting and mentoring students from underrepresented minorities is a very very common theme. However — at most — only a handful of proposals actually suggested doing anything to create an environment that will provide an inclusive environment to the people who are recruited. How would you plan for these recruitment efforts to succeed? Can you go beyond providing support to the recruits?

We’ve got to stop focusing on training underrepresented folks to adapt to white spaces, and instead focus on the white spaces to make sure that people accept, respect, and collaborate with others. I’m not pretending this is a revelation when I say this — this is well known circumstance. Some people are saying this loud, clear, and often — but it looks like some white folks aren’t even thinking about it at all.

So why do people focus on diversity without inclusion? To some extent I think it’s because folks are well intentioned but not well informed. But I think the bigger challenge is that creating an inclusive environment, where one doesn’t exist, is hard hard work and takes substantial resources.

For instance, I know a student who is heading off to a very white place for grad school, and they’re going to be participating in a workshop which is essentially designed to train them how to deal with being non-white in a prestigious and white space. This kind of support is fine and good. However, what these students really need is training for all of the white people so they stop making the lives of non-white people so hard.

In a university environment, inclusion means having mentors and leaders who are well situated to support the minoritized people who are being recruited. That means hiring minority faculty. And then giving them the additional resources that are required to do their job in an environment where they experience greater service expectations and more critical peers.

What are some pragmatic steps that folks can take to work on inclusion? I think the inclusion challenges at every institution are unique, and if you google up “university inclusion plan” you’ll see all kinds of ideas. The key point here is that it’s not about providing extra support for minioritized people to survive your institution, but instead to fix your institution so that these folks shouldn’t be expected to develop specialized survival skills.

What are some measures that can help inclusion, other than a massive campaign to build an ethnically diverse set of tenure-track faculty? Some things that I’ve seen include a seminar series to bring researchers from minoritized groups to campus (and ask them to talk about research, not a diversity luncheon), and funding faculty travel to visit minority-serving institutions. Or bring in an inclusion expert to do a training and work with a department to develop a plan. Or funds white faculty to attend SACNAS. Provide workshops for faculty on culturally inclusive teaching. Make inclusion an explicit expectation for all new initiatives. A lot of readers here know far more about this than idea, if you have ideas on broader impacts for inclusion — or suggested reading on this, please do comment.

A lot of these problems are structural issues that require investment from people who control big budget levers, but ultimately, this is about changing departmental culture, and that requires buy-in at all levels, and we can work on that every day. Again, I don’t think this is a novel point, but I think it keeps needing to be said as long as diversity initiatives are build without a specific plan for inclusion that is designed for success. Really, universities need to realize that you can’t just put a patch on it — it takes a shift in the institutional mission and a hiring agenda to match. In the meantime, maybe ease back on bringing in recruits to improve the stats without planning for their success?

3 thoughts on “Please focus more on inclusion so that diversity recruitment efforts can work

  1. I think the same applies to learner-centered classrooms: even the most lecture-driven institution knows that they have to use the right words. But backing up faculty who actually go out on a limb and try to implement active learning? Not happening…

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