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Town hall meeting to focus on underrepresented minority faculty mentoring and decision-making

The Panel on Faculty Equity and Quality of Life will present the major findings and recommendations of its second report at a town hall meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. today in the Faculty Club.

L.A. Cicero Stanford faculty

Stanford's academic environment for underrepresented minority faculty members is the topic of today's town hall meeting at the Faculty Club.

Stanford can improve the academic environment for underrepresented minority faculty members by enhancing mentoring programs, increasing participation in decision-making, and sustaining the university's dialogue and self-education on diversity, says a report released today by the Panel on Faculty Equity and Quality of Life.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty members from throughout the university regarding mentoring and having a voice in decision-making at their departments or schools.

The findings released today represent the second of two reports of a study requested by Provost John Etchemendy regarding the experiences of underrepresented minority faculty members at Stanford.

For the purposes of the report,  "underrepresented minority faculty" included those who self-identified as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino/a, or Native American/Alaskan Native. It did not include Asians/Asian Americans, who are underrepresented in certain academic disciplines (such as the humanities and social sciences) but not in others.

For the study, 119 underrepresented faculty members were invited to participate and 52 interviews were conducted, including 32 men and 20 women. Of the 52, 18 were medical center and clinical faculty not in the academic council faculty lines. All had been at Stanford for at least one academic year and many had been at Stanford longer.

The panel will present the report's major findings and recommendations at a town hall meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. today at the Faculty Club. The panel also will provide updates on the university's progress toward implementing recommendations made in its first report, which focused on "recognition and collegiality" and was released in May 2013.

The executive summary of the report is available on the website of the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity.

Karen Cook, vice provost for faculty development and diversity, said the report helps the university improve its support for underrepresented minority faculty who may feel that they are isolated or that their voices are not heard in faculty meetings or on search committees.

"It is important for all faculty members to feel engaged, valued and recognized for their contributions, not only to their disciplines, but also to Stanford," said Cook, the Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology.

"It is our hope that this report and efforts like it will spur department chairs and others in positions of leadership to reexamine their unit practices and cultures in order to make them more inclusive and welcoming for all faculty, as well as for undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs, who also come from increasingly diverse backgrounds."

The interviews, which were conducted in late 2010 and early 2011, were a follow-up to the Report on the Quality of Life of Stanford Faculty, which was based on a 2008 survey of faculty in all seven schools. That report, released in January 2010, found high overall faculty satisfaction, at 79 percent, but a lower sense of inclusion and supportiveness among underrepresented faculty at that time.

The 2008 survey found that compared to their white and Asian and Pacific Islander peer groups, underrepresented minority faculty in the assistant professor rank reported lower satisfaction with mentoring and felt that they received less information on what it took to succeed at Stanford. Underrepresented minority faculty members in all ranks reported having less voice and influence in their departments than their white and Asian and Pacific Islander peer groups.

Key findings on mentoring

While some underrepresented minority faculty members described positive experiences with mentoring, many more stated that the mentoring they had received in their units had been insufficient, too general, or not particularly useful, the report said.

Some associate professors expressed the need for more mentoring. However, the report's key findings apply primarily to assistant professors.

Positive experiences with mentoring usually included emotional support, such as encouragement and validation, and instrumental support, such as specific advice about career development and substantive feedback on research, study participants said.

Mentoring can be insufficient because faculty members in the unit often have different areas of specialization and cannot give each other – especially junior faculty – specific, substantive advice on research-related questions, participants said.

"Formal mentoring, where a mentor is designated by the unit, is ineffective when meetings are sparse and advice and validation are given perfunctorily," the report said. "It is effective when meetings are frequent and discussions are specific. Assistant professors especially appreciate and need clear goalposts with regard to tenure."

The report described three major mentoring challenges faced by underrepresented minority faculty members:

  • Study participants expressed the need for role models – someone from a similar background to look up to – but not necessarily someone to give advice and support. Many do not have underrepresented or female role models inside or outside their units due to the small size of the underrepresented minority faculty at Stanford.
  • Some participants feel frustrated by the lack of mentoring from non-minority colleagues, who appear to prefer – or feel more comfortable – mentoring those who are like themselves in terms of gender and/or race and ethnicity.
  • Those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds expressed the importance of having mentors who can relate to their life experiences. They also expressed a heightened need for clear goalposts for success at Stanford.

Findings on  "voice in decision-making"

The new report corroborated earlier findings that said having a voice in decision-making was highly correlated with rank.

"A majority of underrepresented minority faculty at the associate or full professor levels report positive experiences of having a voice in decision-making, either because tenure provided security or because they hold leadership positions which provide greater opportunities for influence," the report noted.

However, most assistant professors interviewed for the study said they did not feel they had much voice in decision-making.

The report described three "best unit practices" that would enable faculty across all ranks to have a voice in decision-making: having an effective and democratic unit leader; conducting open, inclusive faculty meetings; and (especially for assistant professors) serving on important committees.

"Assistant professors benefit especially from explicit encouragement and inclusive acts from the leadership and senior faculty in their units," the report said.

Underrepresented minority faculty members said they feel empowered by serving on faculty search committees.

However, they also can feel frustrated by the experience if they are the sole champions of minority candidates; if they have to be "strategic and cautious" voicing their opinions about minority candidates to avoid appearing "self-serving"; or if other faculty members make insensitive comments during discussions about minority candidates and diversity.

The report said the informal decision-making that happens outside of faculty or committee meetings benefits those who are connected to decision-makers, but puts those who do not have such connections at a disadvantage.

Sustaining the dialogue on diversity

Shelley Correll, chair of the panel, said she was grateful to the men and women of the faculty who took the time to participate in the interviews and to share their stories.

"The issues they raise are important and speak to the need for an ongoing, cross-campus dialogue among all faculty around issues of diversity and inclusion," said Correll, who is a professor of sociology. "As a world-class university, we need to ensure that we are creating an environment where the voices of all faculty are included and where all are able to fully thrive." 

Provost Etchemendy said: "I appreciate the efforts of those involved in this study to help us understand ways in which Stanford can become an even better institution in supporting all its faculty and students to do their best work."

At today's town hall meeting, the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity  will distribute a guide to mentoring programs and resources at Stanford.

The guide provides a link to the Stanford Faculty Handbook discussion on junior faculty counseling and mentoring, as well as a list of recommended readings.

One of the formal, structured mentoring programs listed in the guide is the School of Earth Sciences Faculty Mentoring Program. Another is the Pediatrics Mentoring Program in the Stanford School of Medicine. One of the informal mentoring networks listed is the Stanford Faculty Women's Forum, which provides information and organizes events to promote the success of women faculty at Stanford.