COLUMBIA — Everyone has biases, whether we know it or not. Some are good, some are bad, but we all have them. They make us who we are. But sometimes these biases can stand in the way of improvement. In searches for a more diverse MU faculty and staff, bias training is meant to change this.
For a year now, MU has required an unconscious bias training module for everyone involved in selecting candidates for faculty and academic positions within each college and the university as a whole. The training is used for searches both big and small, ranging from searches for high-ranking leadership positions to specific faculty positions within a certain college or department.
The training is important when dealing with the many interim positions in MU’s leadership.
As of December, four of the 13 deans were interims, in addition to five positions in the chancellor’s staff that are either vacant or have an interim appointee. This does not include the chancellor position itself, which has been held by Hank Foley since November 2015 after R. Bowen Loftin stepped down.
The unconscious bias training was implemented to improve the candidate pools for filling vacancies. The goal is to get search committee members to actively think about every step in the recruiting and hiring process.
“We all make biased decisions,” said Noor Azizan-Gardner, assistant vice chancellor for admission in the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. “Sometimes it’s based on shortcuts; sometimes it’s because we want to hire someone just like us.”
Garnett Stokes, the MU provost, is responsible for the hiring process for the searches for both university and academic leadership positions.
“What I love about the training is it is entirely research-based,” Stokes said. “It is built on what we know to be best practices in doing the most unbiased searches possible.”
The online training module uses examples and situations to show how the search process should be conducted and what may be issue areas within the process. It also includes links to the studies cited and used to create the methodology behind the training. The module concludes with a survey that allows participants to share what they thought was helpful and informative.
Noel English, manager of Faculty and Staff Engagement and Success for the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, said requiring the training was not a direct response to student demands and was in development before the protests. The information had started being compiled several months prior, but it was not organized into a usable training program.
“We were working on the education module for time and hoped to get it ready by fall semester when recruiting is in full swing,” English said in an email. “The timing of the provost’s requirement I think had more to do with the release date of the training module.”
The training is one step in the much larger process of faculty and administrative searches. Each search committee is different yet is still made up of similar parts.
Diversity in the hiring process
Both Stokes and Azizan-Gardner said the hiring process is critical because having a diverse faculty creates the best learning environment for students.
“I think one of the most important best practices that we know is the value of a diverse search committee in terms of creating a more diverse pool of applicants and a more unbiased process in evaluating applicants,” Stokes said.
According to a 2011 study by Forbes, acquiring a diverse workforce fueled innovation and creativity within the 321 large companies surveyed.
Azizan-Gardner said this study confirmed what she already knew.
“Innovation requires creativity, and creativity requires diversity,” she said. “It’s all linked together, but we’ve known this for quite a while in the business community.”
The diverse faculty Azizan-Gardner envisions does not refer only to race or ethnicity but includes aspects such as religion and socioeconomic background. She emphasized the importance of having faculty with whom students could relate.
“If you are a first-generation faculty member, you understand the challenges a student faces if they have no role model at home who has no way to ask a parent, ‘How do I do this?’” she said. “We should have faculty that can reflect the diversity of our student body in the many, many dimensions of diversity that we should have.”
All faculty or academic administrator searches start with finding the search committee members. For academic administrator searches, potential committee candidates are selected through nominations that are reviewed personally by the provost.
“I wanted a good balance on gender and, to whatever extent possible, people of color on the committee,” Stokes said.
The ideal search committee, Stokes said, is made up of faculty, students and alumni of the hiring school and the school’s different departments. In an ideal search, a current dean of another college within the university heads the search committee, she said.
In the recent hiring of Ajay Vinzé as dean of the Trulaske College of Business, Stokes said, she wanted to have representation from all departments within the college. Neil Olson, dean of MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, served as the chair.
After the committee in an academic administrator search has been formed, the committee begins to do a number of things:
First, search committee members are required to take the online training module. After they have completed the online training, Azizan-Gardner and her staff conduct trainings in person to ensure the material online was clearly communicated.
“What the module does is to guide the search committee members and the departments to have a process that is equitable that reflects the best practices and ask them to think about a rubric for evaluation,” Azizan-Gardner said.
This includes advertising for the available position. Azizan-Gardner said the diversity in the search committee is crucial at this stage, as the members’ different backgrounds allow the committee to widen its search to areas others might not be aware of. Depending on the school or position that is available, an executive search firm can be used to promote the available position. For the College of Business, executive search firm Isaacson, Miller was used to aid the search process.
After the committee has received applications, members begin to hold “airport interviews” at remote locations, airports or otherwise. This round is supposed to have a secretive tone to protect the identity of the candidates. Often, that’s because the search committee does not want to let candidates’ current employers know about their interest in the MU position unless they are selected as a finalist for the job.
“They go to great measures to prevent people from running into each other,” Stokes said.
Following these interviews, the search committee then chooses a handful of candidates to come to campus to interview with students, faculty and alumni. Candidates also meet with other deans and leaders on campus. The provost also interviews every finalist in academic administrator searches.
Stokes said this stage of the process typically involves three to four candidates. This is typically the stage in the search in which the candidate’s information becomes public. For the Business School dean search, four candidates were brought to campus for interviews, and each had forums open to the public.
“When the candidates come to campus, they meet with a large number of groups,” Stokes said. “They meet with faculty groups, student groups and with various groups like staff and alumni.”
She said anyone who attends these events has the opportunity to provide feedback, via a questionnaire, which she then sees.
After the candidates have been interviewed and evaluated, the search committee is brought together with the provost once again and evaluates each candidate, spelling out their strengths and weaknesses compared to other candidates.
“After gathering all that information and all of that feedback, I then decide who I want to make an offer to,” Stokes said.
In searches for faculty members, the training and process is similar. Completing the online module is required for everyone on the search committee, but the in-person training is only for departments that seek out the assistance.
“Our goal is to help academic departments actualize their diversity priorities through planning and hiring,” English said in an email.
Azizan-Gardner said the same hiring rubric for administrative searches is used on the faculty level. It has five steps, starting with identifying the open position itself and what it entails. The worksheet is meant to establish the process of interviewing, scoring and hiring before interviews begin. It acts as a guide for committees to plan their search process, gather interview questions and create a system to rank the prospective candidates.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.