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We’re Not All White Men: Using a Cohort/Cluster Approach to Diversify STEM Faculty Hiring

The lack of diversity among higher-education faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines represents a grave structural inequality with serious consequences for our students. Fixing it means rethinking the pathway to the professoriate for women and people of color, and avoiding the problems with hiring in STEM fields that persist for many reasons, including: 1) structural factors and the social context of hiring; 2) personally held beliefs and values, including implicit biases of those in positions of leadership; and 3) the absence of policies and processes to address historically underrepresented faculty. We know that traditional faculty searches and attempts to diversify faculty are ineffective in landing faculty of color and women, especially in STEM.1 These traditional procedures generally entail: writing a narrow job description that focuses solely on disciplinary scholarship and teaching (to the exclusion of other elements that could more broadly appeal to a wider pool); publishing the position announcement in the leading journals in the fields (and neglecting specialty outlets); using networks that perpetuate typical hiring practices; and attending traditional disciplinary conferences to recruit, and sometimes interview, prospective candidates. To address these problems, many institutions are turning to innovative methods to diversify their faculties. These include developing job descriptions that focus on areas of interest to a more diverse pool of faculty, which may include aspects of the institutional mission, such as a commitment to social justice or community engagement. These descriptions also include opportunities for collaboration, including cross-disciplinary initiatives or undergraduate research mentorship, and the creation of strategic plans or goals that highlight a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.2

One approach being implemented to enhance diversity is using cohort or cluster hiring, whereby a college or university hires a group of faculty with common interests, but who come from different disciplinary backgrounds. Institutions including the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, and North Carolina State University have found that a cohort approach to hiring has improved retention of faculty of color, enhanced socialization, and reduced feelings of isolation among faculty of color by providing a built-in support network.3 That critical mass of faculty of color also helps build community and increase retention, research shows.4 Additionally, a recent report by the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities/Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Advisory committee concluded that cohort/cluster hiring, although new and untested, has the potential to increase faculty diversity, enhance campus climate and develop a supportive environment for faculty success.5 That report focused on large, research-oriented institutions; work still needs to be done to examine the efficacy and success of such types of hires at other institutions, including primarily undergraduate institutions (PUI).

The University of San Diego (USD) is one such institutiona medium- sized, private, independent PUIbut with a distinctive commitment to advancing female faculty in STEM fields. Since 2011, when USD won a National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE grant to develop a comprehensive project known as AFFIRM (Advancement of Female Faculty: Institutional Climate,Recruitment, and Mentoring), the grant team and others have focused on addressing issues related to race, ethnicity, and gender among USD faculty, particularly those in STEM and the behavior-al/social sciences. Although a majority of undergraduate students majoring in some STEM disciplines at USD are female (62 percent), these percentages are not reflected in the percentages of women faculty, who number just 38 percent. These disparities mean students often lack adequate mentorship and representation among faculty. These relationships can be key to retention of both females and students of color in the STEM disciplines.6 Therefore, one aim of AFFIRM is to recruit women faculty, especially women faculty of color in STEM. This paper describes how AFFIRM achieved a successful cohort/cluster hire among women of color in STEM. The authors of this paper, who are members of the AFFIRM grant team, believe our process could serve as a useful frame- work for transforming faculty hires at other campuses, especially at PUIs.


A number of structural conditions enabled this cohort/cluster approach to faculty hiring to be successful. First, support from USDs upper administration and deans was critical. In our grant proposal to the NSF, the provost promised at least two faculty positions in STEM and social/behavioral sciences. Having this commitment in writing proved to be important, as the provost who made this decision left the institution shortly thereafter. The interim provost, having the document in hand, agreed to honor the commitment.

Second, the credibility of the AFFIRM faculty teaman inter- disciplinary team of women from departments including biology, mathematics and computer science, psychological sciences, sociology, and electrical engineeringwas essential for buy-in by the chairs. All of the AFFIRM team members are full professors and hold respected positions on campus, including several department heads, an associate dean, and the director of the Center for Educational Excellence. By the time USD actually embarked on cluster/cohort hiring in STEM, the AFFIRM team had been working together for three years on grant initiatives, including developing a mentoring program and an interactive theatre program that facilitates dialogue on diverse faculty issues.6

In fall 2013, the AFFIRM team met with the deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, as well as the vice provost for inclusion and diversity, to discuss and formulate a method of advertising the two new positions. During this discussion, the idea of hiring a STEM faculty cohort/cluster to facilitate mentoring, diversity, and interdisciplinary studies emerged and was enthusiastically approved. However, the discussion did not include a roadmap or process for how to conduct these hires.

Initially, the team considered a competitive process to allocate these two positions among USDs many STEM and social/behavioral sciences departments. However, the AFFIRM team anticipated that departments not chosen would be unhappy, while the departments chosen might just do business as usual, deciding on a candidate that reflected the status quo. Therefore, the decision was made by the AFFIRM team to cast a wide net to attract candidates interested in mentoring a diverse community of students and in collaborating on interdisciplinary initiatives that contribute to the campus-wide intellectual efforts.


The search process began with an invitation to all eligible departments to be included in a cohort/cluster hire that emphasized undergraduate mentoring, diversity and interdisciplinarity. Figure 1 outlines the search and selection process.

Figure 1. Outline of the Search Process for the Cohort/Cluster Hire.

Applications received

Initial Screening by AFFIRM Team

Applications received by the AFFIRM team and screened to ensure:

  • Submission of all application materials.
  • Interest in mentoring female students and students from under-represented back- grounds.
  • Interest in working as part of an interdisciplinary cohort.
  • Interest in promoting interdisciplinary collaborations in the undergraduate curriculum.


Applications passing initial screening

Departmental Review

Applications sent to appropriate departments (some sent to multiple departments) for review:

Each department performed customary evaluation of applicants and selected 0-3 candidates.

With support from the deans/provost each department selected up to 2 candidates for campus interviews.


Candidates invited for campus interviews

Campus Interviews

Applicants went through the customary on-campus interview process according to the host
department, plus interviews with:

Members of the AFFIRM team.

The deans of arts and sciences and engineering.

The associate provost for inclusion and diversity.

The provost or vice-provost.


Up to one candidate recommended by each department

Provosts/Deans Decisions

Eight faculty members were selected to be invited to the cohort via:

  • The two original faculty lines promised by the provost.
  • An additional line requested by the deans/provost and granted by the president for the cohort.
  • Two existing lines granted by departments for the cohort.
  • Three faculty members hired through regular processes.


Through the NSFADVANCE grant and a taskforce commissioned by the provost, the university had completed a faculty recruitment toolkit that included best hiring practices for diversifying the faculty. One key area that has been identified as problematic for achieving a more diverse pool of candidates is the way faculty job advertisements are written.7 Typically, advertisements for STEM faculty positions are written tightly and prescriptively, but for this cohort/cluster, with the support of the administration, the use of the toolkit, and based on research at other institutions, the team used a different approach.8

The team created one general version of the advertisement, plus versions that contained language specific to each of the participating departments.9 Key phrases used to attract a diverse pool included statements about USDs commitment to diversity, such as We endeavor to build a cohort of teacher-scholars who will offer a strong contribution to the diversity of USD, and prompts candidates to describe their interest in mentoring students from underrepresented groups, diversity and inclusion, and interdisciplinary teaching and research. Candidates also were asked to provide a letter of recommendation that specifically addressed their efforts and commitment to mentoring and interdisciplinary teaching and research.


In February 2014, 217 applications were received: 47 percent of the applicants were white, 28 percent Asian, 10 percent Hispanic or Latino, four percent black, two percent two or more races, and one percent American Indian or Alaska Native. Overall, 45 percent of the applicants were women, 48 percent men, and seven percent declined to state. The AFFIRM team reviewed the applications using a rubric produced from the job description, and vetted the pool based on the candidatesstatements about mentoring and interdisciplinary undertakings. Specifically, the AFFIRM team was looking for evidence that applicants addressed the criteria outlined in the job description, including a stated commitment to mentoring, diversity and interdisciplinary work, substantiated by the candidates accomplishments, as well as thoughtful reflections. At least two AFFIRM team members reviewed each file. Those candidates who did not include the requested statements or did not meet the standards of the criteria were eliminated. The team considered this initial screening crucial in distinguishing the candidates and to approaching this search in a different way than previously considered at the university. Applicants that passed were forwarded to departments to be evaluated in whatever manner is customary in each department. Then departments were asked to select up to three individuals for interviews, and the provost agreed to allow each department to interview up to two candidates on campus.

After the interview process, each department forwarded the selected candidate(s) to the dean with a brief rationale. The AFFIRM team met in late April and, given the strength of the candidates, decided to make the recommendation, without ranking, to hire as many as possible. Representatives from the AFFIRM team then met with the deans and the provost, and advocated hiring more than two candidates. Impressed by the candidate pool, the deans and the provost agreed. Specifically, the provost agreed to fund a third tenure-line position, and an additional three departments were approved and encouraged to use open lines.

Additionally, two women who were being hired through regular searches and satisfied the criteria of the AFFIRM call were invited to join the cohort/cluster. This brought the total size of the cohort/cluster to eight women faculty members, including five women of color. These new women assistant professors included a chemist, a bio- chemist, a biologist, an industrial and systems engineer, a mechanical engineer, a marine biologist, a mathematician, and a behavioral neuroscientist.10


During interviews conducted in their first semester on campus, each cohort member explained why she applied to USD and her reactions to the cohort/cluster advertisement. Most were attracted to the idea of a cohort/cluster. Other comments included wanting a teaching-oriented college, being attracted by the San Diego location, being attracted by the quality of the faculty members already in their desired department, and an appreciation for the interdisciplinary focus of the cohort/cluster. Others stated that the words in one or more departments in the ad caused ambiguity. The women felt that having the AFFIRM team as part of the hiring process indicated an institutional commitment to sup- porting ambitious research. Some saw the ad as an effort to encourage women faculty of color in STEM, but did not see the call as exclusively for women. Finally, many of the cohort members wondered who would make the hiring decision: the chair, the search team, the AFFIRM team, or the provost?

The cohort/cluster members were asked further about the interdisciplinary nature of the cohort/cluster, and, specifically, to identify positive factors in such an approach to the hiring process. Overall, the remarks showed a significant level of enthusiasm that coalesced around several general themes, including an interest in exploring the possibilities that a cohort/cluster could present forresearch and teaching. One candidate commented, Collective work is at the core of my beliefs, so this fits.... Another person noted I need to work with faculty in other departments in order to do my research. I came from a program that had an interdisciplinary approach and it was very productive. Others felt that incorporating interdisciplinary themes in their teaching helps students to understand how a particular subject area has applicability in other STEM disciplines. They also talked about the potential for interdisciplinarity to attract underrepresented students to the field, and suggested that such an approach could help students on the job market. The cohort/ cluster group also was eager to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary grant proposals. They described interdisciplinary work as the wave of the future, and reported that academic journals increasingly are encouraging the bridging of intellectual perspectives.

After one year, some members of the cohort/cluster already have begun conversations on interdisciplinary collaborations to address academically rich and challenging research questions, to create and teach interdisciplinary courses such as social justice and engineering or modeling, and to apply for larger grants together. These individuals have stated that their different backgrounds stimulate creativity and foster an environment conducive to research.

Although most candidates saw the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching, some also expressed concern about how they would be evaluated for tenure and promotion. These comments mainly centered on the lack of understanding of how interdisciplinary work would be valued and how much time interdisciplinary work would take given all the other work that was expected. Statements such as Im trying to figure it out. Not sure the AFFIRM team knows how it will work either and How will AFFIRM develop interdisciplinarity? I feel like it is being left to us to figure it out point to some uneasiness. One said that universities prize an interdisciplinaryfocus but do not know how to put it into action. Moreover, some felt that interdisciplinary research would be too much of a potential burden on their time. Some did not want to be pigeonholedto do interdisciplinary research because they felt there was not enough time to do that plus their own research. Others felt they would need to spend time learning about the other disciplines and if I can accept their point of view, it will likely open up my own perspective but it will be challenging. Many were not sure how to access support for the interdisciplinary research. The chairs interest in interdisciplinary research was mentioned as a key factor. Some felt they had a supportive chair and that team teaching would be valued.

The AFFIRM team also spoke to chairs, and recorded their responses during a regular chairs meeting in the College of Arts and Sciences. The chairs from the School of Engineering were not present to comment (with the exception of one who is a member of the AFFIRM team) and, therefore, their responses are not recorded here. In addition, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was present at the meeting and provided some insight from the view of an upper-level administrator. At the time of the meeting, interview candidates had been selected, and some had been to campus, but the search was not final. Therefore, departments still did not know if they would get one of the two positions promised by the Provosts Office.

Chairs asked questions about the hiring process. One stated that the search was an exciting and an unusual search and our department received great candidates that were filtered through the AFFIRM team. The chair wished to have the same quality of candidates in normal searches, but was curious about how the departments were competing against each other (for the hires) because getting serious at the departmental level has been hard. We cant tell our faculty and candidate about next steps because the final say is at the dean and provost level. Another chair said: there were some remarkable people in the pool from which we chose two a candidate whose file looked incredibly good, but whose job presentation was not so great. The other, who seemed blander on paper, seemed after the visit like a good fit. The chair also pointed out that interdisciplinary searches require the time-intensive involvement of other departments, and that there wasnt enough time to have inter-departmental conversations before decisions needed to be made.

The chair of a third department stated that her department learned a great deal and will change the advertisement description for future hires: We chose two of the 12 we were given and we were very excited about the first one. This chair was a little uncertain about how it will play out because the candidate was concerned that she did not know how the decision would be made. She requested more information about the process to share with candidates, including how candidates might be vetted differently. The chair of a fourth department expressed surprise at the great quality and interdisciplinary strength of the candidates, considering how late in the academic year these interviews occurred. The chair felt that both of the candidates would have advanced to the next stage in a regular search and asked for clarification regarding how these hires would work in an interdisciplinary manner when only one department was vetting the applications. This chair mentioned that getting the list of all of the finalists would have facilitated the assessment of interdisciplinarity, as would going to other departments finalists talks. But since the interviews all happened at the same time, attending other departments talks was not possible. Another said the department liked their finalist and her talk very much, but struggled with the definition of interdisciplinary. Finally, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences commented that the process resulted in candidates with excellent credentials and that the finalists were an exciting group of candidatesmore exciting than some candidates during past hiring years.


The AFFIRM team organized and implemented an ambitious plan to hire a diverse cohort/cluster of women faculty in STEM who shared an interest in mentoring undergraduate students and in interdisciplinary research and teaching. The learning curve for this type of hire at our institution was steep for a variety of reasons. Because this cohort/cluster hire was the first of its kind at USD, there was no previous process to use as a guide. Additionally, a just-in-time hiring approach was implemented to allow as much flexibility as possible to develop procedures and adjust to unforeseen circumstances. This flexibility sometimes led to difficulty in keeping open the lines of communication, and the lack of an overall initial plan caused confusion and some frustration, as seen in some of the comments above. The AFFIRM team needed to facilitate more communication among themselves, the department chairs, the AFFIRM cohort/ cluster candidates, and the administration. Additionally, although the university ended up with excellent candidates to choose from, the inter-disciplinary part of the hire could have been more thoroughly vetted if the searches had started much earlier in the academic year. Having multiple departments interview and look at the files could have contributed to a more robust process focused on interdisciplinarity.

Having advertisements with inclusive language and requiring candidates to satisfy more than just the typical requirements were also crucial. Requiring applicant statements about mentoring undergraduate research and experience working on diversity issues, as well as their interest in being part of an interdisciplinary cohort/ cluster, made a difference in the type of candidate that chose to apply.

Another important lesson we learned was that its key to have a screening committee review the candidate files to ensure they satisfy the search criteriaan interest in undergraduate mentoring, and diversity and inclusionprior to forwarding them to the departments. By initially narrowing the pool, USD was able to offer positions to excellent candidates. It was equally important that the AFFIRM team left the judgment on other criteria, such as scholarship, to the departments expertise. Although this initial screening was met with some skepticism at first, the fact that departments were able to select the final two to three candidates from a pool of choices made the process more acceptable.

We also discovered how essential it is to have an active and committed support system. Having a supportive provost and deans and co-principal investigators with administrative positions made the hiring possible and also helped to shape the support systems and retention efforts for the hires. Additionally, the AFFIRM External Advisory Board, which includes a provost with extensive ADVANCE grant experience, was extremely helpful. During the boards annual meetings with upper administration, they stressed the need to make progress on the promise of new hires. This advice from an external body was invaluable in moving things forward.

While praising the cohort/cluster hire effort and its impact, the advisory board also gave several recommendations toward the success of the cohort faculty and also future hiring at USD. Specifically, they recommended departmental structures be reviewed to ensure that the new faculty are treated fairly as they pursue tenure. The interdisciplinary work that the new faculty perform may not fit into the traditional career paths of faculty, and thus may be more difficult to evaluate. Allegiance to departments must be well-defined so that faculty understand their teaching commitments. This new approach is being carried out largely by untenured faculty. This could be a dangerous experience for the new faculty. As part of the mentoring this new cohort/cluster receives, we recommend that senior faculty who have experience with inter-disciplinary research participate regularly. In addition, they recommended that USD administration review the procedures that were used in this last search with a view as to institutionalizing them for future hires. If USD continues this implementation with the result of substantially increasing diversity of its faculty in the next few hiring cycles, it would position USD as a unique university.

Addressing the watershed issue of recruitment and retention of women faculty, and particularly women faculty of color in STEM, is a key concern of many higher education institutions. The importance of diversity is recognized as our society moves forward. Diversity enriches the ideas and solutions that emerge. Additionally, student demographics are changing and, therefore, more faculty that represent these changing demographics are needed. Using a novel approach and process to faculty hiring, a select group of STEM departments was able to accomplish the goal of hiring more women faculty, including several women faculty of color.

Our example suggests that, if institutions truly want to diversify their faculty, they must change the way they approach faculty hiring. While some larger institutions have taken steps, smaller, liberal arts institutions face significant challenges to attracting a diverse faculty pool. Our team was successful because it generated administrative support, obtained buy- in from key departments in STEM, and utilized a variety of tools before and during the search process. In the year since the cohort faculty arrived on campus, mentoring support and community building are moving our retention efforts forward. Taking the lessons from this hiring experience to heart, our institution continues to implement innovative approaches to hiring faculty in all areas of campus. This cohort/cluster hire was just the first of many such efforts to truly diversify the university.

Sandra Sgoutas-Emch is the director of the Center for Educational Excellence and a professor of psychological sciences at the University of San Diego (USD). Her areas of expertise include fac- ulty development, community engagement and the biopsychosocial variables linked to stress.
Lisa M. Baird, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at USD. Her research interests include girls/women in STEM disciplines and developmental changes occurring during plant growth at the cellular, subcellular and molecular level.
Perla Myers, Ph.D., is an associate dean in the USD College of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the Department of Mathematics. Myers most recent work involves the improvement of the mathematical education of teachers.
Michelle Camacho, Ph.D., is a professor in the sociology department at USD. Her book, Borderlands of Education: Latinas in Engineering, is co-authored with Dr. Susan Lord. She is also co-editor of Mentoring Faculty of Color: Essays on Professional Development and Advancement in Colleges and Universities (with Dwayne Mack and Elwood Watson).
Susan M. Lord is professor and chair of electrical engineering at USD. Her research focuses on the study and promotion of diversity in engineering including student pathways and inclusive teaching.


  1. Gasman, Kim, and Nguyen, Effectively Recruiting Faculty of Color at Highly Selective Institutions: A School of Education Case Study, pp. 212-22.
  2. Ibid. See Light, Not Like Us: Removing the Barriers to Recruiting Minority Faculty, pp. 164-80 and Smith, et al., Interrupting the Usual: Successful Strategies for Hiring Diverse Faculty, pp. 133-60.
  3. Flood, Research Cluster Hires Boost Faculty Diversity.
  4. Turner, Gonzalez, and Wood, Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 years of Literature Tells Us, pp. 139-68. See also Gasman and Nguyen, op cit.
  5. Urban Universities for Health Faculty Cluster Hiring for Diversity and Institutional Climate.
  6. Camacho et al., Interactive Theatre to Engage Faculty in Difficult Dialogues: First Implementation, pp. 1-5.
  7. Gasman, Kim, and Nguyen, op cit.; Turner, Gonzalez, and Wood, op cit.; iCubed: Inclusion. Inquiry. Innovation.; and Guenter-Schlesinger and Ojikutu, Best Practices: Recruiting and Retaining Faculty and Staff of Color.
  8. iCubed: Inclusion. Inquiry. Innovation.
  9. USD job advertisement.
  10. Harman, USD Adds Eight Outstanding Female STEM Professors. See also How U. of San Diego Added 8 Female STEM Professors. 


Camacho, Michelle Madsen, Susan M. Lord, Lisa Baird, Perla Myers, Jane Friedman, and Sandra Sgoutas-Emch. Interactive Theatre to Engage Faculty in Difficult Dialogues: First Implementation. In Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2014 IEEE, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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Gasman, Marybeth, Jessica Kim, and Thai-Huy Nguyen. 2011. Effectively Recruiting Faculty of Color at Highly Selective Institutions: A School of Education Case Study. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 4, no. 4.

Guenter-Schlesinger, S., and K. Ojikutu. N.D. Best Practices: Recruiting and Retaining Faculty and Staff of Color, Western Washington University. Retrieved from:  

Harman, Liz. 2014. USD Adds Eight Outstanding Female STEM Professors. Inside USD, (September 9). Retrieved from:

iCubed: Inclusion. Inquiry. Innovation, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Retrieved from:

Light, Paul. 1994. Not Like Us: Removing the Barriers to Recruiting Minority Faculty. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 13.

Smith, Daryl G., Sandra Richards, Nana Osei-Kofi, and Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner. 2004. Interrupting the Usual: Successful Strategies for Hiring Diverse Faculty. The Journal of Higher Education 75, no. 2.

Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes, Juan Carlos Gonzlez, and J. Luke Wood. 2008. Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 years of Literature Tells Us. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 1, no. 3.

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