Rumor meets Fact: Diversity, Qualifications, and Transparency at WIU

A rumor circled back to me: the reason the last Western Illinois University presidential search committee hired “Jack” Jackie Thomas was because Holly Stovall told the committee that diversity was more important than qualifications.  While I’m tempted to let the gossips believe that I posses sufficient power to determine WIU’s president, a friend advised me to expose the facts.

Dispelling rumor about a past search opens a door to talk about the next WIU presidential search, especially as it may involve unconscious bias and the temptation to make deals in secret.

During the last presidential search, I didn’t attend any of the open candidate interviews because I didn’t have time;  I was mothering two young children while teaching new preps and trying to publish my research about Catalan novelist Ana María Moix. Honestly, I was focused on my career and family, not on advocating diversity.  And at the time, I trusted those in charge to choose the best candidate .

In retrospect, I should have gotten more involved–we all should have.  But, even if I had wanted to influence that search (and I didn’t), I possessed no power as an individual.

Now that I’ve exposed the folly of the rumor, let me proceed to say why qualifications, diversity, and transparency are each important in a presidential search.

First, diversity makes everyone smarter, and what’s a university for if not to make us smarter?

We say that the most important factor in hiring is qualifications, and I couldn’t agree more, but if we don’t recognize and unpack unconscious bias, how can we be sure that we’re evaluating qualifications fairly?

The rumor circulating about me operated under the assumption that an inherent contradiction exists between “qualifications” and “diversity,” and if you focus on one, you will unwittingly sacrifice the other.  This is a cynical assumption.  An optimistic approach entails the conviction that we should aim for both diversity and high qualifications.

So, let’s look ahead to the next presidential search and ask how we prevent unconscious bias from influencing the way we evaluate candidates.

A large body of research indicates that unconscious bias compromises the validity of hiring practices:  for example, in one study, when employers evaluated a resume headed with a masculine name, they gave it high marks, but when a different set of employers evaluated the same resume, but headed with a feminine name, they assigned it lower marks.  This pattern played out repeatedly.  Think about that– it was the same, exact, resume—the only difference was that the gender of the name in the heading.

The next presidential search committee should train with someone who has proven herself or himself effective at helping folks become aware of unconscious bias. Academics like Robin DiAngelo and Mark Anthony Neal have helped many people understand and address unconscious bias. There is no shame in taking the risk of acknowledging bias within oneself.

The most important lesson here pertains to transparency, because lack of it determined the previous search.

I have talked to two people who had close ties to the last presidential search, and from those conversations, I’ve learned that faculty (as well as others on the committee) did, in fact, carefully evaluate the qualifications of candidates and then send their recommendation to the Board of Trustees. However, a well-intentioned and powerful administrator intervened.  She or he circumvented what should have been a transparent process and persuaded the Board of the Trustees to disregard the committee’s recommendation.  This violation of process and transparency led to a crisis in leadership.

We can learn from this mistake:  respect the process and maintain rigorous standards for transparency.

And on the slight chance that any one cares what I think about the next presidential search:  choose a woman.

In executive searches, we hold women to exceedingly high standards; therefore, if you really care about qualifications (past performance), the women candidates will probably have excelled more.  The authors of some of this research say that, “women are implicitly required to show greater evidence of competence . . .  particularly in male gender-typed job domains.”

Sigh.  I can already hear the trolls and hecklers.

But one thing’s for certain–I had no influence on the previous search.  As for the next search, it’s only as part of the public that I can get something done. The public must pressure the Board of Trustees to protect fairness and transparency.  That’s our job. Their job is to represent us.




Don’t Under-recognize Professors’ Emotional Labor

Recent discussion and research has found that women, especially women teaching diversity classes, like me, do more than our fair share of emotional labor with students.  Researchers say this labor should be recognized and compensated.  The emotional labor I’ve invested in my students has helped them stay at Western Illinois University and complete their degrees.


Professors of Diversity Courses invested emotional labor in these students to help see them through to graduation.

Consider Helen’s* story.  Helen was not an “A” student, but she was caring, kind, and committed, and I knew she had enough academic skills to graduate.  As a woman of color and first generation college student, she understood intersectionality, a complicated theory that students from more privileged backgrounds struggle to master.

When I crossed paths with Helen in the quad last week, she hugged me.

“I was just telling my psychology professor about you,” she said, “I told him about that terrible day I was having, and how you walked with me to the counseling center, and how much that meant to me.”

“I’m a Women’s Studies professor, so helping students is my job.  And I had faith in you, so how could I not help you?” I said.

The last semester I’d had Helen in class, she was a freshman overcome with obstacles. She told me she might quit WIU and return to Chicago to take care of her mom.  The city of Macomb, she said, was forcing her to pay a $500 fine for fighting and drinking, but, she told me, she hadn’t been drinking.

I asked her about the fighting.  “I have to defend myself,” she said, but added, “I get so angry.”  She’s lean and petite, like me, so I understood  her need for self-defense.

“Something’s not right about this,” I had told her.  “I know you and trust you.  If you have to go to court again, let me know, and I’ll come with you.”  It wasn’t the first time I’d offered to accompany a student to court.  I didn’t want my students to feel alone in the courtroom, and I wanted the judge to know that a professor was willing to vouch for them.  I wanted the judge to see them as I did.  Often, just knowing I was wiling to vouch for them was enough to help restore a student’s confidence and grit.

At WIU, we compensate advising staff for coaching students in the qualities necessary to persist and graduate. We also employ counselors and many other support staff,  so why not compensate professors who do this work, as well?  Or at least recognize our emotional labor.

A Board of Trustees member recently suggested that WIU under-utilizes faculty (and he may be correct), but I wonder if, first, we should ask if WIU under-recognizes faculty, especially the emotional labor that professors of diversity courses invest in to help see our students through to graduation.  Only after we recognize all the labor faculty do, including emotional labor, will we have enough knowledge to evaluate the utilization of faculty.

WIU struggles with nuance.  WIU prefers to consider data and rubrics over stories and mentoring relationships.  But a university is made of people and people have stories to tell.  I’m thankful for Helen and her story.

For more on emotional labor in the diversity classroom, see my post at Inside Higher Education’s University of Venus blog.


This alumna returned to express her gratitude to the Department of Women’s Studies

*Not her real name