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.