Creating a Path for Change

Adrienne D. Davis

When Adrienne D. Davis was named vice provost in 2011, the University already had a robust program for diversity and inclusion — for students. “Jim McLeod was both vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences,” Davis says, “and Jim had a well thought-out system and vision for student diversity.”

But very little infrastructure existed for faculty diversity. One key statistic underscored this difference: in the first 156 years of the University’s existence, “we’d only had two women deans of schools.”

At that time, many of WashU’s peer institutions had women in the role of university president or chancellor, “so we had really become an outlier,” Davis says. “And it was becoming noted when our new faculty were coming in. During new faculty orientation, we would show them the leadership team, and the new faculty — men and women — would raise their hands and say, ‘What is this place?’”

“A significant moment of value setting”

The faculty diversity statistics were a concern across the institution, not just at the leadership level. That concern prompted then-Chancellor Mark Wrighton to charge then-Provost Edward S. Macias with making faculty diversity a top priority. “That was a significant moment of value setting,” Davis says.

After an internal search process, Davis, who already held an appointment as the William M. Van Cleve Professor in the School of Law, was selected vice provost, with a primary focus on increasing faculty diversity and also to help diversify senior administration. “So we rolled up our sleeves and we got to work,” she says.

That work began with a listening tour to better understand the challenge from a range of perspectives. Davis also reached out to counterparts in peer institutions, to see how they approached their work.

What she found in researching peer institutions was that many of them took a compliance approach to diversity, in which schools and departments reported on their progress. Davis saw several drawbacks to that approach.

First, she didn’t have the resources to manage compliance for such a large institution. One of her counterparts at a major state flagship institution had a team of 88 people. At the time, Davis had a staff of one-third of a person — and she was only a half-time vice provost.

Second, she wasn’t interested in compliance work. “If I had wanted to do compliance work, I would’ve gone to work for the federal government at the EPA or the SEC,” Davis says.

And third, she didn’t think that kind of relationship would be productive — she knew “the way regulated industries think about the EPA and the SEC … they’re not happy when they see you coming.”

A different approach

Davis envisioned a different kind of relationship. “I thought, ‘I want to approach this as though the schools are my clients,’” she says. “So instead of my regulating them, where they’re kind of working for me and reporting to me, I thought, ‘I want to come at it this other way, which is as a consultant and problem solver.’”

She knew that to shift the mindset around faculty hiring and promotion, she would need to earn the trust of her university colleagues. Thus, rather than seeing her as a compliance officer to be avoided, she says, “I wanted the schools, the deans, and ultimately my colleagues to think of me as a free consultant for them, helping them figure out how to reach their goals.”

But while she saw potential in this different approach, and knew from her listening tour that many departments did have goals to increase their faculty diversity, her expectations were modest. After all, she’d seen peer institutions struggle to sustainably improve faculty diversity, many that had “been at this for generations. They’ve hired a lot of people, [but] they’ve lost equal numbers, without a lot of net increase,” she says.

Davis’ mindset was, “If you’ve seen 30 rockets try to go to the moon and all of them are not quite making it, you’re thinking, ‘Well, we’re going to launch the 31st, [and] we’re going to do it because it’s the right thing to do, but [we know] there’s a very, very high chance it’s not going to work.’”

“We democratized diversity”

As Davis prepared her rocket for launch, she got an institutional boost: the Diversity and Inclusion Grant program, which had launched in the fall of 2009. The brainchild of Leah Merrifield, who at the time was Special Assistant to the Chancellor for diversity initiatives, the program “made available to any full-time employee, faculty or staff, up to $30,000 to operationalize an idea they had about how to make their corner of the campus more diverse and inclusive,” Davis says. “I don’t think anyone had done that before, and it was a genius idea.”

Those grants helped Davis change the tenor and tone about diversity and inclusion across the institution. “When I arrived at Washington University, you talked about diversity and the women faculty were frustrated and angry,” Davis says. “The administration, when you brought up diversity, they seemed exhausted and defensive. And faculty of color didn’t seem to believe that much could or would be done.”

But the grant program helped to “change the tenor of the discourse and dialogue around diversity.” Now when Davis met with people, she could say, “‘Hey, do you have an idea? Because if you have an idea, I can find some money for you.’ The people who didn’t want to engage, we didn’t hear from. Instead, we heard from all the people who had really great ideas.”

Not only did many of those ideas get funded, engaging people from across the University in diversity efforts, but the colleagues, staff, and faculty who reviewed grant applications felt invested in diversity and inclusion work as well. “The ability to direct almost a million dollars is an empowering opportunity,” Davis says, referencing the total amount distributed through the grants. Instead of having a room full of senior administrators deciding how to pursue diversity work, “we democratized diversity.”

Davis also reconfigured the Distinguished Visiting Scholar Program. Her office funds academic departments in bringing to campus visitors who have distinguished themselves in scholarship, the arts, and other fields of endeavor. Departments identify individuals from underrepresented groups who come to campus for anywhere from three days to two weeks to deliver public lectures, visit classes, conduct studio critiques, and even choreograph dances. While on campus, they meet with Davis, the Provost, and the Chancellor. Davis expanded the program to include women in underrepresented fields. She says the program is another way of “democratizing diversity, putting the resources in the hands of our colleagues to fund their visions for diverse excellence. We’ve had 62 distinguished visitors across the Danforth Campus, and have created long-standing relationships and ambassadors for the University.”

Developing a Diversified Approach

One thing Davis made sure not to do was take a one-size-fits-all approach to diversity. She saw that different Danforth schools had different challenges and different histories related to diversity and inclusion. Each also had its own culture. So she encouraged them to experiment with and develop approaches that fit their situation and needs.

The Brown School began to continuously recruit diverse candidates, even if they didn’t have a position open. “They said, ‘We want to be constantly identifying talented, underrepresented minority candidates and bringing them to campus for talks,’” Davis explains. Funded through a diversity and inclusion grant, this initiative introduced scholars to WashU who might not have otherwise visited campus. The Brown School also adopted the mindset that, “if we find someone good who we think we should hire, we’re going to go after them and hire them.”

The McKelvey School of Engineering focused on bringing more diverse candidates to campus in the search process. Their mindset was, “if we don’t see enough diversity in the [hiring] pool, we’re going to go deeper into the pool,” Davis says. As more candidates from underrepresented groups came to campus through the hiring process, search committees met more strong candidates, and began advocating for multiple members of the pool to be hired.

Both schools began to improve their faculty diversity.

Examining all Stages of the Hiring Process

As Davis worked with schools and their search committees, she saw moments — before, during, and after the hiring process — where the university was losing strong scholars. She set out to develop strategies that would address those weak spots in the process.

One challenge was search committee turnover. In many industries and sectors, the same people participate in the hiring process over and over, developing expertise. In higher education, hiring committees rotate with each new search, and department chairs rotate every three to ten years, meaning a hiring committee chair might only fill that role once every seven to ten years. Davis realized that she and the school deans were the repeat players in the process, who developed significant expertise over the course of many, many hires.

To ensure every hiring committee was thinking about diversity in every search, and had strategies to support it, Davis reconfigured an annual search workshop that gave hiring chairs, or their representatives, best practices for yielding an outstanding and diverse candidate pool. She also encouraged the hiring and department chairs to view her as a resource in their searches, not weighing in on the substance of searches, but more as a consultant who could help them develop strategies for achieving their goals.

Davis also noticed that the nature of the hiring process meant that even after a successful on-campus interview, a hiring committee might not communicate with a strong candidate for several months as they completed their process. “But I could be the person who would remain in contact with the candidates,” Davis says. Because she was not part of the hiring decision, she could answer candid questions about the culture and environment at WashU, and about living in St. Louis.

Negative perceptions about St. Louis proved to be another challenge. Hiring chairs sometimes sensed that a candidate “seems skittish about St. Louis, about moving their family of color or mixed-race family to St. Louis.” She worked with departments to bring candidates back and show off all that St. Louis has to offer. At the end of the tours, Davis says, candidates “walk away saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this town is a hidden jewel.’”

Davis also heard candidates of color express concerns about isolation. “A lot of people who we recruit still would be the only person in their department, or one of two people in a department, or even a school,” she says. To address that concern, she began to host dinner parties for candidates, bringing together people from other schools and departments who are connected to their work. These parties give candidates a “sense of, ‘This is the rich community I can be a part of.’”

And because faculty recruited to WashU need to live somewhere, Davis looked at the house-hunting process, and found opportunity to make an impact there as well. She tells the story of a “realtor who just completely offended a mixed-race couple,” and the candidate didn’t accept their offer. “So I said, ‘That’s it. Realtors have to take me out personally before I will refer them.’” She is constantly developing a list of realtors who share the University’s diversity values and believe in St. Louis, which she shares with hiring and department chairs.

Once colleagues arrive, Davis tries to ensure that they have intellectual, professional, and personal communities. She leads several programs designed to help faculty persist towards tenure, promotion, and academic excellence, while building a cohort across departments and schools. The program for tenure-track faculty was sufficiently successful that last year some recently tenured “alums” of the program worked with Davis to pilot a successor program, to provide support in pursuing the path to full professor. Davis also leads formal and informal leadership development programs, and last year began working with her three Gender Equity Faculty Fellows to create institutional capacity building around gender equity, as well as generating opportunities for professional development and community among women faculty.

 Making Measurable Progress

None of these strategies alone would have been enough to meaningfully increase faculty diversity. But the variety of approaches, combined with a university-side willingness to invest in new ideas and support from Davis’ office, has made an impact on the numbers.

Between 2010 and 2018, the percentage of tenured/tenure-track faculty on the Danforth campus who belong to an underrepresented minority group has increased 93 percent, with growth among African American/Black faculty increasing 113 percent, among Hispanic/Latinx faculty growing 65 percent, and women faculty increasing 21 percent.

Davis is proud of the improvement, but quick to acknowledge both that moving those numbers has been a true team effort — and that there is still much room for improvement. She believes one key to continued progress is defeating the skepticism about what’s possible. “We have to overcome our own internalized narratives about why this won’t work,” she says.

 She’s already got the evidence to prove what is possible.