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Diverse postdoctoral program yields five new tenure-track EHE faculty

Initiative success hinged on building a supportive and inclusive culture

The move is unprecedented, especially for a single college within a flagship university. The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology has completed the first cycle of its Dean’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellows Program by hiring five of the scholars into tenure track positions.

Designed to groom postdocs of color to become top-performing faculty, the two-year fellowship created a pathway to the professoriate in the college – a “grow your own” model for hiring and retaining faculty of color.

“This initiative required us to think differently about how we diversify faculty in our college at a time when many institutions continue to use traditional approaches that have failed to address the cultural environment of the unit,” said Dean Don Pope-Davis. “We chose to be disruptive by consistently asking ourselves, ‘Is what we are doing transformative, consistent with our core values and sustainable?’”

Senior Associate Dean Noelle Arnold, who directs the postdoctoral program, said scholars of color typically don’t get the same start as other faculty.

“Research has shown that new faculty of color often lack doctoral mentorship beyond the dissertation,” said Arnold, director of the college’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Global Engagement. “We provided significant mentoring for research, teaching, service and grant writing – designed to foster belonging, efficacy and successful metrics for the professoriate. This fellowship was our way of not only diversifying our faculty but also being a part of the solution to some negative statistics.”

Less than 15% of all postdoctoral scholars become tenure-track faculty, according to a national survey. A small percentage of those are diverse. Also, in 2018, Black and Hispanic faculty accounted for 18% of tenure-track positions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but just 7% held tenured positions.

So it’s significant that five of Ohio State’s cohort were hired by the college to date. The program’s success hinged upon building a supportive and inclusive culture through intensive mentoring, professional development and research assistance. The multi-tiered approach included opportunities for community and college engagement on special projects to foster an immediate sense of belonging and engagement with the community.

The end-game, for both the fellows and the college, was for them to find their place at the college table and to emerge as highly accomplished scholars. A comprehensive process for monitoring progress kept the scholars on track each semester, Arnold said.

Cohort support brings success

The effort panned out. Since starting the fellowship in 2019, the eight postdoctoral scholars received more than $4 million in grant funding and authored more than 30 publications. 

Among those hired is Rhodesia McMillian, now an assistant professor of educational policy. In April, after months of working with faculty mentors and the college’s Office of Research, Innovation and Collaboration, she received a Spencer Foundation grant to analyze federal court appeals involving K-12 schools.

“My (graduate) professors didn’t have those types of resources,” she said. “They had to fend for themselves.”

The postdocs were offered competitive salaries, moving expenses, a technology package and professional development. Faculty mentors were paid to serve as coaches, signaling the importance of the effort. The fellows were encouraged to pursue independent research paths and not “kowtow to a larger project at the college,” McMillian said.

“I have yet to experience a point of divergence,” she said. “Even if it’s not said explicitly, it’s felt explicitly: When I succeed, the college, and consequently the university, succeeds.”

Dinorah Sánchez Loza, among the cohort and now assistant professor of multicultural and equity studies in education, credits leadership and hands-on mentoring.

“What has been most striking is the holistic approach to providing an atmosphere of support and genuine investment in our success,” she said. “All along the way I benefited from knowing my scholarship and I were valued here – something I did not think I could expect from such a large university.”

Bigger, in this case, is better

The large cohort was cohesive, critical for retention. Together they received bimonthly sessions from teaching award recipients, grant writing assistance and professional development on time management. Some collaborated on grant proposals and – when the pandemic curtailed their social gatherings – had informal FaceTime meetups. They bonded.

“The cohort model is a key feature that contributed to developing a diverse scholarly network, and, importantly, a sense of community,” said Kristen J. Mills, who was hired as an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs.

The program’s design goes beyond numbers, Arnold said, but the cohort size was key because representation and belongingness matter. The college more than doubled its number of postdoctoral scholars of color when hiring the eight fellows in 2019.

How colleges recruit also matters. As part of the dean’s initiative, candidates for the fellowship were brought together in 2019 for three days of events, including a banquet, poster sessions, meetings with faculty and university leadership, and seats at the first Olivia J. Hooker Lecture featuring author Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

“I’ve had friends in the (academic) job market say, ‘I just felt like the token,’” said Autumn Bermea, now an assistant professor of human development and family science. “It didn’t feel like that at all. When we came for interviews, it felt very much like, ‘We are here to nurture you, and we value what you’re going to bring to help the department grow.’”

The keys to building a diverse faculty

Just after Steven Stone-Sabali applied for the fellowship, he was offered a tenure-track position at another Midwestern university. Ohio State countered by offering him a visiting professor position and all the supports of the postdoc program. He accepted and has now been hired as an assistant professor of school psychology.

The college’s “public-facing focus” on diversity clinched Stone-Sabali’s decision to come to Ohio State.

“Announcing their values unapologetically signaled something to me in terms of it might be a safer space to embrace my research,” which examines discrimination of students of color in the educational mental health care system, he said. “My research looks at race, essentially. How people respond to that topic can go any type of way. I felt like my research would have a safe home and be supported. I didn’t have to tone it down or be concerned about how people perceive my work.”

Having college leadership proactively back its commitment to diversification signaled the college’s priorities early on, Stone-Sabali said.

“In Black psychology, we have a cultural mistrust of others,” he said. “It’s been shown to be a protective factor, because Black individuals have been harmed in the past by society. So supporting diversity has to be more than just talk; there has to be action to support that.

“The narrative is that all these universities want to diversify. But for some odd reason, they can't figure out how to do it. The dean has done it. That says something.”

See articles in Inside Higher Education and Diverse Issues in Higher Education. 

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