UW News

August 14, 2023

UW bioengineering researchers help create a roadmap to diversify faculty hiring

A biochemistry lab bench with pipettes and bottles of liquid. A microcentrifuge and a Bunsen burner sit to the right

A team of biomedical researchers, including two bioengineers at the University of Washington, has developed a new method for hiring engineering professors. The team’s roadmap details six major steps that could help increase diversity in faculty hiring. The primary goal is to actively recruit a more diverse group of applicants and improve the rate that doctoral students from historically excluded groups go on to become faculty members.Sarah McQuate

A team of biomedical researchers, including two bioengineers at the University of Washington, has developed a new method for hiring engineering professors. Currently, the researchers argue, engineering departments “lack the education and skills needed to effectively hire faculty candidates from historically excluded groups.”

To help diversify faculty hiring, the team published a hiring roadmap August 14 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“While Black, Latinx and Indigenous individuals make up about 34% of the U.S. population, individuals from these same demographics comprise only about 6% of our nationwide engineering and STEM faculty,” said co-author Kelly Stevens, UW associate professor of bioengineering and of laboratory medicine and pathology. “This disconnect means that our profession is underperforming. Addressing this massive issue would create a stronger profession that is better equipped to tackle our society’s and world’s biggest challenges. Most of the strategies in the paper can be broadly applied not just in biomedical engineering, but also across science, technology, engineering and math fields.”

The team’s roadmap details six major steps that could help increase diversity in faculty hiring. These steps are rooted in evidenced-based best practices as well as experiences in the researchers’ own institutions. The primary goal is to actively recruit, hire and retain a more diverse group of faculty and improve the rate at which doctoral students from historically excluded groups go on to become faculty members.

“You can’t just say ‘it’s not our fault, we don’t get the applicants’ — that’s passing the buck,” said lead author Elizabeth Cosgriff-Hernandez, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you want to change the diversity of your hiring program, you have to change how you’re getting applicants and how you evaluate them.”

Throughout the paper, the researchers emphasize the importance of developing consistent rubrics with fleshed out criteria to evaluate candidates. The researchers cite studies showing that a lack of strict criteria leads to less diverse hiring and “sliding bias.”

“Most departments think they are looking only at ‘the science’ experiences, with no look at ‘lived’ experiences. However, the data shows that even when looking at the science experiences alone we make evaluations with substantive racial and gender bias,” Stevens said. “We also don’t account for how historical and current lived inequities can lead to different scientific and professional experiences.”

Unbiased practices like evaluation rubrics can level the playing field for candidates who come from historically excluded groups. In the paper, the team includes a template rubric that anyone can use for hiring processes.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for folks who read this paper to put the recommendations into practice,” said co-author Patrick Boyle, UW assistant professor in bioengineering. “It is set up as an online form and it’s paired with an online spreadsheet system that is designed to automatically reduce inter-review variability. For example, if one reviewer gives candidates the highest score in all categories but another reviewer uses the entire scoring range, the tool makes it easy for evaluators to automatically take that into account.”

In addition to finding a diverse pool of candidates and using rubrics to evaluate them, the researchers recommend:

  • Preparing the department: Getting buy-in at all levels, including staff, faculty and leadership, is key. People aren’t going to want to continue to work in environments where they don’t feel welcome.
  • Planning the search: A job search can take several months, but departments should spend significant time planning for the search in advance. During that time, focal points should include making sure everyone is aligned in what to look for in a candidate, building a strong search committee, training its members to complete the task, assessing roadblocks from past searches and revising materials to embrace new hiring strategies.
  • Interviewing inclusively: To level the playing field, the researchers recommend being transparent about the interview process. They also advocate for including students in the process, collecting independent feedback after interviews and mitigating the impact of potentially toxic faculty members.
  • Recruiting proactively: Once a top candidate has been identified, that person should get the opportunity to meet students and members of the broader university community. Showcasing the department and its vision as well as making the environment equitable in advance can increase the chance that the prospective faculty member will accept the offer.

“One of the biggest departures from the status quo addressed in this paper is an emphasis on aggressive transparency,” Boyle said. “For many aspiring academics, the hiring process for tenure-track positions feels shrouded in secrecy. Oftentimes, this results in a mismatch between how interviewees prepare and what interviewers expect. Transparency is also important in how the department presents itself. Departments in full-on recruitment mode will naturally want to put their best foot forward, but that runs the risk of hiring a candidate into a situation that they may ultimately find challenging or even toxic.”

The project is one of many from a group called BME UNITE, a national network of more than 450 bioengineering and biomedical engineering faculty. BME UNITE formed in 2020 as a way to address racism in the profession and in broader society. This group has several subcommittees working to address issues of bias and lack of representation in academia. For example, Stevens is the lead and co-corresponding author on a paper published in Cell calling for an end to discrimination in research funding that disadvantages Black scientists.

All of the co-authors on this paper are part of BME UNITE. Additional co-authors are Brian A. Aguado and Karen L. Christman at University of California, San Diego; Belinda Akpa at University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Gabriella Coloyan Fleming at University of Texas at Austin; Erika Moore, Ana Maria Porras and Gregory A. Hudalla at University of Florida; Deva D. Chan at Purdue University; Naomi Chesler at University of California, Irvine; Tejal A. Desai at Brown University; Brendan A.C. Harley at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Megan L. Killian at University of Michigan; Katharina Maisel at University of Maryland; Kristen C. Maitland at Texas A&M University; Shelly R. Peyton at University of Massachusetts Amherst; Beth L. Pruitt at University of California, Santa Barbara; Sarah E. Stabenfeldt at Arizona State University; and Audrey K. Bowden at Vanderbilt University.

For more information, contact Stevens at ksteve@uw.edu and Boyle at pmjboyle@uw.edu.

Adapted from a press release from the University of Texas at Austin.