An Honest Conversation about Diversity in Today’s Academic Environment

We sat down with Cassandra Cole and Willie Reddic to have an honest conversation about diversity issues in today’s academic environment. The interview touches on the need for a more diverse faculty in the U.S., how we can improve diversity in colleges and universities, how they personally deal with conscious and unconscious bias in their day-to-day work, and what ARIA members can do to make a difference.

Cassandra Cole is the Chair of Risk Management Insurance Real Estate and Legal Studies Department at Florida State University. Cassandra is also a Co-Editor of the Journal of Insurance Regulation, Director of the Master of Science in Risk Management and Insurance Program, and the Dr. William T. Hold Professor in Risk Management and Insurance.  Willie Reddic is an Associate Professor at DePaul University.

What is your perspective on the percent of minority business faculty at U.S. colleges and universities?

Cassandra: When looking at the last twenty years or so you will see the percent of Black and Hispanic faculty has increased. However, it started at such a low percent that even though it has now doubled, we are still talking about only about 10 percent of the faculty. Another issue is that when you look at faculty across ranks, as you move from assistant to associate to full professor, the percent of minorities gets smaller and smaller.

This is a big contrast to what we are seeing with minority students. Minority students represent a much larger percent of student bodies, about 33%. Therefore, we have a large percent of minority students, but a very small percent of minority professors instructing. The reality is, when we are thinking of what we want to be when we grow up and we look around us, we think about what we can be by what we see. When you see someone that looks like you in a leadership position, it gives you the idea that you can be that as well. When there is such a small percent of corporate leaders in those types of positions, it can have an impact on what these minority students think that they can accomplish.

To read more about statistics on student population and faculty, visit this page.

Willie: There is not simply not enough Black and Hispanic faculty. Institutions need to work towards hiring people of color by making sure they have a diverse set of applicants in their application pool. This also requires having administration, faculty, and staff champion for hiring diverse candidates. Furthermore, there is a pipeline problem. In other words, there is nothing in place to enforce diversity hires. There needs to be specific measures to not only address this problem, but to solve this problem as well.

What can be done to increase the percent of minorities pursuing advanced degrees and increase success rates of minority faculty in pursuit of tenure?

Willie: With respect to pursuing advanced degrees, we need to inform and educate minorities about all aspects of a business doctoral program, and encourage them to follow their dreams of becoming a professor. In addition, it is important to provide minority students with a network of support as they navigate through their doctoral program. For example, The PhD Project is a great mentor support program whose mission is to increase workplace diversity by increasing the diversity of business school faculty who encourage, mentor, support and enhance the preparation of tomorrow’s leaders. I was involved in the PhD Project during my time as a student and it greatly helped me navigate the challenges I faced in my pursuit to become a college professor. I am still involved in the PhD project as a faculty member as well.

With respect to increase success rates of minority faculty in pursuit of tenure, the same opportunities need to be present for all faculty members. For example, minority faculty members need the same tools and resources that all other faculty members have to be successful. Further, these faculty members, when initially hired are usually placed on committees to increase diversity and inclusion before tenure. This could have a negative impact on the individual’s success rate in pursuit of tenure. Therefore, minority faculty should be protected for at least the first four years so they are able to work on their research agenda.

Cassandra: It is important that we recognize and encourage minority students as best we can. Not to necessarily treat them differently, but if you have a very bright student, trying to plant the seed early by talking to them about academic career options. That is how I decided to go into this profession. I had a professor that approached me when I was an undergraduate student. At 19 years old, that is not something I ever thought about doing, but when someone actually spoke to me about all you can accomplish and the lifestyle you can live, it became extremely appealing.

In addition, we can support organizations or efforts that are trying to help minorities that decide to pursue doctoral degrees and that provide support to students and young academics progressing through the tenure process. For example, the PhD Project. These organizations can also be a great place to go when you are recruiting and want to make sure you have a diverse pool of candidates.

How do you personally deal with conscious and unconscious bias?

Cassandra: At this stage of my life, what I experience is unconscious bias. As a black female who tends to look young, when I tell people about my career and all of my accomplishments, they tend to be very surprised. This could be for a number of reasons; however, the idea is that we all have preconceived notions of people when we meet. I do not know if that is necessarily a bad thing, but what we have to do is acknowledge it and once we do, make sure it is not for one of the reasons that would be inappropriate.

What I try to do to combat this is that whenever I have an opportunity to speak out, I take that opportunity. Whether it be for minorities or women. I think the more the general population sees minority women in leadership roles and the accomplishments they have made, the less likely you are to have that bias because it becomes the norm just like anything else. As a minority woman, I feel like it is my duty to put myself out there. You are often taught to be modest, but I do feel like it is important to be confident and comfortable in discussing your accomplishments. The more that happens the less people will have that unconscious bias.

Willie: In terms of conscious bias, I treat everyone with respect regardless of color until I feel personally attacked or like I am not part of the consensus of the group. In addition, I request details of what is required of me so that I can be successful. For example, for my promotion and tenure, I was told I needed a certain number of published articles in specific journals. Therefore, my goals was n + 2 to make sure there were no discrepancies in my tenure case with respect to number of publications. To mitigate any bias, I attempt to go beyond what is expected of me.

When examining unconscious bias, I realize that I can only do what is required of my job description and go above and beyond. When thinking of what others need to do, I feel it can be broken down in five simple steps:

  1. Be aware of your environment: Hold yourself accountable for what you are saying and respect everyone else.
  2. Question others and question yourself: There are many academics that are quick to point fingers. In reality, everyone needs to point the fingers at themselves by looking in the mirror and seeing if they are the ones who are causing the problems.
  3. Create inclusive meeting practices Talk about the elephant in the room, what is going on in the world and how we can improve.
  4. Create a supportive dialogue: Everyone’s opinion should matter. You should not attack someone because they have certain views. Hear them out and bring in a different perspective. In times like these, it is important we learn how to listen.
  5. Take action: We talk about goals we want to accomplish when discussing diversity & inclusion, however many of these action items are shelved. We need to truly work on taking action and implementing these visions.

What can ARIA members do to address unconscious bias? How can ARIA members help in increasing awareness of diversity & inclusion issues?

Willie: We need to support our brightest minds to work collaboratively across disciplines, solve global challenges and find new ways forward, but this innovation and forward thinking has not been used to solve the challenges of racial harassment. ARIA has a tendency to focus on just the insurance issues; however, there are big insurance issues surrounding diversity. For example, when looking at COVID-19, the rate of infection is extremely disproportionate in that an overwhelming number of infections are affecting the minority communities. If we are going to be a part of an organization that studies insurance, it should be on all different scales.

When examining how ARIA members can help, speak up if you truly feel there is racial injustice among ARIA members. We need to talk about it and cannot be afraid to call people out and have a dialogue. In addition, educating ourselves and keeping ourselves informed of the diversity issues is the biggest catalyst for change. Change happens when you are ready to look in the mirror and be ready to accept that change.

Cassandra: In general, just acknowledging when they have those moments of unconscious bias. Taking a moment to think, “why am I surprised by this, or why did I assume this was the case?”, can make all the difference. The more they bring that to their own attention, the less likely they are to engage in that type of behavior. In addition, when you come across minority students, make sure that you are seeing their potential and encouraging them to reach that potential.