Making Institutional Change
by Denice Denton
Photo of Denice Denton from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was Chancellor in February 2006.
The following article
is a transcript of the
presentation by Denice
Denton to the 2003
Women in Astronomy
II conference. At the
time of WIA II Denice
Denton was Dean of
Engineering at the
University of Washington.
On February 14, 2005 she
became Chancellor of the
University of California,
Santa Cruz, the position
she held until her suicide
16 months later.
Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to be here
today to talk about this really important
topic. I’m going to talk about two things:
diversifying faculty and staff ranks and how
you retain those people once you recruit them.
If you work hard to get great people into an
organization, you don’t want a revolving door
where they’re gone the next year. Particularly,
I want to talk about the key role of leaders, and
the cultural change that is required to recruit and
retain a diverse group. I would argue that unit
directors, deans, chairs, laboratory directors,
whatever leaders you have in
your organization, have to be
involved. They have to provide
the leadership, they have to have
the vision that diversity and
excellence go hand-in-hand, and
they have to really believe that.
Otherwise you might as well
not try to deal with it at your
organization. It will be a waste
of your time. A related issue is if
you are involved in a search for
the lab director, the department
chair, the dean, the provost,
the president of the university,
the notion that diversity and
excellence go hand-in-hand has
to be a go/no go issue at the time
of the hire. If you can’t bring in a
leader who gets this, who knows
it, who’s lived it, who’s got a
track record, forget it! So there are issues that
you need to think about in populating leadership
positions if you really want to make progress in
this arena. If the president doesn’t care about it,
it isn’t going to happen!
Furthermore, the leader needs to get some
clarity with the team about the hiring criteria.
What are we looking for in this person, in this
position? What kind of attributes, what kind of
track record? One of the things that I’ve found
is that when you’re trying to achieve equity and
diversity, if you have a poorly defined process, you
won’t have uniformity. Not having uniformity is a
breeding ground for inequity. You’ve got to have
some rigidity and uniformity about how you do
the process in order to get equity out the other
side. The other thing that I think is important is
having some infrastructure in your organization.
For example, on a university campus, if you have
Women in Science and Engineering, Minorities
in Science and Engineering, K-12 outreach, you
will have a better chance to recruit people who
care about diversity. Those are some systematic,
background things that I think are important. So
in terms of recruitment, the unit director has got
to be on top of the process. How are we going
to do this search? And how are we going to do it
consistently with our other searches?
When I first got to University of Washington,
there were ten departments in the College of
Engineering, each doing searches a different way.
In addition, many of the departments were
doing multiple searches. A big department might
have five different searches, for five small areas.
It’s not the way to go! You dilute the search. If
you have a department with five parallel search
committees, two things will
happen. One is you lower the
bar, because you don’t have all
the people in the pool together.
You’re not looking at the quality
of the whole pool. The other
thing is, because there are so
few women and people of color,
there is little likelihood you’re
going to have women and/or
people of color in all of those
search pools. So if you’re trying
to do diversity and excellence, I
really think you need to look at
the entire pool at the same time.
I meet with every department
search committee every fall.
The department chair will have
assembled a search committee
and assigned a chair. We sit down
together and we talk about the
process. What are the criteria,
and how am I going to work with the committee?
I talk to them very explicitly about the fact that
we’re looking for the best people in the world.
How do you go out and find the best people
in the world? When I got to Seattle, I observed
that the organization was not hiring as many
diverse faculty as I would have liked. So my
initial thought was, “Well, gee, all I have to do
is tweak in a little bit of diversity information,
so that they can broaden their pool and have
better diversity in the pool.” So I started trying
to add in some little things about diversity, and I
found that they didn’t know how to do a faculty
search! And why should they? How many of
you have had a class or any kind of professional
development concerning how to do a search?
We don’t know how to do this stuff! We got
Ph.D.s in other things, not Human Resources. As
much as physicists, and electrical engineers, and
astronomers like to think we know how to do
everything, we don’t! You just need to get some help. To provide that help, we built a search tool
kit. That tool kit is online at http://www.engr.
washington.edu/advance. It goes through a good
search process. It synthesized some really good
documents from around the country and we
added some of our own materials.
I walk the search committees through the
website and give them a hard copy. I discuss some
of the issues. Here are some challenges that come
up when you’re doing a search, and you want to
increase diversity. Number one, understand and
know that there are illegal questions that violate
Federal law when you’re doing a search. What are
those questions? Are you married? Do you have
kids? Are you planning to have kids? What does
your husband think about your taking this job?
Will your husband move? How old are you? What
religion are you? What’s your race? It’s important
to discuss these illegal questions, because who is
it that gets asked that stuff? Women, and people
of color! So the director has to educate your team
about what those illegal questions are. On our
website, we discuss what you can and can’t ask
in searches. While that seems like it might not
be a big deal, I know people, including myself,
who’ve not gone to a place because they were
asked illegal questions. What is the best way to
answer an illegal question? I think that you can
say, “Why is that important?” That usually stops
them in their tracks. If it doesn’t, then you can
say, “Well, you know, I understand that that’s not
an appropriate question.”
Here’s another thing to tell the search committee
not to do. I had a conversation with a search
committee looking for a department chair. They
called a woman and said, “We’re very interested in
you. We want you to come and be the department
chair. And the dean wants a woman!” So I get a
call from this woman. She says, “What’s going on
up there?” I said, “What do you mean?” “Well,
I got this call. They said you want a woman!”
I said, “Oh! Sorry, sorry, sorry. I don’t want a
woman, you know what I mean?” So I say to
my search committees “Read my lips. I’m not
saying, ‘I want a woman!’” I tell that story to
every search committee. I say, “Think about it!
If somebody called you and said, ‘We’re real
interested in you because our dean wants a
man!’ How would you interpret that? It sounds
like ‘We don’t care if you’re smart, we don’t care
about anything except your anatomy.’ And that’s
how it comes out when you hear it.” I’ve heard
it many times. “Oh, Denice, can you be on this
committee? We need a woman.” “Well, do you
need a smart one, a dumb one? Idiot? Village
idiot okay? I’m kind of busy, but I know a stupid
woman.” You have to really get into it and have
the conversation. But I really urge you to do it if
you’re in that kind of a position.
So the next thing is, what have we all heard
when we start talking about this? “Well, sure,
but...There aren’t any!” I take along to our
meeting the latest National Research Council
statistics on the post-docs and Ph.D. graduates.
They have it by department, by discipline, by
ethnicity—all the demographics. I pull it out if
it’s the Chemical Engineering Department, for
example, and say “ Let’s see how many women
got Ph.D.s in Chem-E last year. Look at that!
Forty! Maybe we can find one of them.” Scientists
and engineers are data driven. You can get past
a lot of misconceptions by showing them some
numbers. It’s on the web. Print it out. I talk to
them about how to cast the net broadly, do very
proactive recruitment, and early recruitment. We
talk about the fact that every department ought
to be searching all the time. You’re at a meeting,
a young woman gives a great talk. Go up to her
and say, “I was very impressed by your talk, and
I hope you will consider our university when
the times comes for you to look for a faculty
position. Here’s my card.” Be on the watch all
the time for people who could be good faculty.
Go up to them and tell them that. Women and
people of color have never heard it and you will
make an impression. So be recruiting all the
time. Get to know people. All the departments
should be doing that.
Once you get to the interview you want to
establish equitable treatment. What can happen
is Mr. Smith is interviewing this week, and Ms.
Jones is coming next week. Well, gee, somehow
Smith’s interview is smooth as silk. We got it
all planned. Jones is coming on Tuesday. It’s
Tuesday! We’re running around the hall going,“Who’s taking her to dinner? Who’s got any
time to do that?” So that’s why process matters.
You want to make sure you’re treating people
equitably. One of the big issues with faculty, and
I would say it’s particularly big for physicists and
astronomers is, “Well, we have to find out who’s
good enough to go through the eye of our needle.
Be like us.” So here are 1,000 applications, and
we’re filtering through to figure out who we’re
going to anoint and bless, who is going to join
us. Well, guess what? Good people have a lot
of opportunities. So we have got to recruit
them. If a person is that great, she will get ten
offers. This is a recruitment, not a search. The
search is the easy part. The hard part is getting
that best person in the country to come to your
organization. So another thing that I do is I
interview all the candidates myself. I think that
sends a message, both to the internal people that
I care a lot about this and to the candidate. You
should appoint an ambassador for the candidate.
Miss Jones knows that you’re her ambassador. You know that you’re her ambassador, and you
stay in touch with her. Think about partner hire
issues. Think about them as early as you can.
Get involved with them. Have a policy in your
organization of how you will deal with them. Be
equitable about the start-up package.
Here’s an important issue. We have an endowed
chair. Close your eyes and imagine what the
person who you recruit into that chair will look
like. If we’re sitting in the astronomy department,
and there are 20 older guys and three or four
women, what image will be conjured up? “He will
be older. He’s probably going to have grey hair.
Distinguished, respectable authority.” Right? “World-renowned. Superstar.” Make sure that
you’re using your endowed positions to recruit
women and people of color. Endowed chairs almost
always go to white guys. So it’s another issue where
the leadership has to be honest, or it won’t happen.
How do you discuss partner hire? We have
a three page list of benefits for new faculty. One
of the items on that list is a dual-career program.
So I walk candidates through the list and point
out the different kinds of programs that we have,
and say, “Would you like to hear more about any
of these?” Now if you’re the graduate student
or the post-doctoral fellow doing an interview,
when should you bring it up? I would say, if you
like that place and you’re getting good vibes from
them on your first interview, bring it up then. If
they get upset about it when you bring it up, then
it’s probably not a great place for you to go. They
ought to be able to handle that issue. On the other
hand, you could wait until they call back and say,We want to make an offer to you.” What’s the
difficulty with that? It’s late May, faculty have
left. Your partner wants an academic position.
They want you there in the fall. It’s really
difficult at that point to arrange everything, so
you’ve probably lost that opportunity. I would
argue disclose earlier rather than later.
What do you think I hear all the time from
people about diversity initiatives? Not from you,
from your counterparts. “You’re lowering the
standards. You don’t care about quality. You’re
taking jobs away from qualified people.” The
Clarence Thomas argument. “They will feel bad
if they get this job.” Right! How many people in
this room ever felt horrible, because they got a
job because of affirmative action. Anybody? A few
people. So let’s talk about quality. We had 22 new
hires in a recent year, all in engineering. Seven were
women, two were African-American. Well, we had
in the year 2001, 14 career award applications,
and we won nine career awards in one year. I
went on the NSF website, and I couldn’t find any
other R-1 university that on a per capita basis in
engineering had ever, ever had that many! If you
need to convince people, show them some data like
this. You don’t have to lower your standards. We’ve
gotten 25 career awards in four years.
I’ll make a couple of meta-comments. One
meta-comment is that for those of you who are
thinking about going into a leadership position,
you really can have an impact. I’ve been at Seattle
seven years, and I feel like I’ve really had a
huge impact. They weren’t emphasizing diversity
before I got there. They were doing some of
it—I didn’t start from scratch. Now we’ve really
moved to a whole new level, and I continue to
teach. I have a small scale research program
going. You don’t have to give up your life to go
into administration. So the comment is if you are
willing to take on a leadership position, you can
continue to do other things, and you can have
impact. If you take on a position like this, you
can do things differently from what the typical
white guy would have done. So can a white guy!
Anybody can make that choice to do things really
differently from the way they’re normally done.
So I would urge you to consider that kind of a
You have to provide support once the new
faculty arrive. At UW, we have a week-long new
faculty workshop for the whole campus. We have a
half-day workshop for the college to orient people.
We give quarterly workshops to all our assistant
professors in engineering. How do you write the
career award? First you have to have brilliant
people, but you give them some infrastructure.
We do workshops on grantsmanship and time
management. How to run a group. Mentoring.
We spend a lot of time trying to get that right.
That’s pretty hard.
In addition to that, we constantly work on
improving the environment. We’re very people
focused, we really try to catalyze cultural change.
We try to recognize and honor the contributions
of staff and faculty. Faculty in the room— how
many of you in the last month have had an email
from your department chair saying, “Great job!
Great job! Love what you’re doing! Love it, love
it!” Leaders need to do that: it’s free, it’s fast, and
it has huge bang for the buck. Do it publicly. Send
out to the whole department, “Ms. Jones got the
Waterman! We’re thrilled!” Copy the president,
copy the provost. That’s the kind of thing we
tend not to do well. Who thinks that way? Not
many, and it makes a huge, huge difference.
Finally, you have to shift the paradigm. We’re not fixing the woman, we’re fixing the
system. Leverage the fact that Federal agencies
are now mandating diversity in their request for
proposals. A specific example is the NSF Advance
program, which focuses on advancing women
faculty in science, math and engineering into
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