CSWA Logo AAS Logo

Making Institutional Change

by Denice Denton

Photo of Denice Denton from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was Chancellor in February 2006.

January 2007

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
leadership position.

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 leadership positions.

Back to January 2007 Contents

Back to STATUS Table of Contents