Diverse Conversations: Mentoring Minority Faculty

Minority faculty find themselves at a huge disadvantage at institutions controlled by people of European descent. To discuss some of the ways in which institutions can ensure that minority faculty members are properly mentored and guided, I recently sat down with Olympia Duhart, Co-President of the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), which has been hugely instrumental in promoting programs to address this important issue.

Q: Minority faculty have a particularly hard time in traditional universities – what has been your experience in terms of the specific reasons for this?

A: Difficulties experienced by traditionally underrepresented faculty members can often be traced to the lack of both institutional and informal support systems in place. Both schools and faculty members should be intentional and explicit about offering support for minority faculty. Often, colleagues with good intentions have no perspective or context for the additional difficulties faced by faculty of color. Someone has to start the conversation.

Q: What are some of the specific challenges for minority faculty and some of the symptoms of their struggle? There was an article recently in Diverse (in 2012) that suggested minority faculty experience higher levels of job related stress. Have you observed these kinds of trends in your experience? If so, what strategies have worked to combat these types of problems?

A: Given the multiple responsibilities imposed on faculty members and the increasing workload many of us are juggling today, it is not surprising that faculty members are often struggling with job-related stress. Adding an extra layer of otherness to those duties – and the especially low numbers of faculty of color in the law school arena – makes things even more challenging. Even faculty members who do not deal with institutional bias are coping on a regular basis with microaggressions in the form of bias in student evaluations, slights by colleagues and an expectation that we have to be more qualified than our non-minority counterparts. In my own experience, I have also struggled with “imposter syndrome” – fueled in large part by the novelty of being a woman of color from a low socio-economic background without so-called fancy credentials. Thanks in large part to mentoring and support I’ve received from colleagues – of all backgrounds – I’ve reframed my story. I take great pride in bringing a unique perspective to the table, and I am even more proud to do my part to inspire students who share my background.

Q: Shifting emphasis slightly, what are some of the strategies used at the Society of American Law Teachers to mentor minority faculty?

A: One of SALT’s core values is diversity. It informs our work within and beyond the classroom. It also drives us to create programming that will increase minority representation on both sides of the podium. We strive to promote education equality in all arenas. This translates to our formal mentoring program, “Breaking In” programs designed to increase the numbers of minority law teachers, tips for new teachers at our teaching conference, programing for diversity in law school leadership and BA to JD Pipeline Programs held throughout the country to increase access to law school for students of color. After all, a diverse law school student population is the foundation for more diversity among law faculty. But one of our most successful strategies has been the network we sustain through our members. Each SALT member is committed to offering support to underrepresented faculty members. Sometimes the support means advocating on their behalf to protect tenure and security of position. Other times that support means sharing a syllabus. And sometimes it means taking the time to listen and offer some advice.

Q: Which of these strategies has been the most successful?
A: The national network of law professors available through the engagement with SALT has been invaluable for many people. For me, it truly opened up a world of mentors, advisors and friends who have made this profession rewarding. It’s also given me a chance to play my part in honoring the special social responsibilities that come with the practice of law. Furthermore, I was also very lucky to have so many people in place at my home institution (Nova Southeastern University) who embraced me. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to take advantage of the mentoring opportunities available to you. And it is very important to think about the mentor you select. For me, it has always been important to connect with people who engage with the world around them.

Q: What do you feel are the most effective strategies for mentoring minority faculty in general? Would you say what works at Nova Southeastern University is representative and consistent with what works at most other types of institutions?

A: It’s not a mystery. We need more representation. Isolation can have a negative impact on anyone’s ability to thrive. The “critical mass” we talk about among the student body is also important among faculty. A diverse faculty is essential for a robust classroom and effective legal advocacy. Most importantly, it is a crucial component of training students to succeed in a diverse society. At Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law Center, we are very fortunate to have a Director of Faculty Development who provides a structured support system for all faculty members through scholarship critique, one-on-one advice and a no-risk environment for teaching development. In my role as Director of the Lawyering Skills and Value Program, I have also worked deliberately to showcase diversity in our skills program. For instance, for the first-year oral arguments we made a dedicated effort to reach out to voluntary bar associations to judge the competition. It was important to expose the students to practicing attorneys from the Muslim Bar, the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers Network, the Cuban American Bar Association and the Caribbean Bar Association, among others, to dispel their assumptions about what a lawyer looks like. This type of support serves the students, but it is also empowering to minority faculty. In addition, faculty members benefit tremendously from informal support. People have helped me by talking me through a tough time, dropping an email and treating me with me respect. They have invited me over for dinner, collaborated with me in the classroom and challenged me when I needed it. I also do my best to mentor others by reaching out to junior faculty, offering to moot a presentation, read a paper or work through a teaching idea. We get to carry each other.

Q: What advice would you give to administrators and those in charge of mentoring minority faculty?

A: First, start a conversation. It is important to keep the discussions open about the hurdles that still exist. Until we can talk honestly about the barriers still in place because of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bigotry, we can’t even begin to start thinking critically about correcting those disparities. But more importantly, follow up the talk with action. Place minority faculty members in leadership roles. Confront the biases that still infect the classroom. Support efforts to educate faculty about the importance of cultural competency. Connect diversity in the classroom to the broader issue of social justice. Create a culture in your institution that encourages diverse viewpoints.

Q: What are some of the strategies for recruiting minority faculty and helping them integrate into the existing faculty and administrative organization of an institution?

A: It always surprises me when people say they can’t find any minority faculty members or administrators. I see excellent candidates for teaching and leadership positions all the time. However, one constant obstacle I’ve observed is the need for “experience.” That, of course, is key. But elevating traditional experience into a super-factor is often a tool for eliminating stellar candidates to teach or lead. Exclusions based on factors that appear to be race or gender-neutral often operate to the exclusion of underrepresented minority groups. Until the academy becomes more diverse, the over emphasis on traditional experience will often eliminate large segments of the population. Institutions should challenge themselves to think more expansively about the type of faculty and administrators they want to support. And what kind of experience they want to value.

Q: What resources have you found to be most useful to support the mentoring of minority faculty?

A: Just talking about diversity is never enough. The best resources move beyond messaging into movement. At the university level, there are a few avenues to consider. Is there an organized, concerted effort to promote inclusion? Is there a financial commitment to diversity initiatives? Is diversity a recognized and promoted value for the university? Is there training for minority faculty? Is there education of the larger faculty, students and community about the value of diversity? Is there a culture that encourages mentoring? Is there a sense of community and collaboration in the university setting? On the broader level – such as through organizations such as SALT – those avenues change. Through volunteer efforts by dedicated law teachers who are willing to give up their valuable time to mentor others, we have made great strides in supporting minority faculty. We are proud of the progress we have made, but there is still so much work to do. The most useful tools to advance the mentoring of minority faculty bolster diversity through specific acts, creative ideas and hard work.

This concludes our interview. Thank you to Professor Olympia Duhart, J.D., for participating in this interview.


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