Inquiry-Based Intervention as a tool for advancing racial equity in faculty hiring

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Reviewed by Drisana Hughes


Many White-serving educational institutions focus on colorblind or race neutral policies to advance racial equity in faculty hiring. This approach has led to inequitable hiring practices and a lack of racially minoritized faculty. This study aims to interrogate how professors can rethink their organizational culture to advance racial equity in the hiring process. The study focuses on how a culture of niceness throughout the hiring process creates sharp inequities in hiring outcomes. In addition, the study explores methods professors can use to overcome challenges to advancing racial equity in hiring by examining the effectiveness of inquiry-based interventions, race-conscious language, and storytelling as mechanisms of change. A case study approach was used to collect qualitative data about faculty at a private, religious affiliated 4-year university over a 10-month period. Working with the faculty at Valley Oaks University (VOU) — a pseudonym that was created to ensure anonymity — Liera discovered meaningful ways to tackle the issue of engaging in meaningful and honest conversations around faculty hiring. This research has important implications for the future of racial equity and faculty hiring cultures at White-serving educational institutions. 

Methods and Findings

Liera used a case study approach involving observations and interviews to examine a group of faculty (called the “evidence team”). In conjunction with researchers at California’s Center for Urban Education (CUE), Liera led seven professional development workshops to evaluate and question campus culture and values via inquiry-based intervention. This intervention method provided opportunities for the group of faculty to collectively understand and interrogate their campus culture to identify solutions for hiring more racially minoritized professors.  

  • The group consisted of 17 professors: 10 White, 4 Latinx, 2 Black, and 1 Asian. Only 11 professors were interviewed in addition to participating in team meetings. 
  • Text Analysis Software, NVivo 11 was used to analyze field notes and provide a consistent comparative approach for interview transcripts, reflection memos, and analytic memos. Liera did two cycles of coding and compared codes in both instances. 
  • Liera used the CHAT (Cultural History Activity Theory) framework  to categorize codes into activities and develop analytical questions that focused on faculty learning and development beyond only descriptions of activities. 

Liera found patterns and opportunities for growth on three levels: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional. Almost all levels interact with the “culture of niceness” at the university, which prioritizes comfort and the status quo over changing the experiences of racially minoritized professors. A key reason the study was fruitful was because it enabled professors to identify inner contradictions in their personal behavior and then apply that thinking to the culture and institution as a whole. 

From the intrapersonal perspective, Liera highlights the theme of “Maintaining a Culture of Niceness,” which was identified as a root challenge to beginning honest conversations around racism at the University. In these exercises, the evidence team defined what racial equity and inquiry meant to them and established rules for having difficult conversations. Through this process most evidence team members recognized that the religious affiliation of the school played a large role in the culture of niceness. Secondly, there was an acknowledgement that this culture made it particularly difficult to have confrontational and honest conversations about race and hiring faculty of color.

Disrupting a culture of niceness focused on the experiences of racially minoritized faculty, which in turn, shaped the agency of the White faculty on the evidence team. Many White faculty had to engage with feelings of the racially-minoritized faculty in a way they had not done before. This engagement laid the groundwork for discussing the issues of racial equity within the faculty hiring process. Another of Liera’s findings from observing the evidence team was the organizational changes the team made to adjust the culture and hiring process for racially minoritized faculty. The evidence team agreed to use equity-minded language, include other members of the organization (staff, administration) in the hiring process, and focus on specific actions they could take to move beyond the culture of niceness. Many evidence team members were eager to redesign job descriptions and other university templates to include more equity-mind language. In addition, they suggested implicit bias training for all members of the faculty search committee. 


Faculty hiring requires a race-conscious focus and cannot be race neutral. Inquiry-based interventions that focus on institutional and individual reflection are crucial to helping faculty understand their own internal biases and general culture of any school or university. It also helps to create race-conscious language that facilitates interrogation of culture and positionality. Once faculty have generated new thoughts from this process, they are more likely to find tangible ways to change their templates, search committee guidelines, and more. Ultimately, in order to change policy, senior administrators and multiple faculty must be involved. 

Participants in this study overcame many challenges connected to the practice of identifying inner contradictions first and then applying that same lens to the institution as a whole. Following this reflection, many faculty and administrators were willing to actively engage with that process. Both White and racially minoritized faculty engaged in this process, which created two interacting activities to help facilitate group growth. This inquiry-based methodology is emotionally-driven and relies on individuals sharing their personal experiences with racism. A key contribution from this research centers around the power of equity-minded inquiry and personal stories of racism as vehicles for achieving policy change in faculty hiring. 


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