UMN professor paves way for faculty diversity

The Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program will encourage qualified postdoctoral candidates to become faculty at the University.

Eliana Schreiber

After hearing complaints from students, one University of Minnesota professor took it upon himself to increase faculty diversity.

The Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program, started at the University by professor Sean Garrick, was originally developed at the University of California system schools. 

Garrick, a mechanical engineering professor, said the idea behind the program is to recruit highly qualified Ph.Ds to the University from underrepresented gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity groups. The candidates are then considered for full-time faculty positions.

“You really have to build connections with the people before they’re looking for a job,” he said.

Garrick presented the program to Vice Provost Karen Hanson at October’s Board of Regents meeting.

While recognizing that diversity in faculty is important, Regent Steve Sviggum said hiring qualified candidates comes first.

“It’s a great goal to try to increase diversity of our staff,” he said. “But it can’t be done at the expense of our performance.”

Based on the results from the program at the UC system schools, Garrick said he expects between 25 and 40 percent of participants in the program this year to take on tenure-track positions at the University.

“This is not about getting a more diverse research pool,” he said. “If you don’t think you would hire them, don’t bring them in.”

As a professor and associate vice provost in the Office for Equity and Diversity, Garrick said students often bring up the need for more diverse faculty.

Computer science junior Siddharth Paari said he sees a diverse set of professors, but overall would prefer a professor that’s a good teacher over a professor from an underrepresented group.

Paari cited specific instances with professors who he said seemed more apathetic, and he felt they only taught classes for research opportunities.

“I definitely appreciate the thought, it’s just that I pay to go here,” he said.

Environmental science senior Ka Yang said in CFANS, most of her professors have been male, and her female professors are predominantly white.

But Ka said having a professor of a different ethnicity or gender doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll learn better.

“It’s nice to see that there would be a more diverse faulty, but it’s more the quality of the professors that we’re getting than the quantity,” she said.

Annalynn Alt, a first-year graduate student in speech language pathology, said out of the small set of professors within her department, the program is dominated by white women.

Alt, who earned her undergraduate degree at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said her field has been female dominated. 

Given past experiences, she was surprised by a higher number of male professors in the program at the University of Minnesota, she said.

Fellow speech language pathology first-year graduate student Kelyn Gress said in her female-dominated program, it’s helpful to have a male professor’s perspective.

Gress also said she enjoys learning from faculty with different cultural backgrounds, something she feels isn’t well-represented.

Anthropology sophomore Sophie Taylor said as a white, female student, she hadn’t thought much about whether her professors represented minorities well.

“I’d had a good array of genders,” Taylor said, but added that a majority of her professors have been white and middle-aged.

The lack of diversity never bothered her, although Taylor did say she felt more comfortable asking questions to a female professor than their male colleagues.

Garrick said one advantage of implementing the program at the University specifically is that it has programs that UC system schools don’t, like agricultural sciences. This allows the University to hire candidates from a pool that other schools aren’t recruiting from.

He also mentioned that while the Twin Cities are a vibrant city environment, it’s more affordable than major cities like Chicago or Los Angeles.

“I think we can leverage all of those things to compete on a national level for the few candidates that we have,” Garrick said.