Changing Faces: National Science Foundation Grant Will Help Michigan Tech ADVANCE

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Everyone has heard the statistics--although women make up more than half the population, nationwide men outnumber women more than 5 to 1 at the rank of full professor and more than 3 to 1 among tenure-track faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). At Michigan Tech, the ratio of men to women among tenure-track faculty in STEM is 5 to 1.

Now the National Science Foundation has given Michigan Tech nearly half a million dollars to do something about that. The University received a $499,496 three-year grant from NSF’s ADVANCE Program to improve its hiring processes and to provide mentorship for faculty--both men and women--in the STEM fields, as well as for the other 20 percent of Michigan Tech faculty.

The goal is to attract a larger diverse pool of highly qualified applicants for tenured and tenure-track faculty positions and to assist all faculty members in achieving successful careers, which will benefit the University as a whole.

“We are trying to open the doors wider, to draw more applicants, and more diverse, well-qualified applicants,” said Lesley Lovett-Doust, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Michigan Tech. She is the principal investigator on the NSF grant.

Since Michigan Tech is a STEM-intensive public research university, the gender imbalance is particularly evident here. Of the University’s 249 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the STEM fields, only 44 are women, approximately 17.7 percent. And it has hovered around 17 percent for nearly a decade, despite efforts to improve.

Donna Michalek, Margaret Gale, William Predebon, Christine Anderson and Susan Bagley are co-investigators on the NSF ADVANCE grant. Michalek is assistant provost and an associate professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics at Michigan Tech; Gale is dean of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science; Anderson is special assistant to the president for institutional diversity; Predebon is chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics; and Bagley is a professor of biological sciences.

Their plan calls for one of the hardest kinds of changes to make--changing ideas into action--but Michigan Tech is ready to take on the challenge. “A comprehensive ‘climate survey,’ conducted a couple of years ago by Anderson and a committee of faculty and staff, showed that the University community believes that more diversity and a welcoming environment for all faculty will make Michigan Tech a better place,” Michalek explained.

“Now it is time to adopt practices that turn this good intention into reality. This is not just about hiring women. This is about attracting and keeping the very best people, to add to the high-quality faculty we already have,” she continued. “Some areas stood out in the climate survey in the degree to which faculty felt welcome and appreciated; we need to identify and spread the practices that help both women and men be comfortable, successful and productive in their careers.”

A second climate survey will be conducted soon, to further explore our progress in terms of faculty retention and professional development at the mid- and senior-career levels, Michalek said.

Studies suggest that the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields (relative to the number earning relevant PhDs) is partly because traditional search and screening processes are based on intuitive judgments. “People tend to feel more comfortable with, and pick people like themselves; that’s human nature,” commented Lovett-Doust. “But ‘world-class’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘just like me.’

“The evaluative criteria that were developed for last year’s Strategic Faculty Hiring Initiative (SFHI) were very helpful in identifying excellence,” the provost went on to say. “All of our searches can be more successful if we replace impressionistic assessments with assessment based on measurable attributes and discipline-specific qualitative scales, as well as general discussion of candidates.”

Lest that sound too mechanistic, Lovett-Doust emphasized that future hiring will not be guided just by the scores that scales and measures generate. “Comments are important, and of course we will still put a lot of value on personal interviews, reviewers’ comments and applicants’ presentations of their research and teaching goals,” she said.

Part of the NSF ADVANCE grant will be used to examine diversity in Tech’s SFHI hires, to see if advertising strategy, online assessment, interdisciplinary peer review and research presentations produced more women applicants for these coveted positions. The results will be compared with the outcomes of traditional “replacement” hiring processes, and with improved processes for replacement hiring in the future.

The ADVANCE team will work with colleagues across campus on several fronts simultaneously. One committee will continuously evaluate processes and outcomes of the SFHI, the series of University-wide interdisciplinary cluster hires that began last year with a theme of “sustainability.” That committee will be headed by Bagley and Michalek.

An online database screening tool, developed under the leadership of Chief Information Officer Walter Milligan last year, will be adapted by a committee led by Milligan and Bagley. A committee led by Gale and Anderson will work on a set of best practices in recruitment strategies that could serve as a model for other STEM-intensive institutions. Another team, also headed by Anderson and Gale, will work to ensure accountability in the hiring process.

A committee chaired by Michalek and Predebon will develop a University-wide faculty mentoring program. Predebon reports that many recent faculty candidates are asking about the availability of a mentorship program when they interview. Predebon and Lovett-Doust will lead the development of campus-wide training programs.

A doctoral student, supported by the grant and co-advised by Michalek and Heidi Bostic, chair of the Humanities Department, will lead an analysis of the results of the ADVANCE initiatives.

“We want to make sure that from the very beginning of the hiring process, we are attracting all kinds of strong candidates, and engaging the attention of non-traditional applicants,” said Lovett-Doust. “That’s the only way to make every hire a strategic hire, and that is our goal.”

Michigan Technological University is a leading public research university, conducting research, developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering, forestry and environmental sciences, computing, technology, business and economics, natural and physical sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.