The Student Initiative for Academic Diversity (SIAD) is a team of 24 students. These students are trained in and conduct on-campus interviews with potential tenure-track professors. SIAD members evaluate the candidates’ readiness to create an inclusive space in their classrooms to support and serve Davidson’s diverse student body. In the following conversation, Andrea Liu ‘23 (she/her) speaks with SIAD members Lucy Walton ‘21 and Daniel Thomas ‘21. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Liu: Let’s start with a brief introduction of SIAD.
Daniel Thomas: SIAD interviews potential tenure-track professors to understand their teaching pedagogy as new cohorts of students come in each year, especially at Davidson, where [we really] value that professor-to-student interaction. From our view, it is really important to get the chance to have a voice in the process of the new professors we want to see teaching students and future generations [of students].
Lucy Walton: SIAD was founded in 2011 because a group of students noticed that the retention of faculty of color and queer faculty was very limited and that, because of tenure, it was possible for professors who were harmful in their rhetoric and pedagogy to have a lot of protection at Davidson. SIAD was formed with the intention of fixing both of those problems. We look at the ways that that person can engage with issues of diversity, inclusivity,[…] racism, homophobia, and sexism in the classroom; that’s what’s really important to us. SIAD [works by] interviewing and writing recommendations to the selection committee to say, “Here are the values that Davidson students need and want from their professors, and here’s how candidates are embodying them.”
AL: I think that’s incredibly important, especially considering that the student body is diversifying quickly. How can students become involved in SIAD?
LW: You can apply starting your freshman spring or sophomore fall. It’s an application process, and students can get in touch with Ramona Davis ‘21 or Cole Thornton ‘21; we are having an application cycle coming in the spring. You come to an information session, learn more about SIAD, and then fill out an application and go forward to an interview.
DT: I know that the recruitment team has put in meetings for getting to know students and virtual opportunities. Cole and Ramona are also very attentive to their emails and love reaching out to students who want to know more about SIAD, so it’s very easy to get in contact with any one of [us] to learn more.
AL: Once students get accepted into SIAD, what does training look like?
DT: Once I was accepted into SIAD, I [went] through the HR training process, because I was put on a search [right away]. I got the chance to [get] better insight into the behind-the-scenes process of what SIAD would be doing and what faculty members are taking into account. I [also] got the chance to really connect with different members of SIAD.
LW: A big part of our training [is] learning what we can and can’t ask, and how we can get to the point of what’s important to us: can this candidate create a classroom that is inclusive for people of all backgrounds and engage with racism, homophobia, sexism, [and] xenophobia.
AL: What does the structure of SIAD look like? Do you have student leaders?
DT: We have our chair and co-chair [Ramona and Cole], and then from there we have a committee structure — I’m helping out this year with the recruitment committee.
LW: Right now we [also have] outreach/publicity, there’s a website committee, and a mentorship committee for building mentorship relationships within SIAD. SIAD was created [to address] limitations of hierarchy both in the classroom and outside of it, [so] while we do have co-chairs, they don’t function as presidents, per se, they are more like organizers. The structure of SIAD is created with the intention of emphasizing equality of all members.
AL: What kinds of questions are you guys responsible for asking candidates, and how are those questions decided?
LW: In training and as a group, we talk about what sorts of questions have been particularly successful. Each search team (three to four members) will come together and collectively decide on which ones would go well with that search. The questions are intended to get at several things: first, [whether] they have the ability to be inclusive to people of different backgrounds, [and whether] they include issues of diversity and issues that marginalized students face in their curriculum.
SIAD was the first organization of its kind in the country. I think every candidate I have spoken to has said this was the first time that they’ve ever had this during an interview process, so being sat down with students to talk about issues of diversity and inclusion often startles them. The ones who are startled the most, I think, are STEM-based [potential] faculty members just because there’s often this idea that [STEM is] separate from issues of racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, all that. I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to get at — even if you’re in a field that is not traditionally associated with these issues, we know it very much is.
Some examples [of questions] are: how do you engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself? Could you give us an example of a time when you mentored a student who held a background that was different from yourself? How do you engage with issues of racism, homophobia, sexism, or xenophobia in your classroom? [And] what do you think are marginalized identities within your field, and where could it use more representation?
DT: [We also ask] questions about [their] teaching style: adaptability to assessing classroom proficiency, and adapting [their] teaching style to meet the needs of students.
AL: I feel like this is very enlightening in terms of the amount of care that SIAD puts into interviewing these candidates and making sure that Davidson hires good professors.
LW: I think it’s really heartening. We are a presidential commission, but the fact that Davidson’s president before Dr. Quillen helped create this, and that the departments actively work with us and respect what we have to say, gives me hope about Davidson’s future.
AL: Could you guide me through the evaluation process of the candidates?
DT: [After the interview], we have a time of separation where we [gather] our notes to understand what we took from the interview — the facts that the person stated [and] how we interpreted them. We [then] come together as a group once again. And this [then] goes into the letter-writing component. We’re objective in evaluating the candidate based on the responses they gave us. And I think we do a good job of not judging candidates against each other but more so really looking at the candidate as a person, and crafting a powerful letter that really gets at what this person said. The [letter-writing] process is a very powerful way of synthesizing what we took from the interview as individuals and as a group.
LW: These letters get sent to the hiring committee, and our critiques [are] used as part of their decision making process. That isn’t to say that they always go with the exact person we’d like to see, but it does mean that if they choose a person that we saw having distinct weaknesses, they have an eye to the fact that there might be concern. And they very much listen to us. I’ve seen some really awesome professors come to Davidson that have been SIAD-interviewees in the last couple years.
AL: On that note, what would you say SIAD’s relationship with the administration is like?
LW: We are an outgrowth of Dr. Quillen’s office, so in that sense, we have a powerful relationship with the fact that we can get a conversation with administrators going pretty quickly. Dr. Fuji Lozada, our faculty advisor, definitely goes to bat for us. Obviously SIAD is made up of a lot of people who are consistently and constantly questioning the administration and pushing it to be better; I think that’s inherent in the type of people who join SIAD, but in a very balanced perspective because we also see our work as one way that the administration is responsive to students questioning it.
AL: What would you say are some of the major challenges you face in trying to hire candidates who fit the student body’s needs and wants?
LW: This is a smaller one, but I’d say that there are so many fantastic candidates that are beginning to come out of grad school, [but] Davidson doesn’t tend to be people’s first place where they are hired right out of school, simply because it is more prestigious. I think one of the biggest challenges is with candidates who have never been challenged to think about these issues before. I’d say also that another challenge with hiring is that on the flip side, there are certain departments [where] these issues are part of their curriculum constantly, whether that’s Anthropology, Africana Studies, Latinx Studies, GSS, Asian American Studies, Jewish Studies, etc., a lot of those positions are hired as adjunct/visiting professorships or two-year fellowships.
We see a lot of difficulties with retention of faculty of color because many of them are hired into [those] two-year fellowships or visiting professorships. I would like to see more commitment from Davidson to hiring these people for tenure-track positions. Tenure track professors tend to stay for 40 [or] 50 years which is why we [consider our] work to be so important — [these professors are] going to be here for a long time. They’re going to have an impact on many students’ lives, and they have the ability to do a lot of great work or a lot of harm. SIAD attempts to remedy that, but when it comes to what Davidson could do better, it’s permanence I think.
DT: One of the challenges I was going to say was the retention for faculty of color, and you said it absolutely perfectly, Lucy.
AL: When can students find out about the next application process?
DT: According to the preliminary timeline of recruitment, I know that as of right now, we’re really looking towards the first week [or] week and a half when we arrive back next semester.
AL: Any final thoughts?
DT: I think that in this moment, it’s so important that we have students within certain positions of power on campus who can have a voice in the [hiring] process. You know, we’ve come out of this past summer with the Black Lives Matter movement, but also with a greater focus on marginalized communities, that it really just adds so much more power to the work that we’re doing. Our leading tenets of SIAD are diversity and inclusion, making sure that’s part of every single piece of Davidson. It feels wonderful to be a part of SIAD and of that change-making group that is leading Davidson and this whole process.