Headshot of Dr. Melissa Gonzalez
Dr. Melissa Gonzalez

Ross Hickman: What would your vision of the ideal academy look like, both in terms of forming a robust and inclusive faculty as well as an engaged student body? In what ways does Davidson live up to that vision, and how might we improve now and in the future? 

Melissa González: Wow, it is both fun and daunting to envision an ideal academy. I dislike setting anybody up to want the unattainable, so I will imagine a better academy, rather than an ideal academy, and one that can only exist in a better world, a more just world. This better academy would not require taking on any debt to attend. It would have inclusive pedagogies in all classes, which would come in a variety of formats, including lots of intimate seminars with project-based learning and addressing multiple modes of literacy, and students would understand their role as producers of knowledge alongside their teachers. Students would learn how to be teachers, and teachers would know how to be students; everybody would understand themselves as researchers of themselves and the world around them. There would be neither over- or under-representation of racialized groups in the Davidson community; we would represent the diversity of the United States and the world instead of having the numbers and hierarchies we have now. Davidson today does not have numbers of Black, Latinx, and foreign-born students that match national demographics. Ending demographic under- and over-representation would not erase the histories of exclusions and inequalities in access to education that have existed since the first universities were founded toward the end of the 17th century, in what came to be called the United States, but it would be part of any better academy. 

Hickman: What has been your experience with the faculty hiring process at Davidson College, including its ways of recruiting, retaining, and releasing professors? 

González: Davidson has hiring processes that are very similar to those of our peer institutions, other selective and predominantly white small liberal arts colleges. I have seen, in the past eleven years, both Davidson and some (notably not all!) peer institutions rethinking faculty hiring to make it less biased and more successful at ending under-representation among faculty, which is quite dire across higher education. For example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only “5 percent [of full-time faculty, including both Visiting faculty and tenure-line faculty] were Asian/Pacific Islander females; and 3 percent each were Black males, Black females, Hispanic males, and Hispanic females.” New policies and programs, such as the Equity Advising Program and the student-led Student Initiative for Academic Diversity (SIAD), are leading us in a better direction. They are also not enough to really solve the problem of under-representation.

Hickman: Have you noticed discrepancies in how the college has decided to retain and/or tenure certain kinds of faculty over others? Are there specific factors that you see playing a role in those decisions (e.g. hierarchies between departments; race, gender, and sexuality; subjects of scholarly inquiry)? 

González: Over the years, I have tried to gather data, both qualitative and quantitative, that would show discrepancies if they were there. One problem is that some of this data is not accessible, because of policies and practices that are definitely not unique to Davidson, but common in higher ed. I do advocate for gathering and examining past data in new ways if we want to really transform our hiring practices for the future. Working with incomplete data, I have concluded that the biases and traditional practices of the academy at large are reflected here, as one would expect. It is well established that various forms of bias impact the outcomes of national faculty searches. This problem is well-established as a common one; what we need are uncommon solutions that go beyond the growing list of best practices for hiring a more diverse faculty. This need comes up against long traditions of very idiosyncratic faculty hiring practices, which certainly have changed, but not enough to move the needle—not surprisingly, since there were no significant numbers of white women and BIPOC faculty for the majority of the university’s existence. For example, the Gender & Sexuality Studies Department, established with a major in 2012, gets some of its funding from an endowment made by the wonderful Professor Emerita Sally G. McMillen, the first woman to be tenured in the History Department, which happened only 28 years ago.

Hickman: How might you clarify the process, including its deficiencies, for students, faculty, or staff who haven’t been as involved or aware of what goes into hiring and keeping faculty? 

González: Part of the problem is that it is just impossible to explain, much less clarify, the labyrinthine processes of faculty hiring in this brief response. It’s a long and complex process, and understanding the ways that traditions and biases, many of which are not under conscious control, inhibit the goals of hiring a more diverse faculty, requires significant background reading. If you want to learn about the nuts and bolts, the best thing is to volunteer for a search committee, which any faculty can do via the Equity Advising Program, whereas students can participate by working for SIAD. I think that, while some faculty would consider it a too-radical idea, intentionally involving staff in faculty searches could be part of an innovative plan to transform faculty hiring. And we also need to think about making hiring more equitable at Davidson as a whole, across all hiring, not just faculty hiring, in order to realize our broader goals of making the institution more just.

Hickman: Do you have any recommendations for actions, collaborations, or other meaningful things students can do beyond keeping the conversation going? 

González: Learning about and getting involved in SIAD is probably the most impactful way students can get involved. Almost every new faculty member we recruit tells me, unprompted, that SIAD was the best part of their hiring experience, or even what made them feel certain they could work here as a teacher-scholar who is under-represented in the academy at large. Beyond that, arming yourself with data about faculty under-representation across higher education and learning about bias in hiring and recruitment practices will help students make stronger arguments when they advocate for hiring more diverse faculty.

Melissa Gonzalez (she/her) is Chair of Gender & Sexuality Studies, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies, and Core Faculty in Latin American Studies. She can be reached for comment at megonzalez@davidson.edu.