Damani White-Lewis studies why university faculties often lack diversity

The Penn GSE assistant professor works to identify attitudes, practices, and policies within faculty hiring structures at colleges and universities in hopes to shift attitudes and inspire new practices throughout higher ed.

Why do workplaces, including university faculties, often lack racial diversity? One of the most common explanations is that the pool of minoritized candidates is too small and hard to reach. But to Penn GSE assistant professor Damani White-Lewis, the cause runs deeper. He explains that workers are often hired based on what hiring committees believe and want. And those decisions are usually supported by mechanisms that favor the continuation of previous inequitable patterns.

Damani White-Lewis
Penn GSE assistant professor Damani White-Lewis. (Image: Penn GSE)

At Penn GSE, White-Lewis is working to identify attitudes, practices, and policies within faculty hiring structures at colleges and universities. He hopes to shift attitudes and inspire new practices by sharing ironclad data, cultivating effective interventions, and jumpstarting conversations about power and organizations.

Now part of Penn GSE’s top-ranked Policy, Organizations, Leadership and Systems Division, his research combines organizational behavior and social psychology. He is also a confessed data hound.

“If you are really going to convince the people who need to change—and who need to change their organizations—that there are real, legitimate interests, big problems, and not just one-off problems that occur because of some bad actor, our empirical claims need to be as strong as possible,” he warns.

That’s why a large part of his research involves measuring inequalities. The other part of his work involves applying knowledge to practice and measuring changes caused by interventions.

“Reforming the structures of hiring priorities is important, yet inadequate, in advancing equity and inclusion. On the one hand, improving faculty input systems and having broad departmental hires expand the input base, minimize reproduction by deemphasizing factional competition, and encourage responsiveness to emerging trends in the field that do not fit neat subfields. Yet without explicitly infusing diversity—the second requisite of advancing equity through hiring formation—efforts may still come up short,” he wrote in a paper last year.

White-Lewis recommends avoiding hiring direct replacements for retiring faculty and instead thinking about how diversity can enrich the department's portfolio of subdisciplines. He advises people to look at emerging trends—especially equity and inclusion—and to be transparent when setting priorities. He adds that this advice applies to all university departments, from the humanities to STEM.

Read more at Penn GSE News.