Higher Ed in the News: 7/6/2020

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

This week on Higher Ed in the News, a professor shares how their department built a diverse team from scratch. Also, student behavior tests the modeling and planning around campus reopening plans. You can read previous editions of this series here and here.


The unpredictability of student behavior challenges reopening efforts

As some schools across the country prepare to reopen their campuses, a new variable is confounding plans to keep the virus in check: the possibility of erratic behavior from students.

While students behaving in unpredictable and irresponsible ways is certainly not a new phenomenon—in fact, many consider it to be an integral part of “the college experience”—administrators were not expecting such reckless behavior during a pandemic that has impacted so many people across the world.

“Right now it’s kind of slipped from most people’s minds,” Apramay Mishra, student body president at the University of Kansas, told NPR. Students “don’t really think it’s a big deal.”

NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny cited incidents such as fraternity parties, drinking at off-campus bars and athletic practices that have already led to outbreaks of COVID-19. Ultimately, Nadworny notes that leadership can make all the rules and guidelines they want, but their efficacy depends on how compliant students are willing to be when no authorities are watching.

The culture of college-aged students living on their own can often be unforgiving. Peer pressure remains a powerful force and nobody wants to ruin their friends’ good times, especially as they return after such a sudden end to campus life in March.

“They are highly sensitized to reward, especially in the context of peers,” Anna Song, who studies young adult decision-making at the University of California, Merced, explained to Nadworny, who added “Hanging out with friends is a pretty incredible reward, given that many students have been isolated for months.” The fact that that “reward” may lead to the spread of the disease will be, at minimum, a serious challenge for school administrators.


How to build a diverse academic department

Seeking to address a lack of diversity that is all too common in higher education, the recently-formed Sociology department at Washington University in St. Louis made conscious efforts to erode biases in the recruiting process around race, gender, or traditional markers for qualification that are steeped in privilege. Since its founding in 2015, the department has maintained diverse representation at every professional level.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor and associate dean for faculty development at Wash U, explores their methods and sheds light on how other colleges can follow in their footsteps.

“We comprise one of the more racially diverse departments in academia today,” Wingfield wrote. “This wasn’t an accident. It was the result of intentional, consistent efforts from multiple stakeholders to create a department that would be both racially diverse and committed to excellence.”

First, the schools’ administrators sent a clear message on the importance of this mission and set the tone that they were going to do things differently. They were determined to disprove the assumption of a “contradiction between valuing diversity and hiring the best people,” and brought in leaders who were also passionate about “building a racially diverse faculty.” Having the support of department higher-ups was critical to gaining broader buy-in, and their financial backing affirmed the magnitude of their commitment in a way that matched the messaging.

In order to attract a diverse pool of candidates, the department used traditional means such as social media and alumni referrals, but also sought out prospective employees to encourage them to apply. Their network of professional association colleagues and other advocates offered additional sources of qualified recommendations. They repeated this process for every available position and have been very pleased with the results.