Digest No. 09 - September 2021

Achieving Representational Equity in Faculty Hiring

Liera, R. 2020. “Moving Beyond a Culture of Niceness in Faculty Hiring to Advance Racial Equity.” American Educational Research Journal 57 (5): 1954–1994.


What factors stymie efforts to achieve representational equity in faculty hiring? How can faculty move from the interrogation of campus cultures of racism to sustainable, restorative action? And what does movement toward antiracist organizational culture and policy look like from a faculty perspective? This qualitative investigation leveraged cultural historical activity theory to analyze the racial learning and development of faculty members engaged in a series of facilitated inquiry workshops designed to advance racial equity in their institution’s hiring process. The study then identifies vital steps in converting examinations of racist cultural practices into lasting organizational change and transformation for racial equity.

The author identifies a “culture of niceness” as one of the primary barriers to initiating deep organizational change among faculty and administrators (p. 1955). Briefly, due to whites having historical power to shape the structure and norms of higher education, subtle racist practices become invisible and taken for granted while still inequitably allocating resources and burdens along racial lines. Collegial norms around collaboration, interpersonal kindness, and reluctance to incite conflict among one’s colleagues (that is, a culture of niceness) preserve these implicit racial structures and prevent equity-minded faculty from addressing them. As a result, models of behavior must be inquiry-based to expose underlying racist outcomes from these seemingly color blind policies. Thus, faculty members are allowed to break the norm of collegial niceness in service of achieving meaningful racial equity.

How these novel understandings are translated into lasting intrapersonal and institutional change is explored via data gathered over a ten-month period. During this time, 17 faculty members in a private, religiously-affiliated university attended seven workshops that were professionally facilitated by the study author and others. The data encompass observations from these workshops, as well as interviews with 11 professors and documents produced during the workshop process.


Several central findings emerged from the inquiry. First, faculty members working toward equity must be given the tools to perform antiracist practice and must be supported in their movement toward equitable perspectives. This practice may provide them with the language necessary to create new institutional artifacts and to articulate the racist consequences of widely-accepted institutional policies.

In addition, it is vital for the transformation of the institution to involve senior administrators in the workshops. Indeed, it was clear to faculty members in the workshops that “if senior administrators were not supportive, then faculty colleagues who were not on board would ignore the evidence team’s equity efforts” (p. 1979). Another key finding of the study was the necessity of reinforcing the action orientation of the workshop and moving from extended debates regarding why revisions to hiring practices were needed to focus on how such equity-focused revisions would be made.


Institutional leadership is frequently confronted with the unacceptably slow pace of change in organizational culture for racial equity. This study suggests that such change may be more rapid and successful if several conditions are met before such attempts are made. First, faculty members should be ready to develop equity-minded perspectives; this frequently involves confrontations with the university’s past and current systems of racial oppression. Second, faculty members should be prepared to encounter the considerable emotional burden of performing equity work—something with which white faculty members may have less experience and that may be an additional burden on the already-considerable emotional load shouldered by faculty of color. In addition, senior administrators must devote the time, resources, and energy necessary to support this equity work. Finally, the study indicated that partnering with external experts who had experience in organizational change for racial equity was vital to the success of the workshops and helped to translate faculty members’ learning into institutional learning and transformation.

About the Authors

Roman Liera is a postdoctoral research associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bonilla-Silva, E. 2014. Race without Racism: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gusa, D. L. 2010. “White Institutional Presence: The Impact of Whiteness on Campus Climate.” Harvard Educational Review 80: 464–489.

Villarreal, C. D., R. Liera, and L. Malcom-Piqueux. 2019. “The Role of Niceness in Silencing Racially Minoritized Faculty.” In The Price of Nice: How Good Intentions Maintain Educational Inequity, edited by A. E. Castagno, 127–144. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.