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Retention Is a Major Factor in Racial Disparities in Academia

The most underrepresented groups among tenured professors are also the fastest growing in the population

Large segments of society are underrepresented in science and engineering within academia at every level, but particularly among tenured professors. Moreover, the groups that are most underrepresented are the fastest growing in the US population. This is often attributed to challenges in recruiting graduate students and faculty from these groups. A new study published in PLoS ONE points to another key reason: retention.

“Although many academics wish to think of academia as unbiased, our findings indicate this is not the case: retention biases within academia are contributing to low diversity of scholars,” says lead author Allison Shaw, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior.

A common explanation for low diversity in academia is challenges with recruitment based on a lack of applicants. The new study shows that failure to retain scholars is a major contributor to disparities as well. Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Sciences used a combination of data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a new mathematical model, which answers a “what if” question: What would academia look like if there were no racial or ethnic differences in tendency to move between academic stages? Comparing the model predictions to NSF data quantifies how skewed representation actually is.

“This project is part of an effort to take the tools that biologists have developed to understand diverse and complex natural systems, and use them to apply a critical look at our own discipline,” says coauthor Daniel Stanton, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior in the college.

Among the findings, researchers reported that:

  • Academia disproportionately retains White scholars while failing to retain Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic scholars. 
  • The biggest loss of Black and Hispanic scholars occurs between the stages of graduate student to postdoctoral researcher while the loss of Indigenous scholars occurs in the transitions within faculty stages. 
  • The picture for Asian scholars is complicated because there are so many international Asian graduate students. Thus, Asian scholars are simultaneously underrepresented among faculty compared to expectations based on student composition, but overrepresented compared to expectations based on the composition of the US population. 
  • Several of these disparities have been trending in the wrong direction over the past few decades.

“Understanding and addressing misrepresentation in academia is critical if we want to build a community that truly reflects and realizes the potential of the society it aims to serve,” says Shaw.

Shaw and colleagues suggest that future work should explore the diversity of experiences within each broad racial or ethnic category, as well as intersectional effects; the ways that considering several aspects of identity (e.g., women of color) might lead to different outcomes than studying each aspect alone.

- This press release was originally published on the University of Minnesota website