Damani White-Lewis: HEOC Alumnus’ Dissertation on Faculty Search Processes Receives ASHE Award

Postdoctoral scholar at the University of Maryland recognized for multiple-case study of power dynamics in faculty hiring.

Damani White-Lewis (’19, Ph.D., Higher Education and Organizational Change), has received Honorable Mention for the Dissertation of the Year Award by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). His multi-case study, “The Facade of Fit and Preponderance of Power in Faculty Search Processes: Facilitators and Inhibitors of Diversity,” was recognized by ASHE for its timeliness and focus on the power dynamics that affect faculty hiring through an organizational and racial lens. 

“My very first ASHE conference was when I was a first-year master’s student,” notes White-Lewis, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Maryland. “I was so intimidated because I felt like I was joining this community of people that had been in [academia] for a number of years and I just came out of my undergrad [studies]. I felt like an impostor. But I also felt really fascinated by what the field could offer. I would go to the award ceremonies and see people winning these awards and I never thought that I would be one of them one day.

“Another fun fact is that it was my first ASHE conference where I was also interested in PhD programs. I was trying to talk to the different faculty members that I was interested in working with. I was really interested in working with Sylvia (Hurtado, UCLA professor of education), but I was so nervous that I never introduced myself. Luckily, she still admitted me and ultimately became my dissertation advisor, so here we are. She’s also been super-helpful as I navigate this post-grad school life. I got the award and it feels really good to be recognized in this way.”

An article by White-Lewis, “The Facade of Fit in Faculty Search Processes,” which was based on his dissertation, was published this past summer in The Journal of Higher Education. Another article on departmental hiring priorities, an area of research that emerged as he conducted his study, has been recently accepted by Teachers College Record. 

“These hiring priorities were things that evolved from listening to my participants talk about the hiring process from beginning to end,” says White-Lewis. “I think most of the time, we think about [a search starting] from the position description. But it oftentimes starts before that from the spring or the summer before, when [committees] decide, ‘Okay, so-and-so has retired and our program hasn’t had this for a while. Maybe our search should be focused on this.’ Hearing those responses, I found similarities and differences in how that process works, but also how that process can subvert faculty diversity as well.” 

Despite his initial findings, White-Lewis says that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the increase in faculty positions this fall focused on racial equity in response to recent pandemics.

“We’re seeing so many different positions focused on racial equity or black studies or indigenous studies, etc.,” he says. “I think the intent behind these is to bring in more diverse scholars who are conducting this research, who have historically been doing this research. The reason why I’m cautiously optimistic is because one – I hope it actually leads to the type of transformative change that retains them. But then, two, is I think based on the results of my paper: that we could have done this all along. It shouldn’t have taken a national pandemic and, pervasive instances of police brutality. But the reason I am excited about this paper is that I think it shows departments that they’ve had the capacity and the infrastructure to create these kinds of positions all along.”

White-Lewis is currently working on researching ways to increase faculty diversity as well as creating conditions for lasting faculty diversity. 

“We’re really highlighting interventions which create conditions for lasting faculty diversity,” he says, “not just how do we get the [faculty] members, but how do we keep them and make sure that they thrive and that they’re successful. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with and present to a lot of different administrators across the country who see value in this work and they’re, hopeful for how it can make a difference.

“We’re doing a couple of things that are going to look at what can departments do to better gear their search processes with racial equity in mind. For instance, we’re doing ethnography study and we’re hoping the results from that will shed new light on how rubrics can be used and not just the sort of regular rubrics because they’ve been pretty prevalent in the higher ed literature, but more precise rubrics based on subcomponents, rater calibration exercises, all that kind of stuff. And so hopefully we can get that research in the hands of the folks who are making the decisions.”

White-Lewis says that while student voices can provide feedback to build more diversity among faculty on their campuses, the hiring process needs to be made more accessible and transparent for students to make their participation more effective. 

“A necessary precondition to getting students involved – I think, because I’m an organizational researcher – has to go back to the faculty,” says White-Lewis. “What I found in my dissertation is that there are these latent power dynamics all throughout the process that minimize certain voices, be it junior professors, scholars of color, etc. I think having students on committees is nice. But oftentimes as a student myself, and even now as a postdoc sitting in on faculty meetings, because we [students and postdocs] hold our faculty in such high regard, [it] makes providing contradictory opinions hard, it makes airing things more difficult. 

“Students can’t contribute to what they don’t know” says White-Lewis. “You have to create a climate that students feel that their contributions are valued and that they matter. So, I think demystifying the process, which I hope my research and others of course, have begun to accomplish, hopefully that will help.”

“The Facade of Fit and Preponderance of Power in Faculty Search Processes: Facilitators and Inhibitors of Diversity,” has also been recognized by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education with its Outstanding Dissertation Award, an honorable mention from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and third place in the Dissertation Award Competition of the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education.

White-Lewis is currently working on a book chapter with Román Liera, Ph.D., on how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates current inequities in faculty hiring, for “Higher Education amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Teaching and Supporting Learning through Turbulent Times,” to be released in 2021 by Rutgers University Press. 

Photo by Constance Lewis