Diverse postdoctoral program yields five new tenure-track faculty for college
The move is unprecedented, especially for a single college within a flagship university. Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology has completed the first cycle of its Dean’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellows Program by hiring five of the scholars into tenure track positions.
Designed to groom postdocs of color to become top-performing faculty, the two-year fellowship created a pathway to the professoriate in the college — a "grow your own" model for hiring and retaining faculty of color.
"This initiative required us to think differently about how we diversify faculty in our college at a time when many institutions continue to use traditional approaches that have failed to address the cultural environment of the unit," said Dean Don Pope-Davis. "We chose to be disruptive by consistently asking ourselves, ‘Is what we are doing transformative, consistent with our core values and sustainable?’"
Senior Associate Dean Noelle Arnold, who directs the postdoctoral program, said scholars of color typically don’t get the same start as other faculty.
"Research has shown that new faculty of color often lack doctoral mentorship beyond the dissertation," said Arnold, director of the college’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Global Engagement. "We provided significant mentoring for research, teaching, service and grant writing — designed to foster belonging, efficacy and successful metrics for the professoriate. This fellowship was our way of not only diversifying our faculty but also being a part of the solution to some negative statistics," she said.
Less than 15% of all postdoctoral scholars become tenure-track faculty, according to a national survey. A small percentage of those are diverse. Also, in 2018, Black and Hispanic faculty accounted for 18% of tenure-track positions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but just 7% held tenured positions.
So it’s significant that five of Ohio State’s cohort were hired by the college to date. The program’s success hinged upon building a supportive and inclusive culture through intensive mentoring, professional development and research assistance. The multi-tiered approach included opportunities for community and college engagement on special projects to foster an immediate sense of belonging and engagement with the community.
Cohort support brings success
The effort panned out. Since starting the fellowship in 2019, the eight postdoctoral scholars received more than $4 million in grant funding and authored more than 30 publications.
Among those hired is Rhodesia McMillian, now an assistant professor of educational policy. In April, after months of working with faculty mentors and the college’s Office of Research, Innovation and Collaboration, she received a Spencer Foundation grant to analyze federal court appeals involving K-12 schools.
"Having an idea for a grant and being able to flesh it out, and then being able to send it over to the research office to get feedback? ‘Hey, what do you think about these research questions? Do you think this idea is fundable?’ Having that is amazing," she said. "My (graduate) professors didn't have those types of resources. They had to fend for themselves."
The postdocs were offered competitive salaries, moving expenses, a technology package and professional development. Faculty mentors were paid to serve as coaches, signaling the importance of the effort. The fellows were encouraged to pursue independent research paths and not "kowtow to a larger project at the college," McMillian said.
"I have yet to experience a point of divergence," she said. "Even if it's not said explicitly, it's felt explicitly: When I succeed, the college, and consequently the university, succeeds."
Dinorah Sánchez Loza, among the cohort and now assistant professor of multicultural and equity studies in education, credits leadership and hands-on mentoring. "What has been most striking is the holistic approach to providing an atmosphere of support and genuine investment in our success."
"All along the way I benefited from knowing my scholarship and I were valued here —-something I did not think I could expect from such a large university," she said.
Bigger, in this case, is better
The large cohort was cohesive, critical for retention. Together they received bimonthly sessions from teaching award recipients, grant writing assistance from the college’s Office of Research, Innovation and Collaboration and professional development on time management. Some collaborated on grant proposals and — when the pandemic curtailed their social gatherings — had informal FaceTime meetups, learning from McMillian how to make seafood eggrolls and catching up on each other's lives. They bonded.
"The cohort model is a key feature that contributed to developing a diverse scholarly network, and, importantly, a sense of community," said Kristen J. Mills, who was hired as an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs.
The program’s design goes beyond numbers, Arnold said, but the cohort size was key because representation and belongingness matter. The college more than doubled its number of postdoctoral scholars of color when hiring the eight fellows in 2019.
"People talk about the cohort effect," Arnold said. "Sometimes other universities have brought in cohorts of three or four. I don't know of any that have had eight — in one college, at one time."
How colleges recruit also matters. As part of the dean’s initiative, candidates for the fellowship were brought together in 2019 for three days of events, including a banquet, poster sessions, meetings with faculty and university leadership and seats at the first Olivia J. Hooker Lecture featuring author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
"I've had friends in the (academic) job market say, ‘I just felt like the token,’" said Autumn Bermea, now an assistant professor of human development and family science. "It didn't feel like that at all. When we came for interviews, it felt very much like, ‘We are here to nurture you, and we value what you're going to bring to help the department grow.’"
The keys to building a diverse faculty
Just after Steven Stone-Sabali applied for the fellowship, he was offered a tenure-track position at another Midwestern university. Ohio State countered by offering him a visiting professor position and all the supports of the postdoc program. He accepted and has now been hired as an assistant professor of school psychology.
The college’s "public-facing focus" on diversity clinched Stone-Sabali’s decision to come to Ohio State. "Announcing their values unapologetically signaled something to me in terms of it might be a safer space to embrace my research," which examines discrimination of students of color in the educational mental health care system, he said.
"My research looks at race, essentially," he said. "How people respond to that topic can go any type of way. I felt like my research would have a safe home and be supported. I didn’t have to tone it down or be concerned about how people perceive my work."
In June, Stone-Sabali received a National Institute of Drug Abuse grant to study innovative approaches to reduce substance use among marginalized homeless youth. He credits college resources, such as its qualitative research lab and quantitative methodology center, and guidance from experts in the college.
"Since joining (the college), my professional journey in pursuing grants has been incredible," he said. "This is mainly due to having the opportunity to build relationships with accomplished scholars and grant recipients."
Having college leadership proactively back its commitment to diversification signaled the college’s priorities early on, Stone-Sabali said.
"In Black psychology, we have a cultural mistrust of others," he said. "It's been shown to be a protective factor, because Black individuals have been harmed in the past by society. So supporting diversity has to be more than just talk; there has to be action to support that."
"The narrative is that all these universities want to diversify. But for some odd reason, they can't figure out how to do it," he said. "The dean has done it. That says something."
The end-game, for both the fellows and the college, was for them to find their place at the college table and to emerge as highly accomplished scholars. A comprehensive process for monitoring progress kept the scholars on track each semester, Arnold said.
"We’ve had very clear expectations, and very clear indicators for success," Arnold said. "That consistently helped the postdocs measure where they were in their own development and where they were in regards to being successful at our university and in our college."
Where they struggled, they were met with support. One fellow was having difficulty teaching and was coached by a teaching award winner. The scholar's Student Evaluation for Instruction rating jumped from 2 to 4.8 out of 5.
"So it wasn't just, I'm going to be trained on how to be an assistant professor," Bermea said. "It was more, I'm going to be supported into becoming the best assistant professor I can be."
The next recruitment cycle begins this autumn, with a new cohort starting a two-year fellowship in Autumn 2022.
Postdoc to professoriate in two years
Other fellows include:
Giron will continue as a Dean’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow through 2022. Her research focuses on understanding how cultural factors affect Latino/a/x families and the well-being of adolescents and young adults.
Assistant Professor, University of North Texas
Johnson is now an assistant professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation at the University of North Texas. He researches health disparities among underserved children, to develop and improve childhood health behaviors (fundamental motor skill competence, physical activity promotion) among children from under-represented backgrounds.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Teaching and Learning
Chacón-Diaz will continue her work on merging machine learning with metacognition in science education of all students. She is developing an integrated curriculum to provide understanding of basic neurobiology as it relates to learning, and implications of mental health within the learning process. She will continue her collaboration with the Center for Life Sciences Education to evaluate assessments and student performance based on each question’s cognitive level.