Championing original and authoritative research


Leveraging Social Science Tools and Knowledge for Inspiring a Transformative American Academy

By Yvette Alex-Assensoh, author of The SOULS of Black Faculty and Staff in the American Academy

Imagine an American Academy, which uses social science to transform itself for the better. That is what happened, in part, over a decade ago, when the Academy incorporated implicit bias interventions into its recruitment processes. Implicit bias, the positive and negative associations that every human being makes outside their conscious awareness, can have a significant impact on how we assess job candidates and ultimately on our final decisions about hiring.

While implicit bias interventions are no magic bullet, the impact of leveraging and institutionalizing implicit bias interventions has been credited with increasing the diversity of candidate pools and, in some ways, the large-scale diversity of the Academy. Today, interventions around implicit bias are also being used to create more inclusive classrooms, enhance onboarding and performance review processes for staff and faculty in the Academy.

While utilizing social science interventions to enhance institutional transformation is encouraging, such interventions are not being levered as urgently and extensively as expected. In fact, ongoing calls for oversight by State legislatures and dwindling public as well as philanthropic support suggest that transforming the American Academy is not merely a philosophical question, but an existential requirement.

As an example, millions of dollars in squandered investment, unrealized opportunities for student achievement, and a trail of sorrow from abandoned research and creative projects exist where untenable cultural and climate issues make retention an impossibility. Higher education researchers have shown that a disproportionate percentage of attrition occurs among Black faculty and staff, whose many newly hired employees are often replacements for those who have recently departed. At the current rate of hiring, it will take decades for the demographic composition of the Academy to reflect what our society looks like. If research on role modeling is accurate, this portends even more troubling consequences for the success of all students, especially since Black faculty and staff are known for their salutary impact on student achievement across backgrounds and life experiences.

Mostly, the response from academia has been mixed. While some institutions have tried to address crucial structural and systemic issues, far too many are simply content to continue hiring, with the hope that they will one day recruit the candidates with the right “fit” for their institutions. Very few institutions, have consistently leveraged the power of interdisciplinary social science interventions to undermine the ongoing crisis of faculty and staff retention, which is especially prominent among Blacks in the American Academy.

As a social scientist studying how institutions impact and are also impacted by identity, I recently conducted an interdisciplinary review of interventions in positive psychology, economics, sociology, organizational psychology, political science, and law. A treasure trove of tools and knowledge emerged to make the vision of an impactful and humane Academy a very tangible reality.

In fact, drawing on insights, which are at the core of the social sciences and humanities, I identified interventions about safety, organizational accountability, acknowledging difficult truths, addressing unloving processes and a lack of spirituality, which are at the core of why talented Black faculty and staff are often not retained in the American Academy. For example, research on organizational psychology demonstrates that psychological safety—inclusion, the safety to learn, contribute and challenge the status quo—is as crucial to retaining faculty, staff and for creating viable learning environments. This is especially important for Black faculty and staff, who are often isolated in departments and units, whereby their very presence is a marker of difference. Yet, this important knowledge is yet to be incorporated into most professional development opportunities for managers, department heads as well as for classroom-based faculty and graduate student employees.

When it comes to addressing issues of difficult truths, copious social science and legal research has emphasized the transformational power of appropriately convened truth and reconciliation-like commissions and, while funding organizations are supporting such innovations, the practice of unvarnished truth telling–especially on the institutional front—is still a bridge that many in the Academy have yet to cross.

Sociological research has also uncovered ways, in which the Academy and other institutions are gendered and racialized. These findings challenge deeply-entrenched notions of meritocracy and call for interventions to bring about fair-play in everything from teaching evaluations to tenure and promotion policies.  Sadly, very few institutions are applying the interventions suggested by this research for raising the fairness bar for faculties from minoritized backgrounds.  

The good news, however, is that the Academy has a successful example of implicit bias as evidence that social science can change lives and institutions for the better. Therefore, I am hopeful that the Academy will utilize more social science tools to reinvent a more meaningful and humane version of itself, with the power to change our world for the better.

Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Ph.D., J.D. is most recently the author of The SOULS of Black Faculty and Staff in the American Academy: Principles for Transformation and Retention. She is Professor of Political Science and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion at the University of Oregon.