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Shali Zhang, dean of libraries at the University of Montana, sits in the study lounge on the near the front doors of the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Library on Feb. 7, 2018. Zhang wished to be photographed away from the books because she wanted to focus on the main reasons students come to the libraryto study and use the technology.

Dean of Libraries Shali Zhang will leave UM with no permanent female or non-white deans in mid-February. Zhang is assuming the position of Dean of the Auburn University Libraries in Alabama. 

Of the 11 dean positions at UM, six are currently held by interims. Of those six, three are held by women. All permanent dean positions are held by men. 

Three of the interim dean positions – the College of Education, Missoula College and Davidson Honors College – will be be filled this spring, in time for the beginning of UM’s next fiscal year, July 1, 2019. The remaining three will be hired by July 1, 2020.

Zhang said in an email that she believes UM now has an opportunity to address the lack of diverse dean leadership with the upcoming recruitment of the six positions. 

Marcie Briggs, human resources recruitment manager at UM, said the University is working to balance diversity with qualification in all recruitment, and specifically in the dean hiring process. 

“We have an institutional diversity plan,” Briggs said. “So we always aim to try to meet those goals, while always keeping in mind hiring the most qualified individual.”

Briggs said she also looks at the six interim dean positions as a way to diversify UM’s deans.

A letter from Provost Jon Harbor stated the expectation for search committees is to “increase their focus on fairness, transparency and inclusion as they conduct [future] recruitments.”

In an effort to do this, UM has taken three specific steps, Briggs said. First, search committee members must go through implicit bias tests in order to become aware of any subconscious prejudice. According to the provost’s letter, committee members then discuss the results.

The second measure is to make sure the job advertisements use language that “encourages diverse applicants to apply,” the provost said in the letter. Job advertisements are pasted into a “gender decoder” that recognizes inherent bias within the language of the ad. In order to most encourage women and minorities to apply, the ad must yield on the side of either “neutral” or “feminine,” Briggs said.

All first-round applicant reviews will also be conducted blindly, taking away identifiers like race, gender and location (such as address or hometown). The hope with this process is to level the application playing field, Briggs said.

“It’s a really interesting process because it changes the way people talk about the candidates [when their gender is unknown],” Briggs said.

Paula Short, UM spokesperson, said a more diverse faculty starts with a more diverse application pool. She said UM needs to make an effort to encourage women to apply in the advertisement stage, part of the goal of the gender decoder.

“Even if we try to recruit for diversity, we can still only look at people who apply,” Short said.

Short also pointed out that the “homogeneity” of Montana’s demography could be a dissuader to diverse candidates and an obstacle for recruitment. But, she said, she believes Missoula provides a more unique demographic, which could become an attractant to potential applicants and UM should try to emphasize the appeal more.

She said she thinks UM needs to reach out to more unusual or unconventional places to promote open positions in order to help foster a more diverse application pool. The steps UM has taken so far are a good start, Short added.

Despite these efforts, Adrianne Donald, staff co-chair of the Diversity Advisory Council, said UM is still falling short with diversity recruitment.

“Right now, we are minimally having the discussion on how we can do better,” Donald said. “However, I don’t know that we’ve clearly got a good plan.”

Donald said the need for diversity comes from a need for connection and representation between students and staff. She said that, in the very least, diversity provides more of a variety of representation for students at UM.

“Staff and faculty and administrators serve more than one role,” Donald said. “Often times, they become a safe space [for students].”

Donald pointed out that student retention is “not only based in the classroom,” but also related to students’ outside lives. The connection that students have with faculty and staff plays a role in their success, and a solid foundation of trust with a mentor could help all aspects of a student’s life. Thus, diversity within the UM administration could even positively impact retention rates, Donald said.

“I think sometimes we get stuck, as a university, because we’re in Montana,” Donald said. “But I think that’s holding us back. I think we need to make a concerted effort to actually recruit for diversity.”

She said that, in her opinion, intentionally seeking out diversity is the most important step for the University to take, in order to prioritize the important representation and connection between faculty and students. This contradicts the “blind review” policy UM has adopted. 

Donald acknowledged the need to remain within legal limits for recruitment (i.e.: staying away from Affirmative Action) and to prioritize qualification in potential candidates.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t have that qualified candidate in tandem with diversity,” Donald said.