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Portland State University
Ashlie Prioleau, Ed.D.
Executive Director,
Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) &
APLU Vice President, Urban Initiatives

Christel Perkins, Ed.D.
Deputy Executive Director, Coalition of Urban Serving Universities

Cluster Hiring

Many universities now recognize interdisciplinary research and collaboration as the means to address grand challenges facing our society. University leaders also recognize the value of diversity in higher education and have expanded their definitions of diversity to incorporate multiple perspectives, methodologies, and worldviews. An inclusive campus climate that values diversity is one of the determinants of institutional excellence, and leaders seek strategies to further develop and improve the climate at their institutions.

Faculty cluster hiring is an emerging practice in higher education and involves hiring faculty into multiple departments or colleges around interdisciplinary research topics, or “clusters.” Some cluster hiring programs also aim to increase faculty diversity or address other aspects of institutional excellence, including faculty career success, collaboration across disciplines, the teaching and learning environment, and community engagement.

The Impact of Cluster Hiring

In addition to advancing research, cluster hiring has the complementary objective of increasing faculty diversity – especially in health-related fields that are particularly lacking in diversity. APLU and USU have partnered with the American Association of Medical Colleges, and the National Institutes of Health to form Urban Universities for Health (UU‐HEALTH) to educate a health workforce that reflects the diverse population it serves, which helps reduce inequities in health outcomes. UU‐HEALTH published a report in 2015, Faculty Cluster Hiring for Diversity and Institutional Climate, surveying the landscape of cluster hiring programs and results across a diverse set of ten public research universities. The report outlines best practices for faculty cluster hiring and outcomes of successful programs.

  • How Cluster Hiring Supports Institutional Climate
    Diversity and a favorable institutional climate impact faculty retention, which is a concern for many public universities. Discrimination, lack of support, lack of collegiality, and other climate-related factors were found to have a negative impact on faculty retention (O’Meara, Lounder, & Campbell, 2014), particularly among minority faculty where turnover is already high (Piercy et al., 2005; Price et al., 2005).
  • How Cluster Hiring Improves Learning
    Research shows that a diverse faculty body improves the teaching and learning environment for all students (Piercy et al., 2005); minority and female faculty are also more likely to use active learning techniques and participatory teaching practices (Milem, 2003). As the “designated socializing agents” in higher education (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, & Allen, 1998), faculty play a role in exposing students to a wide variety of cultural perspectives that will expand their understanding of the world and help them develop critical thinking skills needed for success (AAMC, 2013).
  • How Cluster Hiring Bolsters Research
    A growing body of evidence suggests that diverse teams produce higherquality research outcomes and unique solutions to problems (Milem, 2001; National Institutes of Health [NIH], 2012). Collaboration among individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives is critical for developing novel solutions to emerging research problems (Van Hartesveldt & Giordan, 2008). This collaboration is more likely to occur with the interpersonal trust and support that an inclusive campus climate provides. Collaboration is also a key component of interdisciplinary research, which is desired by both universities and funding agencies for its role in fostering innovation (Van Hartesveldt & Giordan, 2008).
  • How Cluster Hiring Enhances Economic Growth
    Diversity in higher education is associated with enhanced economic growth as universities graduate a workforce that is prepared to excel in a globalized economy (Milem, 2003; Pugh, Dietz, Brief, & Wiley, 2008). This is particularly important in health and biomedical research fields, where lack of diversity among professionals may contribute to disparities in access to health care services (Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003) and biased outcomes in clinical trials where minorities are underrepresented (Ford et al., 2007).

 Promising Cluster Hiring Practices

The following eight institutional practices are promising and could be considered by universities seeking to implement faculty cluster hiring programs to improve diversity and institutional climate.

  • Make Diversity Goals Explicit
    Make diversity goals explicit and develop supporting strategies to achieve those goals. These may include evidence-based strategies cited by the institutions in this study, such as expanding recruitment, providing diversity training to committees, hiring more junior faculty than senior faculty, and targeting specific disciplines where diversity is more prevalent.
  • Get Institutional Buy-In
    Work to ensure early buy-in from deans and department heads. Including deans early in the process ensures that new hires will be approved more quickly and will be supported once they come on board. In particular, deans should understand the potential benefits of the program for the whole institution, and the value it adds to their college or department.
  • Engage Faculty
    Engage faculty early in the process and follow the lead of the faculty. To be successful, the institution must have faculty who are enthusiastic about the research topics and disciplines under consideration for the cluster hiring program. If faculty are not consulted, the topics selected for clusters may not fit well with existing research focuses among disciplines and silos may form.
  • Establish Expectations
    Establish and articulate expectations for cluster hires from the very beginning. Hires need to know up front how they will collaborate with their peers, how they will be evaluated for promotion and tenure, and what resources are available to them for support. Clearly written agreements that span all departments and colleges affected are especially important for joint hires in order to protect their time.
  • Give Credit
    Give cluster hires credit for work they perform as part of the cluster in the tenure and promotion process. Doing so influences faculty career success and provides an incentive for faculty to engage in interdisciplinary collaboration. Formally rewarding faculty for their efforts related to the cluster improves retention and ensures the long-term sustainability of the cluster hiring program.
  • Support Interdisciplinary Collaboration
    Establish infrastructure to support interdisciplinary collaboration. Promising strategies include hiring faculty in cohorts, holding regular events where informal social networking can occur, dedicating space for the cluster hires to gather and interact, and dedicating staff or a faculty member to coordinate the cluster’s activities.
  • Communicate Value to Stakeholders
    Communicate the value of the program to stakeholders across the institution. Cluster hiring involves short-term financial sacrifices in exchange for long-term benefits. Shifting focus away from those short-term costs and toward longer-term benefits for everyone at the institution (e.g., eliminating silos, improving the teaching and learning environment, increasing community engagement) will encourage widespread support for the program.
  • Develop Plans to Transcend Leadership Changes
    Develop a plan for sustaining the program throughout leadership changes. Leaders should work within existing university policies to ensure program’s sustainability. Promising strategies include embedding the program in a strategic plan, placing it in an office or unit that rarely experiences leadership changes, or obtaining external funding commitments.

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