The accidental doctor with a passion for hiring practices

By Luke Lara, Ed.D.

I came to my office on June 5, 2015 and found a note on my chair. It said, “Dr. J. Luke Wood is looking for you. Give him a call at…” I recognized the handwriting and went to find my colleague with the distinct print. Why would Dr. J. Luke Wood be looking for me and why did he contact my colleague? Confused, I asked my colleague, but he just shrugged his shoulders. Minutes later, I dialed the number on the post-it note. That was the beginning of a whirlwind three years of my doctoral program.

A month earlier, I had attended an Equity Summit at a local hotel in Carlsbad hosted by my college’s Student Success governance committee. The keynote speaker was Dr. J. Luke Wood of San Diego State University (SDSU). He also happened to be the Director of the SDSU Ed.D. program. He discussed his latest research on men of color in community college. I remember how this was the first time I had heard of such research and felt excited to learn more. After the presentation, a colleague introduced me to him. I expressed interest in Dr. Wood’s research. He asked me, “Have you considered getting a doctorate degree?” I replied, “You know, I applied back in 2009 and was accepted to the program, but because I had just been offered a full-time tenure track position and had a newborn son, in consultation with my partner we decided I could only do one or the other.” I continued, “At the time, getting paid was the logical choice.” To that, he retorted, “Would you apply again?” Was he calling my bluff? I felt the pressure to say yes. I jokingly replied, “Would I have to take the GRE again?” It had been 10 years since I had taken the GRE and the anxiety lingered. After what seemed several moments of thought, he surprisingly said, “No.” Our conversation ended with me saying with a smile, “Okay, then I’ll think about applying next year.”

I identify as Latino, specifically Ecuadorian, and as male. I am mixed racially, Black and white. I grew up in Minnesota, only knowing Ecuador through my childhood home on Main St. in the suburb of Columbia Heights. I spoke Spanish and learned English as an ESL student in the local public school. The local parochial school would not accept me if I did not speak English. My mother, white and college educated, and my father, middle school educated and Afro Ecuadorian, lived on welfare for most of my youth. What they lacked in material wealth, they made up for in cultural and moral richness. My parents were musicians and social justice change agents. They organized and educated the community around social justice issues. They valued the dignity and worth of every human being, and especially fought for the most marginalized. I embraced their values, and these have been challenged every day of my life. I experience life as a brown man in a society that sees me as inferior, despite my intelligence and credentials. This is my worldview.

The year 2019 marks my twentieth year working in higher education. In my first six years, I worked in private and public four-year colleges and universities, specifically with students of color and first-generation college students. In particular, I directed a federally funded program called TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science for three and a half years. We promoted STEM and higher education to high school students in San Diego and Imperial counties who were low income and would be first-generation college students. Given the borderland context, the majority of the students were Latinx. As a requirement of the federal funding, we had to track students from High school graduation through bachelor’s degree achievement. All of my students graduated from high school and the majority of them went straight to a community college. I had no clue as to what this meant at the time. I had the privilege of attending a private liberal arts college in the Midwest and graduated in four years. I attended the public K-12 system in Minnesota and only experienced a maximum of 500 students in my high school and only 1,800 students in college. When I first stepped foot on El Cajon High School’s campus nearly 18 years ago and learned there were more than 2,000 students, I could not believe it. Community colleges in San Diego county have varying sizes, but many are between 10,000 and 20,000 students. Community colleges were known as “2-year” colleges: a place where students could prepare to transfer to the 4-year college or university. Curiosity to learn more about why my students continued to be at the community college beyond two years led me to earn a master’s degree to become a counselor in California’s community colleges.

When I first entered the community college world in 2006 as an adjunct counselor, the big focus was on the basic skills initiative. I was very involved in many innovative projects to support basic skills students. I began to understand the trend I had been seeing in my TRIO data. Students, in particular, students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, were stymied in the community college through low English and/or math placement. They often started two or three levels below what was required for successful attainment of an Associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year college. Their journey became too long and full of institutional and life obstacles.

I knew I could do more as a full-time counselor to establish the necessary relationships with students and colleagues to change the system. However, several counselors warned me that it would be ten years before I was offered a full-time tenure track position. I took that as a challenge. I hustled. At one point, I worked at five different colleges and universities teaching and counseling. I looked at every possible opportunity, including the newly created doctoral program at SDSU that emphasized community college leadership. My life was converging upon itself: a newborn son, a full-time faculty position, and admission to a doctoral program. I made the right choice at the time. I now have two wonderful children that are 10 and 8 years old. I am tenured and I have held many leadership roles in my department and institution. I am grateful for the growth in those six years before the portal of the doctoral program reopened to me.

For four of those first six years of full-time employment, I led the Puente Project, a transfer success program based in culturally relevant teaching and culturally sustaining pedagogy, emphasizing the Mexican American/Chicanx experience in California. I witnessed first-hand the impact of culturally responsive curriculum on the growth and development of Mexican American/Chicanx students. For many, this was the first time they had a teacher who acknowledged their identity as a strength for learning. It was the first for many things: first time reading Latinx, Mexican American, or Chicanx authors; first time being taught by a Latinx identified professor; and, first time being validated as college worthy students. My college success course was taught in conjunction with an English course as a learning community built on the foundation of a cultural community. My Puente partner and I intentionally engaged with our students in each other’s classrooms and outside the classroom, creating a community of support and “família-like” community.

Meanwhile, I also served as department chair for two and a half years. In this capacity, I hired over 20 adjunct faculty. I also had the privilege of chairing four full-time faculty search committees, resulting in seven hires in my department. Lastly, I have served as a member on several search committees within my department and outside my department, including committees for two vice president searches, one dean, a math faculty, a computer science faculty, a department secretary, and a student support specialist. I approached each of these searches with curiosity, always seeking to hire people that could truly support and understand the student diversity at the community college. I did not have a word for it at the time, but now we refer to this as seeking “equity-mindedness” in a candidate. That is, the ability to be culturally responsive, social justice, and equity focused to support our most marginalized students in achieving equitable outcomes.

In 2015, when I saw Dr. J. Luke Wood’s presentation, I had an epiphany. As he talked about better supporting our men of color, I asked myself, “Who are we hiring to support our men of color?” What happens in the classroom begins with who we hire. Who we hire is dependent on the institution’s values, vision, policies, leadership, and agents (e.g., the people involved in the hiring process). This train of thought fueled my quick affirmative response to Dr. Wood when he called me a month later. Coincidentally, the topic of diversifying the faculty had also intrigued the state chancellor’s office in the fall of 2015, and later the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges in subsequent years. My intuition was right on.

During the first day of orientation for the doctoral program, we met all the faculty. We spent about five minutes with each one for a “speed dating” activity, where we introduced ourselves and our topic of interest. Most of the cohort were interested in studying students; student athletes and transfer; foster youth in community college; formerly incarcerated students; or Latinx students in STEM. Two people were interested in studying leadership.

As I met faculty members to explain my proposed topic, there was mostly mild to low interest. My topic did not align with studying student success directly. Fortunately, I was not dissuaded, and I found a dissertation chair that believed in me. Dr. Felisha Villarreal Herrera, a newer faculty member, had just started her third year at SDSU, but had previously been a tenured faculty member elsewhere. While her focus was on Latinx students in STEM, she and I found common ground as I developed my guiding theoretical lens, critical race theory (CRT). I was fortunate to have her as my writing instructor in my second year, where she helped and encouraged me to apply CRT to my topic. I had heard from other classmates that other program faculty frowned upon the use of CRT, so I felt very fortunate to have a mentor that understood my inquiry.

To start, after the orientation, I embraced the daunting task of reviewing previous scholarship. I started off broadly, looking at hiring practices in education, hiring discrimination, racial discrimination, cultural competency, and implicit bias. I found and applied articles from various fields including education, business, sociology, social work, psychology, history, and law. I expanded my literature review with every new article I read, exploring every branch of the tree. The branch for higher education on hiring practices was thinner than the branch for K-12. In comparison, the research on community college hiring practices was a small twig.

I adopted CRT as a guiding theoretical lens by which to analyze what I had gathered so far. It provided a framework to understand discrimination in the hiring process. While discrimination is multidimensional, I focused on racial discrimination because it has been an enormous challenge over the last thirty years to racially diversify the community college faculty. When we consider state and federal non-discriminatory laws and affirmative action, it becomes even more daunting to improve hiring outcomes. However, the more I read, the more questions arose for me. Three years went by quickly. They were accompanied by my institutional praxis and professional development throughout that period that acted like fertilizer to my growth: the twig was going to get longer, stronger.

The most rewarding part of writing the dissertation was honoring my participants by writing and sharing their lived experiences. I engaged in a phenomenological inquiry and interviewed ten community college faculty of color who actively advocate for hiring faculty of color on faculty hiring committees. The whole process was emotional for me and the participants. They shared stories of what they see as barriers in the hiring process and how they strategically disrupt those barriers. I do this work for them and all the students of color who come through our community colleges and who we hope to hire one day as faculty.

As I sat on a wood stool to be hooded by Dr. Felisha Villarreal Herrera in May 2018, I felt the weight of what I had embarked on, with my parents in the audience—roots—and my partner and children cheering me on—future. When we first started, I was told, “You will become the expert, the one and only person who will know what you know. That is what it means to be a doctor.” One year later in April 2019, I published an article based on my dissertation in the prestigious Community College Journal for Research and Practice. In this past year, I have presented at state-wide sponsored events, presented at other community colleges, and trained faculty and HR professionals. Am I an accidental doctor? Given my origin story and professional experiences, this is not so accidental but rather exactly what I need to do, when I needed to do it. I am intentionally here to change paradigms, improve hiring outcomes, and create equitable student success outcomes for our students of color.

Tips for Community College Faculty Position Applicants – Especially Faculty of Color

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by Luke Lara

Many institutions of higher education have a stated commitment to diversity. Institutions are judged by a variety of constituents (e.g., the public, Equal Employment Opportunity Offices, students) on the amount of racial and gender diversity in all positions. In fact, public institutions of higher education need to have an Equal Employment Opportunity Plan detailing how the institution plans to diversify its staff. Look up the plan at the institutions in your job search. However, how to achieve greater racial and gender diversity is harder than it seems.

Certain laws are in place (with good intention) to prevent discrimination based on protected classes such as race, gender, and many other categories. These non-discrimination laws (e.g., affirmative action, equal employment opportunity) are meant to create an “equal” playing field. That is, race and gender are not to be considered as factors in the employment decision. I make a more detailed and nuanced critique in my dissertation, which is forthcoming. However, for today’s blog, let me just say that despite these color-blind and gender-blind approaches to hiring, there is much to be desired in our diversity outcomes.

Employers cannot consider race, but they are expected to have a racially diverse pool of applicants and subsequently racially diverse hires.

Until race and gender can be dealt with directly in the search process, many institutions who authentically want to improve their diversity outcomes use indirect strategies.

One such approach is to seek equity-minded or cultural competent candidates in the search process. The Center for Urban Education (CUE) at the University of Southern California a great working definition of equity-mindedness. CUE has been leading a movement for equity reform and institutional transformation in California and around the nation. If you are in California, it is likely that the community college you are applying to has worked with CUE. The National Education Association also has a great diversity toolkit for educators, which is based on a cultural competency framework.

Candidates of color have an opportunity to shine as institutions and search committees infuse a cultural competency framework or equity-mindedness lens in the search process. Here are 4 tips for candidates of color to help them tap into their natural talents, gifts, and general awesomeness.

  1. Translate – The committee is most likely going to composed of mostly White people. You may be sharing an experience or cultural concept that the committee may not be familiar with, but is obvious to you. Be detailed in written and in your oral communication. For example, if you are asked a question about how you work with students that are from underrepresented backgrounds, do not say, “I am Latinx and have been all my life, so that means I am able to understand the students’ experiences.” This answer focuses on you, but the question was about students. A better answer would be, “I draw upon my experiences as a Latinx person in k-16 education, and my professional training to understand how systemic barriers impact historically underrepresented students. I engage in X, Y, Z practices to support my students.” If the committee is truly focused on equity and cultural competency, your personal knowledge, and professional skills will be valued as long as you keep the focus on the students and what you have done to facilitate their success.
  2. Transfer – You may have many transferable skills, but if you do not specifically write about them, you will most likely not get an interview. For example, if the job announcement has a desirable skill that the candidate have two years of teaching in the community college, but you only have one semester, how will you stand out? What else have you been doing that is transferable to this experience? Did you teach in high school or at a university? Did you teach adult classes? Just stating these on a resume or cover letter is not enough. You need to explain how these experiences are transferable to the job you are applying for. Connect the dots for the reader of your application. The way you describe your experiences will indicate how well you know the requirements of a community college faculty position. For instance, the committee is more likely to invite you for an interview if they can make the connections between what you have done and what they are asking. Do that job for them (translate) in your c.v. and cover letter. Now that job descriptions will have more equity-minded language, your work with racially diverse populations in non-traditional settings can be a strength if you can translate those experiences to the community college.
  3. Student Outcomes – Equity-mindedness is about acknowledging that there are disparities in student outcomes and taking action to improve those outcomes. It is not just about being student centered. It is about being action-oriented to improve student outcomes. CUE suggested that equity-minded faculty members “use systematic and data driven self-reflection to improve their own practices with a focus on students of color” CUE Multiple Measures Rubric for Application Review, 2017, p. 1). The term students of color can be replaced with any other disproportionately impacted student group (e.g., veterans, women, older students, low-income students), which may vary at each institution or within each department. In California, you can search for the Student Equity Plan at each community college to learn more about which student groups are disproportionately impacted. You should know which specific student groups are not achieving established measures at proportional rates as compared to other student groups within the same category. Here are examples of how to read data in a student equity plan. What percentage of students who have completed key college courses (math and English) and earned a certain amount of units within a given amount of time are Latinx? What percentage of graduating students are Latinx? If the ratio is less than 1.0, then we have disproportionate impact. If the ratio is 1.0 or greater then we do not have disproportionate impact for Latinx students for this measure. In the interview, be able to discuss student outcomes, how you measure them (or how you use data), and how you have addressed them. As a person of color, you are constantly assessing outcomes (formally or informally), as you navigate teaching students and/or interactions with your colleagues. Be ready to explain your strategies in direct and compelling ways.
  4. Cultural Competency – CUE also identified that an equity-minded faculty possess cultural competency. An equity-minded faculty member “shares common experiences with the students at the institution or intentionally creates classroom practices based on student backgrounds” (CUE Multiple Measures Rubric for Application Review, 2017, p. 1). This provides candidates of color an opportunity to really shine in the interview by drawing upon their experiences and what they do in the classroom for students based on student backgrounds. Saying “I treat all students the same” is not an acceptable answer. As educators, we have a responsibility to validate our students, learn from our students, and understand our students. This requires us to be culturally competent. As people of color, most of us are in-tune with our racial identities and how systemic racism has impacted our own experiences. We cannot all have the same experience, even if we are of the same race, however, we can be more compassionate and empathetic toward others because of our shared experiences. Be ready to highlight a couple of vivid examples. Also, be clear about the ways that you are culturally competent toward student groups who are from different backgrounds than you. Anticipate sharing how you arrived at this competency and how it shapes what you do in and out of classroom.

I hope these tips help you approach your job applications and interviews. May you shine and get the position you apply for.

Equity in Faculty Hiring

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by Luke Lara

I just attended an Equity in Faculty Hiring Institute hosted by the Center for Urban Education from the USC Rossier School of Education. This institute hosted over 200 community college faculty, staff, and administrators. Estela Mara Bensimon, Professor & Director, Center for Urban Education, recently wrote in an email to all institute participants:

As you may know, currently in our California community colleges, Latinos represent approximately 45% of the student population, but only 15% of the full-time faculty. Whites, however, make up 26% of the student population, but 60% of full-time faculty. Recognizing that the California Community College system has made a commitment to close equity gaps, the Center for Urban Education (CUE) recently hosted our first ever Institute for Equity in Faculty Hiring at Community Colleges.

A wealth of information was provided within a very tight schedule of 1.5 days. While the topic is timely, it really deserves more conversation. I wonder what the 20 teams of 10 people from each institution will take back and work on.

The community colleges typically begin the process of hiring with the program review process. For example, this is when a department/discipline reviews data, program goals, and determines projected needs, including hiring additional faculty. The process continues with an Academic Senate approved committee that reviews proposed faculty hires and ranks them against each other. A parallel process that involves the CBO, the CEO, and budget forecasting helps determine how many faculty members the district might be able to hire. This sets the limit for the ranked positions. The CEO takes the recommendations and makes a decision, relying primarily on the advice and judgment of the Academic Senate (in most cases). This preliminary process varies from school to school, but typically takes place from August to December (at least at my college).

Now, the fun begins. Job announcements are created and posted. Committees are composed and trained. Committees meet to determine evaluation criteria, interview questions, topics for teaching demonstrations, and other structural components of the interview process. Then, the candidates apply, the committee reviews and select applicants to interview and finally, the interviews happen. After the interviews are complete (usually take place over a two or three day period), deliberation ensues about who to recommend for the 2nd level interview with the college president. The finalists are sent forward, references are checked, and the 2nd level interview takes place. This part typically takes three to four months and happens over the spring semester. The CEO makes the final decision (in most cases) and makes an offer to the selected candidate. The candidate will typically begin their full-time track at the beginning of the following fall semester.

My concern is that this institute had rich resources and an amazing message, yet it replicated the problems that we face in the community college. It was rushed. The tools were laid out before us and they were force fed to us. Sure, we’ll be able to make some modifications here and there, but they will be minimal unless we (our institutions) decide to invest the TIME that is necessary to have bold conversations about what equity means in hiring.

Speaking of equity, what does that really mean. If you read Dr. Bensimon’s email, the percentages refer to racial diversity. Let’s call it what it is. Let’s be bold about RACE. However, at some point in the conference, the conversation turned to looking for faculty who are equity-minded. Again, what was being said was, “We are looking for faculty who are race-conscious when working with students.” For example, Eloy Oakley Ortiz, Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, said, “People of color are not always equity-minded.” While this may be technically true, this message, coming from a person of color, gives permission to all the White people to use this as an excuse to not hire faculty of color.

The real conversation needs to be about how color-blind ideology is pervasive within hiring practices in the community college (see my forthcoming dissertation). CUE’s institute was a breath of fresh air and I am so happy that conversations about equity in hiring are beginning to happen. However, authentic conversations about race, racism, color-blind ideology, and equity need time, space, and regularity. Then, tools like the ones provided to us at CUE’s institute will be meaningful to us and allow us to make powerful and lasting changes to our processes.