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Damani White-Lewis Joins Faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

By Joanie Harmon
Damani White-Lewis is now a faculty member of the College of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

HEOC alumnus and scholar of racial inequality in academic careers is appointed assistant professor of higher education.

Damani White-Lewis (’19, Ph.D., Higher Education and Organizational Change) has been appointed to join the faculty at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. An interdisciplinary scholar who studies racial inequality in academic careers and contexts using multiple methods and theories from organizational behavior and social psychology, White-Lewis will teach and conduct research in the school’s Policy, Organizations, Leadership, and Systems Division.

White-Lewis’ dissertation, a multi-case study titled, “The Facade of Fit and Preponderance of Power in Faculty Search Processes: Facilitators and Inhibitors of Diversity,” received the 2020 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the National Association of Chief Diversity Officers and two Honorable Mentions for the Dissertation of the Year Award by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and a third place dissertation award from the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE).

Professor White-Lewis’ work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and has appeared in The Journal of Higher EducationTeachers College Record, The Review of Higher EducationResearch in Higher Education, and CBE-Life Sciences Education. White-Lewis has also been featured in outlets such as Inside Higher Ed and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, and regularly advises college campuses and external organizations on addressing issues related to the academic profession, racial equity, and institutional transformation and systemic change in higher education.

White-Lewis is currently working on several projects that address faculty hiring, promotion & tenure, mentorship, and retention. He is the co-principal investigator of an NSF-funded study to understand how diversity, equity, and inclusion work is credited and weighed in recommendations for tenure, and also leads a series of studies that uses data from Harvard University’s Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) study to examine trends in faculty retention and departure.

Professor White-Lewis earned his master’s degree in higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2015, and his bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 2013.

What will you be teaching at Penn?

I’m going to focus on a few different things. I’ll be teaching a course I designed on contemporary issues in academia this spring, titled “The Academic Profession: Foundations, Careers, and Current Issues.” I’m really excited about that. But I’m also thinking about some courses that are going to focus on themes related to mixed methods research - how to conduct a mixed methods project from beginning to end and write a paper on it that students hopefully [can submit] to a conference.

I’m also thinking about an equity in higher education course, especially because we've heard the word thrown around in so many different contexts, not just in higher education. Sports organizations are purporting to do equity work, and government agencies are responding as well. I just saw a paper the other day talking about how the National Science Foundation [has not been] giving out grants in an equitable way. They’re really focused [now] on improving their processes. In that class, I would look at different case studies from both within and outside higher education, to try to figure out what institutions mean by equity and fairness. Do they mean fairness, racial equity, or something in between? 

The third class I'm really interested in is a fundamental org theory course, combining sociological work with psychology, trying to give students a new perspective on how to diagnose inequities and malfunctions within organizations. 

What are you working on now?

I’m dealing with a few different streams of research at the moment. I was a postdoc on an NSF grant conducting research studies on equity in faculty hiring. Right now, we have four papers in review, one looking at the use of rubrics, and another documenting how search committees’ process of identifying and assessing risk impacts the hiring of racially minoritized scholars. We also conducted a mixed methods experimental survey project looking at how faculty evaluate candidates and where bias exists in that process.

For the fourth study, we used quantitative methods and publicly available online data to look at career trajectories of STEM scholars to try to understand whether they more or less likely to depart early after [their] initial hire. That is the sort of a misconception across various fields. The assumption being that if you hire folks like me who are racially minoritized and well regarded in the field - and because we’re so well regarded - we’re just going to end up leaving for a “better offer.” But does that actually happen?  The risk, going back to the risk paper, is that they’ll be more likely to not accept the offer, or if they do accept the offer, they go off. There are a lot of assumptions in the background of faculty hiring that go untested, but still get applied to candidates in problematic ways. Part so part of my research tries to interrogate those assumptions and empirically study them to find out if they're actually true or not. 

I actually just published a paper using COACHE data from Harvard that looked at faculty departure as a phenomenon, trying to understand reasons why faculty leave for another academic job versus leaving for an industry job. 

Why do people leave for other jobs in academia, and why do they leave for industry?

There’s a number of factors. Let me start with just a bit of background. Studies of faculty departure are complicated because there are legal parameters that institutions have to comply with. You can't just say, so-and-so left for this job or left for that job. It’s really hard to collect those data, and for that reason, faculty are often lumped together and we don't know if they left for another academic job versus if they left for a different kind of job.

What the COACHE dataset does is, one, it actually tells us where faculty are going, and two, it shows their self-described reasons for actually leaving. That’s important, because a lot of previous studies look at intent to depart rather than the actual departure. I could say in an offhand conversation, “Yeah, I want to leave,” but I many not actually leave. It might be tough because I may have family in the area, or I might find it hard to get another job. So, you’ve got to use data on people who actually leave, rather than just people who say they're going to leave, especially during pandemic times. We had data that helped shore up both these limitations and that helped us understand why are people leaving for academic job vs these non-academic jobs. And we found actually that a lot of the reasons are the same. 

A lot of what people are expecting of their new job - whether or not it's in academia - are incredibly consistent. They’re looking for a better work-life balance, they're looking for a better opportunity. But it's not just what we call “pull factors” that pull you away from the institution. It’s also push factors, things that institutions are responsible for: work-life climate, family policies, child care policies, workloads, departmental issues. There is a calculus of push and pull factors that operate [and] help shape people's intentions and eventual departure behaviors, whether they go for a career in a non-government organization, a government organization, or  a nonprofit versus another academic institution. We found that they're remarkably similar.

What is the ratio of people who go to another academic position as opposed to people who leave academia altogether?

A lot of people stay in academia, believe it or not, and we posit that it's because it takes a lot of investment and socialization. If you [looked at] social media, at all these people saying, “I’m leaving academia,” that would be engaging in a sort of availability heuristic. You don't have those snapshots of all the people who say they're staying in academia.

That’s not to say that academia does not problems. It does, and I study those just as well as anybody else who's interested in it. But, we also have to be clear about what the data are giving us and it's really saying that a lot of people are staying at positions, because you spend four to six years in grad school, then you spend two to four years in a postdoc, and for some people, they perceive that to be a sunk cost. But that's not entirely the case. We know that there are a lot of transferable skills that you acquire in grad school that industry careers really look out for. Again, there’s a number of reasons why people would stay in these kinds of jobs vs ultimately leave. 

With that kind of time and financial investment, one would think that faculty feel like their careers are a sort of calling. 

The calling is especially interesting. I do want to study that at some point, because I do feel like many believe there's a sense of passion or duty for staying in academia. It's interesting for myself as an academic studying academia. I do also feel that passion, but that doesn't make me overly idealistic about the challenges either, and I feel like that's why I'm doing this, is because I feel the challenges. I'm going to study them so that other people can understand them, but that doesn't mean I'm beholden to academia by any stretch of the imagination either.

What other new studies do you look forward to conducting?

I'm thinking about a few grant applications that will really focus on faculty diversity at the national level. I think, right now, we have a lot of information and best practices, but we need to understand what's working and what's not. So many different institutions are experimenting with different rubric formats [in] hiring: interview questions, selection methods, bringing multiple people on a campus, or having more Skype or Zoom interviews. We’ve got to figure out what's working, and that’s part of the reason why I focus on intervention. But we also can’t forget about the people behind the interventions, and the contexts they operate within – all of that is part of a calculus I’m trying to better understand. On my website, you'll see that I’m thinking about embedding interventions in the organizational fabric of our universities. 

I just had a report come out from the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities in collaboration with some of those colleagues, calling for systemic change in STEM faculty careers. It’s not just about changing departments, but how do we change the other things that impact promotion and tenure rates. So, how do we work with publishing, how do we work with government agencies who end up doing the funding, how do we work with professional societies and organizations - really wrapped around holistic change to improve STEM faculty careers.

Is the retention of STEM faculty of color a particular challenge?

People will tell you that it is. I think the problem could be a lot simpler than we make it out to be. Just going by the numbers, yes, there are fewer racially minoritized folks in STEM disciplines, for a number of different reasons and barriers. But I feel like those some of those solutions are right under our noses – one of which I’m currently evaluating with HEOC alumna Dr. Channel McLewis. But because we're academics, we want the empirical study. But I feel like it's a combination of dialogues informed by equity and those kinds of things, but then, also the research as well. It presents an interesting dilemma. 

Are faculty of color leaving the arts and humanities in the same numbers, for the same reasons?

Faculty hiring data are really hard to come by, and they're not updated as often as student demographic data. In fact – and I may be wrong, but I don't think I am - we have very few databases, if any, available on rates of faculty of color hiring or promotion and tenure by discipline. 

It's oftentimes at the national level. We know that two or so in every 10 full-time tenure track faculty identify in a racially minoritized group.  But it is really hard to disaggregate by discipline, and I feel like that's something that again calls for a systemic approach. How do we collect those data in a better way at the institutional level? There are policy and government organizations that could contribute, and that's a real needed area or gap right now in the field.

What does it feel like to land your first faculty position?

It’s just like a relieving feeling. I focus so much on the research because that's what I do and I'm passionate about it. But to say that there isn't like an emotional edge of it, too, I think, would just be pretending. [My parents] were super proud, because they know how long I’ve been trying to become a professor. You’re in school for so long and then you're a postdoc for so long and tenure-track jobs are hard to come by, especially at a place like Penn. You get hired, and that’s just a really good feeling, because now you have a little more security. I need to get tenure, but that’s the next step.

I feel very, very thankful for my community. Sylvia (Hurtado, UCLA professor of education) was so instrumental and helpful as I was weighing my options at different schools and different offers. My postdoc mentor KerryAnn (O’Meara, professor of higher education, University of Maryland, College Park) was as well, and ultimately I decided on Penn. 

I'm really excited about finally getting into the classroom. As a postdoc, I was just doing research all day and I loved it, don't get me wrong. But now, I feel like I'll be able to connect to the more humanistic parts of the job, like advising students, teaching, working with colleagues, and going into the office. I'm really looking forward to that, having my office decorated, having coffee and lunch, and those kinds of things that we missed out on. 

And then, it’s funny because I’ve been a grad student and postdoc studying faculty, and now I’m actually a professor studying professors. I feel like I’ll have a lot more to say about it, being in the department meetings and advising students. Because I studied it both quantitatively and qualitatively, I felt like I had a very good outsider's perspective on it, and what I felt was particularly strong about my dissertation is that I think I captured things that faculty otherwise thought were kind of benign or ordinary processes like hiring priorities … that I can turn on its head and say “No, this is actually really important, this thing you do every summer or at the beginning of every fall.” It has major implications for equity that I just don't think people think about because they have to do it every year. 

And I’m sure I’ll become numb to certain processes over time, and then hopefully some grad student or postdoc will say, “No, that’s really important,” and it will make me think about it differently.