What happens when a job description is too specific, too vague, or relies on assumptions about what counts as meeting the qualifications? The pool of candidates might shrink and become less diverse. In an effort to refine its search and hire process and become an equitable people-centered employer of choice, CU Denver is piloting a new search advocate program. The role of a search advocate is to advance inclusive excellence by asking questions to help search committee members test their thinking, identify and promote practices that advance equity, access and inclusion, and minimize the impacts of cognitive and structural biases.
Two search advocates in the first cohort are Amy Ferrell, PhD, associate professor of special education in the School of Education & Human Development, who is serving on the search committee for the new dean of SEHD, and James Speed, policy coordinator for the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, who is serving on the search committee for the assistant vice chancellor for research. In 2020, they took a required 16-hour training, hosted by the CU System DEI Office and led by Oregon State University, which has trained more than 800 of its faculty and staff on research-based, best practices for equitable hiring processes. Search advocates play a vital role throughout the search processes in position development and job posting, recruitment, screening, interviews, references, evaluation, and onboarding. Often, these members serve as external or non-voting members of the committee in order to help maintain impartiality.
“The idea is to broaden the candidate pool and screen people in rather than out,” said Ferrell, whose research centers on diversity, equity, inclusion, and power within systems. She added, “Inclusion doesn’t resolve power imbalances, though. We have to take care of people after they get here, so this is one small way to check the status quo within our systems.”
Speed said search advocates help committees avoid groupthink and personal biases. “When someone says an individual is a ‘great fit’ for a position, we are asking the committee to explore what exactly that means,” Speed said. “It creates a common understanding and language, and creates a space where everyone on a search committee feels comfortable contributing.”
The CU system is partnering with Oregon State University for three years and will host search advocate training twice a year. To date, 59 individuals across the system have received the training. Ferrell would like to see staff search advocates serving on faculty searches to “practice what we preach” and value others’ expertise regardless of rank or position. Those who are interested in becoming a search advocate should contact their supervisors, who will in turn receive a call from the Office of the Provost and Office for DEI when the next staff and faculty cohorts are to be trained in the coming year. Those involved in the program agree that this work is necessary for CU Denver to become an equity-serving institution that prioritizes diversity and inclusion in how it reimagines the workforce needed to serve an increasingly diverse student population and body of knowledge in a globally connected world.
“Diverse talent hires happen because our search committees and the hiring managers live out an equity mindset long before the job description is even posted. What kind of institution do we want to become is written in our 2030 Strategic Plan, and the search advocate program is but one on-ramp in the journey,” said Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Antonio Farias. “We are working with researched, effective practices. If we get it right, everyone wins.”