Yale department borrows from scientific playbook to promote unbiased hiring
As Yale seeks to expand the diversity and excellence of its faculty, the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (MB&B) has developed a novel way of identifying promising candidates.
Last year, MB&B Chair Enrique M. De La Cruz and colleagues created a “blind” search process intended to help diversify the department’s faculty and strengthen its reputation for scientific excellence. Specifically, the department’s faculty search committee, led by professor Andrew Miranker, designed an experiment for new faculty hiring that applied the rational approaches of scientific research to minimize human biases inherent in decision-making.
The need to improve the faculty selection process was clear: In 2020, only seven of the 26 members of the MB&B faculty were women, a fraction virtually unchanged from 2010. And today only two current faculty members come from an underrepresented group. One is a pre-tenure professor, the other is De La Cruz himself.
“Clearly, we have a problem, and we have for some time,” said De La Cruz, a first-generation Cuban-American raised in Newark, New Jersey. “One thing is certain — hiring strategies we and others have adopted in the past are not serving our needs.”
To this end, MB&B’s trial hiring process required applicants to submit materials scrubbed of all references to their personal identities, including their names, schools they’d attended, places where they’d worked, names of their advisors, and journals in which they’d been published. In place of these oft-used indicators of merit, applicants were evaluated on their ability to communicate the significance of their research contributions and to make a compelling case for independent future research plans.
They were also asked to provide a written plan describing how they would promote and support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom, their research labs, and across Yale.
“The answers helped identify applicants who would contribute to a supportive culture of inclusion,” said Miranker, who also is a professor of chemical and environmental engineering.
“We live in a changing world, and as educators we have to be able to connect with an increasingly diverse student body.”
The scoring guidelines for the initial screening — which MB&B has since made public and shared with dozens of other universities — focused on the candidates’ scientific contributions rather than on personal attributes, such as race or gender.
The advantage of this approach to faculty hiring, De La Cruz and Miranker said, is that every applicant, regardless of personal identity, had an equal chance of being heard, recognized, and endorsed by the broader faculty of MB&B for consideration by minimizing the opportunity for unconscious biases to come into play. Only after the initial short list of candidates was established through the blind screening was identifying information about the candidates revealed.
A further benefit was that applicants who might have worried about bias in the hiring process or feared they were being advanced only because of their identity could rest assured that they were being considered solely as a result of their past scientific contributions and Yale’s view of their scholarly potential, De La Cruz and Miranker said.
For the department, an entrenched reputation of hiring from a narrow, non-diverse demographic had resulted in previous applicant pools in which only 1% were members of underrepresented groups. By requiring candidates to rewrite their application materials to meet the new content-based, identity-free structure, department leaders found new ways to encourage voluntary participation of excellent scientists across all demographics in the hiring process.
In addition, the department also invited a select group of MB&B undergraduate students to participate in the process. Before the search, they were trained and employed to seek out emerging scientists from groups historically under-represented in MB&B.
The students adeptly identified young faculty candidates for De La Cruz to contact directly on the basis of their published work, prizes, awarded grants, or invitations to speak at conferences in fields related to MB&B, he said. The identities of these potential candidates were hidden from the search committee. “This personal contact was necessary to combat any external perceptions that Yale is not a welcoming place for the underrepresented,” he said.
The results of Yale MB&B’s experiment in faculty hiring were promising: The new model attracted 194 total applications, up 15% percent from a search just one year earlier. And applicants included 22 members of underrepresented groups — up over 600% — and 62 from women, up 100%. Of the 14 finalists identified by this method, half were women and half were applicants from underrepresented groups.
Ultimately, the top candidate was Allison Didychuk, who will join the department’s ranks in July as assistant professor. Didychuk, currently with the University of California-Berkeley, will establish a laboratory to determine, at atomic scale, the mechanisms by which viruses thread and package their DNA during their life cycle.
Since completing their department’s successful trial, Miranker and De La Cruz have been contacted by colleagues in other parts of Yale and at other academic institutions — including Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Washington University — seeking advice about how to adapt the hiring model for their own departments.
“There is a roadmap now,” De La Cruz said. “It’s a starting point, not a prescription. The hope is that this will grow to create more diversity and inclusion beyond just this one Yale department.”