Cluster hiring: 8 smart strategies that can help universities be more diverse

How your institution can follow the lead of Purdue, which is embarking on a $75 million effort to expand faculty diversity.
By: | November 16, 2021
Graduate student Shana Hardy works on cancer research in a lab at Purdue. (Matt Thomas / Purdue University)

Purdue University’s recent announcement that it is utilizing cluster hiring to boost diversity among faculty is nothing new. Purdue and other institutions of higher education have installed similar processes over the past two decades.

But what is unique is the number of hires Purdue is looking to make. With its new, five-year, $75 million Public Health, Health Policy, and Health Equity plan, it is targeting 40 new members to boost “thought and representation” in research and other areas. The initial cohort, or cluster, will include 14 hires in several fields, including health and human sciences.

“A more diverse faculty and student body lifts the research and learning enterprise of our entire university,” John Gates, Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, told Purdue’s News Service. “We see an intrinsic connection between diversity and excellence.”

The program headed by Purdue’s Equity Task Force not only seeks to boost Black perspectives within research but also aims to provide more opportunities to underserved students. Through that cluster of hires, which will include some tenure-track positions, Purdue believes it can be more attractive and accessible to faculty and students, helping produce a more robust and inclusive workforce of the future.

One of the campus leaders who understands the mission well is Jerome Adams, newly appointed Executive Director of Health Equity Initiatives and former U.S. Surgeon General.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has shined a stark light on the price we pay for the equity gap in our nation’s healthcare system,” Adams told PNS. “Building the best, brightest and most diverse team of faculty members and researchers in public health and health equity will have a lasting impact in advancing solutions to this significant challenge in our world—bridging that gap and helping ensure the health and well-being of our local, regional and national communities.”

Purdue plans to extend the project across many disciplines, including liberal arts, libraries, communications and other health-related fields such as pharmacy. Through the years, it has helped boost the number of doctoral students of color across a range of fields, but areas of public health need more leaders to meet demand and serve those communities impacted financially and by crises such as the global pandemic. To realize the financial target of the mass cluster hiring, Purdue officials say the university will use a split of institutional funds plus outside gifts.

Cluster hiring is one of the most effective strategies in building a faculty that is more diverse and creating a more robust learning and research-driven institution, according to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). The organization notes eight ways that other institutions can forge a cluster hiring plan:

  1. Discuss transparently how your institution will improve diversity, whether it’s by leaning on real data, existing supports and current academic programs and leaders to build a more inclusive environment through training, new hires and recruiting.
  2. Ensure stakeholders are onboard, especially deans. Purdue’s deans and other leaders have been instrumental in the school’s success.
  3. Give current faculty a voice so that they can feel involved in decision-making and know which types of research are being targeted.
  4. Set attainable goals for new cluster hires, and lay out how their roles will fit into the rest of the institution and your mission.
  5. Highlight the work of those from the hiring cohort, showing that you value them and the importance of the program to your institution.
  6. Help bring together cluster hires through informal gatherings to share information.
  7. Cite the benefits associated with the program (breaking down institutional barriers and educational and research growth potential), not costs. Show they can pay off in the long term for an institution, not vice-versa.
  8. Create a fail-safe plan that lasts. The APLU suggests positioning cluster hiring initiatives within strategic plans and ensuring their viability with capital through partnerships.