Deirdre Pitts receives 'Dissertation of the Year' award
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Deirdre Pitts, Ph.D., Earns Dissertation of the Year from Oakland University

A recent graduate from the Oakland University Department of Organizational Leadership and OUWB Assistant Dean for Faculty Affairs and Professional Development and Assistant Professor of Foundational Medical Studies, Deirdre Pitts, Ph.D., received this year's Oakland University Dissertation of the Year award for her work: "The Academic Search: Unconscious Bias and its Impact on the Recruitment and Evaluation of Faculty Candidates."

Pitts selected this topic because, in her frequent work with academic search processes, she noticed a serious lack of under-represented individuals appearing on short lists for job consideration. “What is causing the push back on applicants of diverse backgrounds?” She asked.

This question led to her search for the reasoning behind why certain candidates are not considered for jobs. She narrowed her study down to examine the recruitment and evaluation of African American faculty and began her mixed-method study, in which she utilized both quantitative and qualitative methods to determine academic search committee members’ beliefs, values and attitudes regarding how they evaluated faculty candidates and how they made decisions about who would go on the short list.

Pitts administered her nationwide study to 3,798 sociologists who have served on academic search committees. Her findings revealed differences in how each demographic evaluates candidates. She found that women and men, African American and white candidates, and tenured employees and non-tenured employees have different criteria about which they are concerned during the hiring process.

She also found that non-tenured, junior employees felt less comfortable calling out the biases of their colleagues as opposed to tenured employees and that most search committee participants had not received any training for this task.

Pitts hopes that the findings from her research inspire universities and colleges to develop a transformative strategic plan to address the recruitment and evaluation of faculty candidates. She recommends that training be a mandatory requirement for individuals who serve on search committees. “Participants don’t want mundane training – what is the right question to ask, what does the law say about discrimination, etc.,” she explained. “They want more specific training on understanding unconscious bias and how it impacts decision making.”

She also suggests that universities centralize the search process, as opposed to decentralized search processes in which each school within the university may run its own search. “When we have these decentralized processes, no one is monitoring what’s going on,” she said. “We need to have a more restrictive process to make sure that we’re not letting things fall through the cracks.”

Dissertation contains genuine, useful findings

Working closely alongside Pitts was OUWB Associate Professor of Bioethics Jason Wasserman, Ph.D., member of her dissertation committee. “He was instrumental in helping me narrow down what I wanted to do, because I just had such big ideas,” she says.

Specifically, Wasserman helped Pitts narrow her search down to only sociologists. “Most sociologists believe themselves to understand bias and stigma and structural racism,” he said. “To me, they represented a good group to study because, if we could see the bias at work in faculty hiring among this group, then we have really good reason to believe that it’s present among any other department.”

He believes that her dissertation received such high honors not only for its theoretical richness, but also because it is relevant to every college and university. “I think her findings resonate with anyone who has ever been involved in any hiring process,” he said. “It was a dissertation that had depth but it also felt very genuine and useable.”

Pitts’ next steps

Moving forward, Pitts would like to publish an article further pursuing the topic of how bias within different demographics plays out on search committees.

“When you establish a search committee of individuals who are all the same, all tenured professors who may be all male or all white, who do you think they’re going to hire?” she asked. “Someone just like them. That’s our human nature; we’re more comfortable being around people who are like us. That’s why it’s so important to establish search committees that are not so homogeneous; we need to have differences in order to diffuse some of that.”