Diversity and Democracy

Faculty Development for Educational Equity

Why is it imperative that institutions invest in faculty development programs (FDPs) with an equity focus?

Quite simply, the essential mission of American higher education is to serve democracy and to actuate its values. Higher education carries out this obligation through faculty professional development. Colleges and universities underwrite democracy through two primary functions, knowledge production and knowledge reproduction, and faculty are responsible for these key functions. By liberally and critically engaging in the production of knowledge through free inquiry and discovery, faculty provide an ever-expanding range of knowledge that will advance democratic living. By reproducing that knowledge through instruction, faculty provide opportunities for students to engage in uninhibited discussion and expression and to exercise the critical scrutiny that leads to self-realization. Thus through research and teaching, faculty supply society with means for progress and growth that are imperative to democracy.

Historically, this view of higher education’s obligation to democratic society has informed our commitment to liberal education as a way of ensuring democratic thinking and democratic living, and has justified the privilege of academic freedom provided to faculty. However, not everyone who holds this view concedes that a healthy democracy is inherently an equitable social arrangement. To truly serve democracy, higher education must facilitate and expand opportunities for all individuals to develop their talents, potentialities, and capacities, and must ensure the free pursuit and production of knowledge. To achieve this, institutions must prepare faculty to meet these commitments across their primary functions—academic research and scholarship, and teaching and learning.

Knowledge Production and Reproduction

Many institutions have lost sight of how scholarship and research serve the greater democratic agenda. A cursory review of FDPs nationwide reveals not an emphasis on intellectual integrity and scholarly autonomy, but rather a focus on successful grant writing and external research funding. Institutions offer workshops, seminars, webinars, new technologies, and collaboration and mentorship opportunities to improve their faculty’s grant revenue generation. Many have also created high-level academic administrative positions to help faculty produce external funding. These positions focus little (if at all) on developing the wide-ranging knowledge valued in a democracy. Symbolically and factually, they encourage academic professionals to understand research and scholarship as marketable exercises and not as the pursuit of unregulated knowledge.

This state of affairs has implications for equity for two reasons. First, it reduces knowledge production to a normative enterprise, allowing the desires of private funders to constrain the pursuit of knowledge. Paradigm-challenging epistemologies often championed by marginalized scholars are unlikely to fare well in such an environment, and the scholars who champion these epistemologies will find their chances of tenure and promotion endangered and their academic careers disadvantaged. For example, many faculty of color whose research and scholarly foci are race, ethnicity, and/or gender may feel pressure to turn their attention to more “fundable” topics. The more the privatized marketplace tapers the parameters for research and scholarship, the more improbable equity in knowledge production—and, consequently, for historically underrepresented scholars—becomes.

Our current commitment to marketplace values in knowledge production has diminished faculty’s professional promise to serve democracy through knowledge reproduction. To enact equity, we need to reorient FDPs to focus on developing faculty members’ identities as teachers and building faculty capacity to implement equity through instruction.

Equity-Minded Instruction

In the realm of teaching and learning, most FDPs provide faculty with services and resources intended to improve their instructional skills. As a whole, these programs are not what Dowd and Bensimon (2015) would characterize as “equity-minded”: teaching guided by an awareness of how instructional practices can reinforce structural inequity. Most FDPs offer recommendations for improving class discussions or lectures, training on new technologies to augment or enhance content delivery and learning outcomes, toolkits to improve student participation, guidelines for assessment and grading, instructional design tutelage, and faculty learning communities for semester- or year-long training. However, most do not adopt equity as a guiding principle.

What should a faculty development program focused on equity look like? If the FDP’s goal is to develop equitable instruction and student learning, it should promote teaching as an integral component of academic identity. For most faculty members, scholarly training emphasizes and privileges research, not teaching; thus for many, their worth as researchers and not their identity as teachers regulates their academic identity. Yet studies have demonstrated that faculty who identify as teachers are motivated to improve their instructional skills and gain professional satisfaction from student learning (see, e.g., Lieff et al. 2012). Thus, an equity-focused FDP should cultivate an academic identity in which teaching is professionally satisfying and rewarding.

An academic identity in which teaching and student learning are integral enables faculty to advance what Dowd and Bensimon (2015) have called equity-minded instruction. Equity-minded instruction engages all learners, but provides equitable access to knowledge especially to those students who have been historically marginalized by the cultural and academic norms of the college classroom. For example, FDPs can enlist faculty in syllabi reviews that expose the cultural norms embedded in the syllabi’s language, lexical terms, and discourse. Bringing these norms to light can empower faculty to better communicate learning objectives to all students.

Three Key Components

To help faculty develop academic identities anchored to the principles of equity-mindedness, an FDP should involve three components: (1) release time for faculty, (2) monetary rewards for equity-minded teaching, and (3) recognition of equity-minded teaching in promotion and tenure appraisals. Clearly, provosts and deans will need to modify faculty reward and promotion metrics in order for equity-minded FDPs to succeed. The incentive for doing so seems obvious: the better faculty are able teach all students, the more likely that the institution will satisfy accountability mandates, accreditation requirements, and the demands of the “consumer” public.

Faculty release time serves two functions: it is an incentive for faculty to participate in an equity-focused FDP and a necessary condition of that FDP’s success. Forming an identity as a teacher requires time dedicated to professional self-assessment and training. Becoming conscious of how, why, and in what ways students’ sociocultural positions affect their learning, and how instructional decisions either eliminate or enhance students’ opportunities to learn, requires reflective, protracted attention. One cannot become aware of the many ways in which curricula and pedagogy can preserve and renew racial or gender biases, for example, in lunchtime seminars or sporadic workshops. Debunking assumptions about instruction, reassessing content, and identifying habits that limit opportunity for student learning is hard work that demands time.

Although awards like Stanford University’s President’s Award for Excellence through Diversity certainly validate faculty members’ efforts to make their instructional materials and delivery more inclusive, institutions should also present faculty with monetary incentives to develop equity-minded pedagogy. These incentives must be part of an existing professional framework that is familiar to faculty, central to academic culture, and suitable for both tenure-track and contract faculty. Faculty merit pay formulae can be recalibrated to honor faculty’s participation in equity-minded FDPs and to recognize their implementation of equity-minded pedagogy. Few faculty will invest time and energy in these activities until faculty reward systems assign capital value to developing and executing instructional equity.

In addition to sanctioning the time necessary for thoughtful engagement and rewarding faculty for their commitment to instructional equity, administrators must assure faculty that these commitments will be valued in their appraisals. For tenure-track faculty, appraisals for promotion and tenure—the ultimate professional reward—must encourage faculty to nurture academic identities that depend on equity-minded teaching in addition to research productivity. For contractual faculty, recontracting and merit raise reviews should also value efforts to employ equity-minded approaches in teaching.


In sum, if colleges and universities are to fulfill their democratic responsibilities, they must alter the current calculus for knowledge production and reproduction. By reconceiving faculty development programs so they emphasize the advancement of equity-minded pedagogy and not the entrepreneurial pursuit of research, institutions can reshape the faculty’s academic identity and in doing so, serve democracy well.


Dowd, Alicia C., and Estela M. Bensimon. 2015. Engaging the “Race Question”: Accountability and Equity in U.S. Higher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lieff, Susan, Lindsay Baker, Brenda Mori, Eileen Egan-Lee, Kevin Chin, and Scott Reeves. 2012. “Who Am I? Key Influences on the Formation of Academic Identity within a Faculty Development Program.” Medical Teacher 34 (3): 208–15.

Ana M. Martínez-Alemán is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

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