Strategies to Increase Gender Equity on a Rural Campus

Potvin began a proactive campaign to recruit, retain and advance women and minorities at her college.

In 2001, when Dr. Martha Potvin became the first woman dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Dakota, the biologist noticed the dearth of women both in the sciences and at the full professor rank.

Recognizing that the University’s rural location and limited budget present challenges to establishing equity, Potvin began a proactive campaign to recruit, retain and advance women and minorities at her college. She shared her strategy and tactics in her presentation “Gender Equity in American Higher Education: It is Easier to Walk the Talk if You Have a Destination” at the Oxford Round Table Women’s Leadership conference in Oxford, England in August.

Creating goals

Coming in as an outsider, Potvin knew that one of the keys to success was to make her goal of establishing gender equity a shared goal. One person can’t accomplish this task alone, she said—especially if the results are going to be permanent.

Her goals were:

  • Establish a reasonable representation of women and minorities at all levels
  • Strive for equity and parity in the treatment of all people—a level playing field
  • Create a campus climate that supports a diverse workforce and learning community
  • Foster a shared responsibility to improve parity, equity and diversity

Potvin was also wise enough to recognize and identify many major roadblocks to her success, including:

  • Conflicts of interest, such as faculty providing their own salary recommendations
  • Faculty using whether a candidate was “liked” by colleagues, rather than accomplishments, as a basis for making tenure and promotion decisions
  • Candidates for promotion serving on other promotion committees
  • A lack of inclusiveness , with the same people being chosen for several committees, who functioned in isolation and lacked diverse representation of ideas
  • A lack of sick leave or maternity leave policies, leading to individual deals and inequity
  • Invisible or no role models as teachers and scholars for female students and young faculty, especially those in the sciences
  • A lack of understanding of the benefits of a diverse faculty, so faculty embraced the status quo and still considered a “good fit” to be someone just like them

 Changing recruiting practices

During a search, UND’s affirmative action office had to approve front-end paperwork for searches, but didn’t review the applicant pool until after informal offers were accepted.

Potvin started an annual mandatory meeting of search chairs, a strategy to avoid complaints of discrimination, encourage consideration of diverse people and increase the college’s hiring success. In the meeting, she discusses advantages of creating a diverse faculty and stresses the importance of the search process in recruiting faculty.

 She also conveys her expectations, which include:

  • Participation in coordinated advertising. The College places one large group ad, which sells the university and the community, giving it more appeal to dual-career couples. It usually runs in October, giving departments an early start on searches. To increase the number of women and minorities in higher positions, she has allowed people to ad-vertise faculty positions as rank-open.
  • Increasing diversity on faculty search committees. They’re required to include at least one female or minority faculty member; if necessary, Potvin identifies volunteers. During campus visits, if a department has only a few women faculty, the College provides the opportunity for female candidates to meet with other women there.
  • Paying attention to the search process: maintaining and accessing applicant records, and developing evaluation instruments before the pool is opened.
  • Using telephone interviews. Under Potvin’s direction, search committees rely less on inviting only the best-credentialed person; departments now use phone interviews to include a wider range of applicants. When possible, they invite more than one person for on-campus interviews.
  • Reviewing and discussing the candidate pool with the search committee chair before campus visits. If a female or minority is next on the short-list of top candidates, Potvin will pay the expenses to extend an extra invitation to that applicant. She meets with all candidates during their visits to promote the position and the university.
  • Treating both internal and external candidates equally. Women are more likely to be the internal candidates, and it’s important to consider both types using equal criteria. She also makes sure candidates aren’t abandoned in hotel rooms during their visits.
  • Minimizing one-on-one interviews, so people can’t distort what was said to fit their agendas. Few UND departments have moved to group interviews, said Potvin, because most faculty feel candidates need to meet individually to learn about their research and their vision for the future.
  • Reviewing and discussing final candidates with Potvin before making an offer. She meets with the search committee and department chairs to discuss salaries and offer strategies, considering her role to be ensuring that searches are fair and equitable.

 “You can’t just say it should be better,” she said. “You have to be diligent about working with faculty to instill in them an understanding of why we should increase diversity.”

Potvin has found that her educational role must extend to even her peer deans. One told her that he would hire based on publications and grants—not understanding that women have other benchmarks for success.

When it comes to recruiting, Potvin is fierce. “If I find a woman of value, I’ll beg, borrow or steal her,” she said. Her methods have proven effective. When she arrived in 2001, women were 27% of the tenured and tenure-track faculty in her college; today they’re 34%.

Improving retention

While faculty retention and rank advancement have been a challenge for women in the academy, it’s a particular problem in UND’s geographic region, where starting salaries must reflect market conditions. They are also a factor in retaining faculty. To combat this, Potvin and her staff try to assist spouses and partners by circulating their CVs and resumes and by promoting them through phone calls and introductions. Other strategies to retain academic couples include counter-offers and hiring them for teaching positions that aren’t tenure-track.

Support for new faculty includes a three-day bus tour of the state with UND’s president, for faculty and their spouses, giving them a better idea of the students they will be teaching. UND also has an endowed mentoring program that pays a monthly stipend for faculty to meet once a month and learn about the University. Other benefits include research grants specifically for new faculty, and library funds for new faculty that are also matched.

An annual evaluation process, started by Potvin, rates faculty against criteria agreed on when they were hired and documented in a signed contract. This increases accountability, reduces subjectivity and reinforces the idea that faculty are evaluated with stated expectations—not by whether or not they are liked. It also provides feedback and documents accomplishments and constructive criticism.

UND now has a sick-leave policy, and is working on maternity leave and breast-feeding policies. Next is parental care.

More inclusive

In Potvin’s College, there are fewer women as rank increases. It’s 42% at the assistant professor level, 34% at the associate, and 22% at full. But since she’s been there, not only has the number of women tenured or on the tenure track increased, but the percentage of women in department leadership roles rose to more than 50% in 2005, and the number of women in the sciences also increased. And at least 20% of those reporting to her were lesbian or gay.

Recognizing that her most valuable asset as an administrator is her leadership team, Potvin invests in and compensates their professional development, especially new administrators. Leadership training opportunities include conferences and workshops, and a presidential intern program that allows administrators to intern with other managers while receiving a small stipend.


In part because UND is funded at 65% of peer institutions, it ranks in the bottom quartile for faculty salaries. This has lead Potvin to work creatively to address salary inequities. “Resource-wise, it’s a tough place to be, but I’ll find the resources,” she said.

Through strategies such as adding salary differentials from retiring senior faculty, she’s managed to bring salaries across all disciplines and ranks to within 20% of market. Monitoring AAUP salary data helps her make comparisons with others in the nation, to see where they need increases.

Potvin has also worked to reduce departmental conflicts of interest in UND’s merit-based salary increases, which are based on annual oral and written performances.

With all the challenges Potvin faces at North Dakota—including a rural location, a lack of resources and a lack of gender and racial diversity—she’s often asked, “Why did you come here?” Her response? “Because they needed me.”

 Reach Dr. Martha Potvin at

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