Strategies to Increase Gender Equity on a Rural CampusPotvin 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.
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:
Potvin was also wise enough to recognize and identify many major roadblocks to her success, including:
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:
“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%.
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.
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