The UNLV history department set out to increase the diversity of its faculty and students because it was the right thing to do. Now, that intention has not only resulted in the more diverse population it desired but also an award from a major history organization.
The Committee of Minority Historians of the American Historical Association (AHA) named the department its 2020 Institutional Equity Award winner. The award from the nation’s largest professional association for historians recognized UNLV for its excellence in the recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty of color.
Over the years, the department has transformed its faculty to be more reflective of UNLV’s student body — with faculty of color representing one-third of the department’s 27 full-time, tenured, and tenure-track faculty members. In addition, one-third of history graduate students come from communities of color. In fall 2019, the department retained all of its full-time, first-year undergraduate students who were Latinx, members of two or more races, and women.
“This increasingly more diverse faculty has ensured student success and has placed students of color in the pipeline toward a more diverse professoriate and greater representation in cultural institutions,” according to an AHA statement.
Jennifer Keene, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the award demonstrates what can be accomplished when faculty strive to create a culture of inclusivity.
“The department has done an outstanding job of recruiting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds as well as supporting the professional development and growth of its faculty of color,” she said. “They are more than deserving of this national recognition.”
Recruiting the Best
Finding and keeping top talent, including faculty of color, has been a longtime priority and is now part of the department’s ethos, said Andy Kirk, chair and professor of history.
“We have people who have since retired, who were mentors for me. I might never have said explicitly, ‘We have to think about diversity.’ It was just a sense; it sort of went without saying. (But) we have done explicit things to increase our diversity,” he said.
Those explicit tactics include mining a deep pool of talent nationwide to find the best faculty. “When you do a national search, it’s staggering the kind of talent in the pool, including an overabundance of talented people who are also diverse. It honestly has not been very hard to find extraordinary people who happen to be diverse to hire and then promote their work,” he said.
Kirk said the unique research perspective of diverse faculty, along with the department’s highly successful academic offerings such as its Public History program, serve as magnets for students and faculty alike. Diverse faculty have worked with students and engaged the community on research projects such as the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project and the history of the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226.
“It’s low-hanging fruit to take advantage of important topics in Nevada and the Southwest that aren’t over-studied,” he said.
“We’re trying to recruit students who can take advantage of things like indigenous public history. There are less than half a dozen places in America that are trying to do indigenous public history.”
And those efforts have national implications.
The Pipeline to Academia
Doctoral graduate Margaret Huettl recently was hired for a tenure-track position at the University of Nebraska due in part to her research on unique aspects of being Native American.
Her previous work included participating in a U.S. Department of State-sponsored project with Kirk to study shared indigenous history between Nevada and Kazakhstan.
Professor William Bauer, who directs the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program and serves as graduate coordinator, recruited Huettl to UNLV. Bauer has helped grow a pipeline of undergrads who stay at UNLV for graduate studies and also has recruited outstanding students from other universities.
“They come here to work in the diverse fields that we offer, whether it’s what I do with Native American history or what my colleague, Dr. Raquel Casas, does with Chicano history. I think people know we have strong and diverse faculty in those areas, and that matters,” Bauer said.
Having diverse faculty and graduate students/instructors as mentors makes a difference for many first-generation and underrepresented groups, he said.
“We’re able to mentor students of color with our diverse faculty and that makes for a more welcoming environment for students to enter. I think it helps to see not only diverse faculty teaching those classes but also diverse graduate students serving in that kind of role. That mentorship goes in several directions.”
Bauer soon will pass the graduate coordinator baton to Casas, who directs the Latinx and Latin American Studies program. Now the longest-serving faculty member of color in the history department, Casas helped compile the application for the AHA award, which she called a nod to decades of sustained effort.
“Given that the American Historical Association is the most important history organization in the nation, this award is a great recognition of our 30-year-long commitment to diversity and equity. It's as much an acknowledgment of the faculty who began this commitment as for the present faculty,” she said.
“We embodied what the award was meant to bring attention to — a department that was actively committed to equity across racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual lines. It's how our department tries to be an example to our diverse students that our actions are aligned with our educational mission.”
Diversity breeds more diversity, said Susan Lee Johnson, who took the lead in compiling and submitting the AHA award nomination packet to “give back” to the department and to lift the burden from faculty of color who often shepherd diversity-related efforts.
“Faculty from underrepresented groups have pushed to hire more faculty of color, and the presence of these faculty members has increasingly made the department seem like a ‘safe space’ for newcomers,” she said. One of those newcomers, Johnson left a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to become the department’s inaugural Harry Reid Endowed Chair for the History of the Intermountain West in fall 2019.
Joining a diverse faculty was a key selling point. “For majority faculty members like me who work on issues of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity and who represent other vectors of diversity — I am queer and gender-nonconforming — the presence of a critical mass of faculty of color whose work engages questions of difference and power makes UNLV a vibrant intellectual home,” Johnson said.
The university is making notable strides, as evidenced by the AHA award, Johnson said. But more institutional support is needed, especially in programs in racial, ethnic, and indigenous studies where many diverse faculty, including Bauer and Casas, are affiliated, she said.
“The university should invest in the units that make up the interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies department, where many faculty members outside of traditional disciplinary departments reside, where many within traditional departments find a crucial intellectual, political, and cultural home, and where they have the greatest pedagogical access to students of color.”
The history department is leading the way, and other academic units can follow suit if they’re willing to do the difficult work, Casas said. “I think other departments can take inspiration from our department. If they are willing to make a commitment to diversity and equity, it will take decades of effort but it can be done."
UNLV is a Minority Serving, Hispanic Serving, and Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institution, and for several consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked the university among the top 5 most diverse in the nation. UNLV ranked fourth nationally in 2020.