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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina Conversations: Search committee members should be aware of the unconscious mind

Rumay Alexander, second from left, urged the participants to think about implicit bias.

Chief Diversity Officer Rumay Alexander believes that one of the first things people should do after being named to a search committee is start the search within themselves.

Knowing who you are will help you be more effective — and fair — in vetting job candidates for the University, suggested Alexander, associate vice chancellor and head of the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, which hosted 2019’s first Carolina Conversations session, “Weaving a Sense of Belonging in the Search Committee Process,” on Jan. 17.

“The only thing you can bring to the table is you,” Alexander said. “What you want to bring is your best version of yourself, and part of that is your own self-awareness.”

Alexander urged participants in the Freedom Forum room at Carroll Hall to think about cognitive errors they might unwittingly make, and how those errors could influence their vetting of candidates in unintended ways.

For instance, Alexander urged participants to examine more closely even common questions — such as would a candidate be “the right fit” — for hidden and potentially harmful meanings. “If you have ever said that, what was behind it?” Alexander challenged the group. “What was beneath it?”

Innocuous as it may seem, asking if a candidate is a right fit could open the door to recommendations unwittingly shaped by implicit bias, Alexander said.

Implicit bias happens when people process information quickly and often unconsciously based on past associations that can be contrary to their beliefs, Alexander said. It happens all too easily, she added, unless people take steps to prevent it.

If undetected or unchecked, it can lead to search committee members selecting candidates who look and think like them, which makes it harder to achieve diversity, a core University value.

 Felicia A. Washington, Carolina’s vice chancellor for workforce strategy, equity and engagement, said search committee members should ask their fellow vetters to explain what they mean when they say a candidate is a good or bad fit.

“I think we are at a place where sayings things like that shouldn’t be acceptable,” she said.

Employee Forum Chair Shayna Hill said there is a tendency to “go along to get along,” which defeats the purpose of creating a search committee with a range of perspectives.

Carolina Conversations participants list individual behaviors that could compromise the integrity of the search process.

 “Somebody has to be very, very sensitive to creating an atmosphere where everybody feels free to share their thoughts and be authentic,” Hill said.

One audience member pointed out that if all members of a search committee thought exactly the same way, there might as well be a committee of one or no committee at all.

Creating a sense of belonging for all members of a community is an important challenge that search committees face, Alexander added. Human beings like to be a part of the herd, and have a tendency to do and say things that mirror what everybody else is saying in order to feel like they belong and to stay safe. But on a search committee, the only way to avoid “group think” is to welcome people on the committee who may disagree. That opposing point of view could be offering the missing perspective most needed.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusionhas sponsored and led Carolina Conversations since 2015, promotingthe campus community’s engagement in important programming, dialogue and debate in recognition of the rising level of discourse about race, identity, political ideology, and other issues of inclusion across the country.

All faculty, staff and students are urged to participate in the monthly discussions — and to bring an open mind.