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Colorado School of Public Health Reaffirms its Commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Implements Innovative Search Advocate Program

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Written by Tyler Smith on January 23, 2024

Sixteen words sum up the mission of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI) at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH). It is to “shape policies, practices, and programs that support a fair, diverse, and respectful environment for all individuals.”

The OEDI, which supports the school’s tri-university, collaborative community, has taken concrete steps to transform its charge into a plan of action. One important example: the Search Advocate program. Its aim is to “improve the recruiting and hiring process by prioritizing equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Cerise Hunt, PhD, MSW, associate dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and director of the Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP).

Search Advocates are ColoradoSPH faculty and staff who volunteer to serve as voting members on search committees and receive a stipend for their work. In preparation for their role, they receive 11 hours of training in four modules that cover their roles and responsibilities, the legal landscape of hiring, cultural competency, and strategies to facilitate inclusive meetings. Each advocate also receives ongoing coaching assistance from Equity Specialist Raeven Clockston, with the Office of the Dean, and Workforce Development Specialist Nathifa Miller, JD, CDP, who served with the CPHP and Department of Community and Behavioral Health.

Voices for identifying biases in hiring

“As Search Advocates, we’re not stepping in to tell people what to do,” Miller emphasized. “We are stepping in to ensure that the search process is equitable.”

A key part of accomplishing that, she added, is for the Search Advocate to “identify instances where hidden forms of discrimination or bias may influence the search process. Advocates ask essential questions to uncover, and subsequently address, these concerns.”

Biases may be ingrained in the search process, Miller noted. She cited, for example, a tendency for a search committee to adhere to “status quo bias” in developing job postings, reviewing application processes, and evaluating candidates.

Search committee members might also gravitate unconsciously toward candidates whose views reflect or strengthen their own or give great weight to the favorable impressions an applicant makes during an interview at the expense of clearly defining the specific skills that are applicable to the job.

Confidence to ask the uncomfortable questions

“The Search Advocate program training helped hone skills to uncover varieties of bias and point them out to other committee members,” said Molly Gutilla, PhD, assistant professor in ColoradoSPH’s Department of Epidemiology at Colorado State University. Gutilla served on one search committee in 2023.

“Much of the work is around first identifying what you are observing or thinking or feeling and then questioning, ‘Why am I thinking or feeling this?’” Gutilla said. To illustrate, she noted that a search

committee might conclude that a candidate “seems like a good fit” for a position – or not – without digging deeper into what contributed to that conclusion.

“That’s a feeling or a reaction that might be rooted in something we’re not even conscious of,” Gutilla said. “We’re challenged to say, ‘What do you mean by saying this person is a fit?’ and dig a little bit deeper and ask more questions about what is really meant by that.” Eric Brodell, MPH, a program manager with CPHP’s Policy+System Change Network, trained as a staff member for the Search Advocate program and has also served on one committee. He too found the focus on identifying biases was essential.

“It’s hard for someone to say, ‘I’m biased against a certain group,’” Brodell said. “Nobody wants to name that. But when you do, you have the opportunity for growth, accountability and discussion with others that helps you improve. You just have to be willing to improve and be in that vulnerable state.”

The importance of coaching

Both Gutilla and Brodell stressed the importance of the coaching Miller and Clockston provided. Clockston said she is available for check-ins to answer questions, either in-person or remotely, as frequently as an advocate deems necessary. After the advocate completes a search committee assignment, Clockston said she follows up with a “debrief” to fine-tune the process, such as assessing the resources that were most helpful.

“Next time [they] serve, are there things [they] might want to see or topics that we can cover in our continued education and learning sessions to gain understanding of their experience in actually serving in that role and how we can continue to improve that process,” Clockston said. She added that the program works with the Office of Faculty Affairs, Human Resources, department chairs and others to garner constructive feedback about the program and make improvements along the way.

The concrete benefits of search advocacy

Hunt said the success of the Search Advocacy program will be defined by the diversity of the applicant pools that ColoradoSPH develops.

“We want to ensure that we have done our due diligence to recruit a diverse candidate pool and our advocates are supporting these efforts,” Hunt said. She added that thus far, the program has been well accepted by the ColoradoSPH community.

Brodell said he believes the Search Advocate program will help to ensure the greatest number of applicants have a fair chance to compete for positions at ColoradoSPH based on their demonstrable skills and varieties of life experience.

Gutilla added that in her view, the Search Advocate program is an important step toward undoing a “history of exclusion” that has long kept many women, people of color and others underrepresented in higher education.

“It makes me proud to work at an institution that is so committed to starting to undo some of [that] exclusive history and really move to an inclusive culture,” Gutilla said. “It helps me love my job more when the school is committed to inclusiveness.”

ColoradoSPH Dean Cathy Bradley, PhD, is committed to the long-term success of this initiative and has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a cornerstone of ColoradoSPH’s work under her deanship.

“The Search Advocate program is an asset to the Colorado School of Public Health,” Bradley said. “By training our team members on approaches to bringing in diverse candidates, the program makes our school stronger. I have already seen a positive impact of the program and look forward to its continued growth and impact.”