Medill faculty work to center diversity, equity and inclusion in and out of the classroom


Illustration by Lily Ogburn

Rob Brown, Medill’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and outreach, works with search committees to help center inclusive hiring. He has search committee members take an implicit bias test.

Samantha Powers, Assistant Campus Editor

Every freshman at the Medill School of Journalism learns the importance of diversity in the industry when they take the course Journalism 202: Journalism Values, Practice and Trends. Members of Medill’s leadership team say they work to hire faculty that will reflect the growing diversity in the field.

Medill has one of the most racially diverse faculty cohorts at Northwestern. The University reported Medill’s tenure-line faculty was 54.2% white in the 2020-2021 academic year –– the smallest percentage across all of NU’s schools.

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker said hiring a diverse faculty is one of his top priorities. In his research on the hiring of women and minorities in the magazine industry, he said he has found that people involved in hiring tend to turn to their own network.

“If your network is just people who look like you and who come from the exact same background as you, then the likelihood that you will get much diversity is kind of slim to none,” Whitaker said.

To counter this trend, he said, Medill leadership works closely with search committees to prioritize diversity in hiring.

When Medill leadership worked to hire the inaugural George R.R. Martin Chair in Storytelling, Whitaker said he was happy to see the four finalists were “amazing” writers of color. This, he said, is a testament to what can happen when those involved with hiring “cast a wide net.”

Whitaker said when he began his tenure as dean in 2019, the faculty he worked with wasn’t particularly diverse. According to the University’s diversity and inclusion report, Medill’s tenure-line faculty was 71.4% white during the 2018-2019 academic year.

He said those numbers are the result of institutional barriers within both academia and the journalism industry.

Medill’s tenured faculty tends to be less diverse because tenure is a lifelong position, Whitaker said. As time goes on, however, he said he hopes the work he and other Medill leadership are doing will become more apparent to students and result in a more diverse tenured faculty.

In 2021, Rob Brown joined Medill as its director of diversity, equity, inclusion and outreach. Brown, who works with search committees to help center inclusive hiring, said he has committee members take an implicit bias test.

Brown also hosts semi-regular “lunch and learn” sessions with faculty, where he invites speakers to discuss topics including microaggressions in the classroom and how to make transgender and non-binary students feel included.

Brown said these strategies present their own challenges. The sessions are largely opt-in, which means not all professors benefit from the instruction. Still, he said, it’s important to continue conversations on diversity –– especially since Medill is a professional school and some professors have more industry experience than academic experience.

“One of the things that faculty are commonly hired for is their expertise around a specific concept or discipline,” Brown said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have been trained as an instructor, trained as an educator.”

Brown said hiring faculty members from marginalized groups helps create more inclusive journalism. But, he added, these faculty members are sometimes expected to act as ambassadors to an entire social group, which creates a disproportionate burden.

Medill sophomore Kim Jao, a former Daily staffer and North by Northwestern’s editor-in-chief, said she can’t think of any specific “success stories” of DEI being centered in her curriculum at Medill.

Jao said when she can’t find support from professors in getting comprehensive coverage, she knows where to turn: the Asian American Student Journalists chapter at NU. The organization provides a supportive space for her to interact with journalists who share her background, she said.

“I would say that a lot of my DEI knowledge comes from the publications I’ve worked on on campus rather than from Medill,” Jao said. “For North by Northwestern, we had a protest workshop, and that was really specific on how to cover that well.”

Jao added she wishes Medill’s first-year sequence focused on inclusive coverage in conjunction with real reporting, rather than treating DEI theoretically.

Medill Prof. J.A. Adande (Medill ’92) said since his time as a student, he’s seen a lot of changes in Medill’s diversity — both in the demographics of the faculty and the students.

Now, professors at Medill encourage students to use their own identities and backgrounds as an asset in their reporting and storytelling, he said — a positive change.

“When I see the young students, I see a group that is hyperaware of the importance of diversity, that has the ability to look beyond their own background and experience,” Adande said. “I see a group that’s ready to take that sensitivity out into the world as they report.”

Medill Prof. Patty Loew said one of the reasons she joined Medill’s faculty was to help teach students how to cover Native American communities with respect.

Medill isn’t perfect, she said, and sometimes Native culture and journalistic standards clash. For example, she said Native communities value reciprocity and gift-giving, but the journalism industry frowns upon reporters who pay for interviews. She said she works to find respectful solutions, like offering favors or services rather than money, in exchange for interviews.

Loew said diversity among Medill leadership affects the school’s culture as a whole.

“There’s a thoughtfulness to the creation of committees. There’s a thoughtfulness to the applicant pools. We’re constantly checking ourselves to make sure that we’ve done our part to promote diversity, equity and inclusion,” Loew said. “I think that reflects an overall climate that’s been created in Medill.”

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Twitter: @sqpowers04 

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