Luis Ponjuan: Finding solutions for a diverse faculty

They say that if you want to advance in your job, you should work on the problems that keep your boss awake at night.

If that’s true, Luis Ponjuan has a bright future. His research addresses the dilemmas that vex college administrators. How do we hold on to our best professors? How do we build a diverse faculty?

“Higher education is full of opportunities,” said Ponjuan, a professor of educational administration and policy at UF’s College of Education. “If we understand more about who succeeds in higher education, then we can offer these opportunities for our increasingly diverse society.”

Ponjuan has built his career on studying higher education from the inside. He asks questions people often don’t think to ask. Are professors really satisfied in their work?

He also asks questions administrators are sometimes afraid to ask outright. Why are my minority faculty leaving? Why don’t more female students major in engineering?

Ponjuan sees the university in the  21st-century as a drastically changing workplace – shifting from from an esteemed and revered intellectual haven to a place of burgeoning workloads, shrinking job security and baffling pay disparities. Small wonder that institutions are losing talented faculty members and potential future faculty members to the private sector. This higher education faculty career problem is even more important for women faculty and faculty of color, he says.

Deans often fret about low numbers of black and Hispanic faculty in their colleges – and sometimes they blame the problem on a small pool of minority students in the Ph. D. pipeline.

Nonsense, says Ponjuan. U.S. schools are graduating more black and Hispanic Ph.D.s than ever, he says. According to his research, colleges aren’t having trouble finding minority scholars – they’re having trouble keeping the ones they find.

“I’m more concerned about the women and faculty of color who are leaving higher education altogether,” Ponjuan said, “because if we lose these talented individuals, who will be there to teach the next generation of underrepresented scholars?”

Universities may court faculty of color graciously, but Ponjuan’s studies suggest that they often feel isolated and abandoned once they begin work as new faculty members. And minority professors are not the only faculty members who sometimes abandon academia for the private world. In many fields, Ponjuan says, faculty of all backgrounds are slowly migrating to the private sector.

When professors do leave academia, administrators often say it’s because faculty salaries lag behind the private sector. But Ponjuan’s research shows that salary is not as important as other factors.

“If salaries were so important, these individuals would never have worked in academia in the first place,” Ponjuan said. “They’re leaving because they are frustrated – because they’re increasingly being asked to do more research, teaching, and institutional service while not having the infrastructure and institutional policies in place to succeed.”

Ponjuan says universities can plug the leaks in the faculty pipeline by making the tenure process more transparent for junior faculty. His studies have shown that new tenure-track professors often see the criteria for tenure as confusing, murky and potentially unfair, especially for women and faculty of color.

A first-generation college graduate, Ponjuan knows a thing or two about learning to fit in on campus.

As a Cuban immigrant, Ponjuan spoke only Spanish prior to enrolling in elementary school in the rural town of Raceland, La. – but he flourished in courses for speakers of English as a second language, and completed a psychology degree at the University of New Orleans.

Ponjuan cites faculty mentors and student affairs administrators at UNO as major influences on his later careerr. He learned about higher education practice while earning his master’s degree at Florida State University and working five years as an academic advisor at the University of Florida. He became a higher education researcher while earning his Ph.D. in higher education administration at the University of Michigan.

Ponjuan’s work is about more than simply calling attention to problems of gender and diversity in academia. He is also working on solutions to the problem, searching for ways to fill the pipeline of future science researchers.

He is a key researcher, with Assistant Professor Troy Sadler,in UF’s landmark Science for Life initiative, designed to overhaul the science curriculum from kindergarten through graduate school. Ponjuan is studying the academic experiences of lower-division college students to see what can be done to draw more students – particularly women and underrepresented minorities – into the field.

Ponjuan sees this project as a chance to practice what he preaches. He engages his six graduate students by involving them in the research process, from designing surveys, conducting data analysis, and publishing and presenting research work.

“I’m practicing what I’m studying,” said Laura Waltrip, one of Ponjuan’s graduate assistants on the project. “We sit at the computer together and debate which word to use. He’s always reminding me to use my ‘research voice’ in writing, rather than my ‘reflective voice.’”

Mentoring his graduate students is one of Ponjuan’s points of pride. If higher education needs a new generation of researchers, he says, the best way to do it is to engage his students in the research process.  

“In order to encourage graduate students to pursue faculty careers, we need to be mentors.”  Ponjuan is quick to add, “However, once they become faculty members, we need policies and the infrastructure that ensures they have a long and productive academic career.”