Moving into the Office of the Provost at the University of Houston is a homecoming for Erika Henderson. The native Houstonian grew up a stone’s throw from UH in Third Ward, attending the High School for Health Professions (now the Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions), participating in swim meets on the UH campus and attending Riverside Church at Cullen and MacGregor (even her brother is an alum of the UH Children’s Learning Center). But the life that led her away from Houston for 27 years — through higher education sectors, the White House, several states and back to Third Ward — can only be described as one thing. A calling.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d have an experience like this. This calling reminds me that I’ve had people along the way who made me dream big and be my best,” Henderson said. “That’s some of what I’ve enjoyed doing back here. Not only because it’s important that these diverse students have people committed to their education, but because I had that same privilege.”
Since fall 2015, Henderson has been the assistant provost for faculty recruitment, retention, equity and diversity. In addition to her charge of finding the best and brightest Tier One faculty, she has taken on an additional goal of ensuring the pool of candidates reflects the student body and the city.
“There is a misnomer that there are not a lot of diverse academics out there, but the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicates there were close to 4,500 underrepresented minority persons who just received their doctorates,” she said. “We need to get our message out to them.”
That message will be informed by her calling. A graduate of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a doctorate of education in higher education and higher education administration, she wrote her dissertation on civic responsibility and the need to take ownership of community issues, applying one’s own abilities to affect them. To that end, in 2008 she applied for and was hired by then-Senator Barack Obama to be part of his presidential campaign’s advance staff. In his administration, she served as deputy director for the White House Fellows program and later as a senior policy advisor for the Department of Labor. Her hometown tugged when her experiences led her back to Houston for a temporary assignment in the region to advance a key presidential initiative.
“It was time to bring this all back home. The University has grown to be an amazing institution. It’s a great story of great opportunity for those future Tier One faculty who want to be part of a stellar institution,” she said.
Increasing faculty diversity at UH has been an ongoing priority for the Office of the Provost, including the establishment of the Center for Advancing UH Faculty Success (ADVANCE), a new NSF-funded, five-year initiative to increase STEM faculty (particularly women STEM faculty) as part of a systemic effort to transform the institution. These efforts also have included the development of a Dual Career Program to support new faculty partners in their professional endeavors. Recruiting Henderson to coordinate these ongoing efforts was the culmination of a year-long national search. Her previous experience and leadership in creating innovative programs to promote diversity is a significant asset that already has yielded positive results. For example, she developed the new Powerhouse Recruitment Tool Kit that will serve as a blueprint for hiring committees.
“We feature resources to help hiring committees connect with diverse serving organizations and publications,” she said. “These are tools to recruit all faculty, but definitely some specific tools with which to seek out underrepresented minority candidates.”
The Powerhouse Recruitment Tool Kit contains resources, guidelines and practical suggestions, including “proactive diversity language” to increase the diversity of the applicant pool and a list of publications with diverse audiences to advertise positions.
Additionally, Henderson is initiating Resource Groups, a mentoring project for new faculty members to share information about classroom management, multidisciplinary research, grant writing or work-life balance.
“We want to implement a Powerhouse campaign using new media and new ways to approach faculty that isn’t just the typical brochure,” she said.
While some of these initiatives are already in place, others, such as a weeklong faculty orientation and a database of up-and-coming academics to watch are in the works.
“As we grow and our faculty are more reflective of our student body and our city, that will be success,” Henderson said.