November 7, 2002

C.U. Professors Describe Faculty Diversity Issues

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One of Cornell’s academic priorities and initiatives, as outlined by Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin, begins as follows: “The University recognizes the importance of systematic and concerted efforts to increase diversity among faculty, staff and students and the need to create an environment in which differences are appreciated. Fundamental to success in this area are efforts to increase the size of the pool nationally of underrepresented minority students and faculty through creative and aggressive recruitment programs.”

The University continues in its commitment to recruit and retain minority and women faculty. But statistics and the opinions of some faculty members suggest that the efforts are far from complete.

According to Robert L. Harris, Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development, there are four departments without any women faculty and 18 departments without minority faculty members. “We’ve got some work to do there,” Harris said. He added, “In general, we’re doing fairly well.”

To improve recruitment, Harris has been holding meetings with the college deans to facilitate new initiatives. These are “still in the process,” he said.

Despite these measures, some faculty members believe there is much work to be done.

“If you look at [some parts of] the college, you’ll think we’re still in the ’60s,” said Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, English. “Cornell could do far more than it is doing.”

“I think there are some departments that are doing better than others,” said Prof. James Turner, Africana studies.

Among such “model” departments are the English department, which according to Prof. Kenneth McClane, Jr. ’73, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature, “has the largest number of faculty of color of any major English department in the country.”

McClane cites at least 10 percent of the approximately 40 professors in the department as minorities. At least half are women.

“It’s astonishing, actually,” McClane said of the number of minority and women professors in the department. “One would always like to have greater diversity but I can’t imagine a department that has worked harder [to achieve it].”

McClane recalls only two African-American professors in the department when he joined the faculty in 1976. “People worked very hard to do this,” he said.

One trend McClane noticed is the possible connection between increased diversity in the faculty and national rankings.

“The department’s rating has gone up in tandem with our becoming more and more diverse,” he said. “It’s the ideal argument for diversity.”

McClane and Turner agree that departments like English should be used as examples for similar efforts across the University.

“The English department could certainly be seen as a flagship for what other departments might do and should do,” McClane said.

He also echoed Harris’s emphasis on retention efforts in addition to recruitment.

“Otherwise you have a revolving door of faculty joining and leaving the University,” he said.

The four departments without women include Economics and Entomology. The Psychology, Classics, Comparative Literature and Theatre, Film and Dance departments are among those without minorities on the faculty. One department, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, has no women or minority professors. There are approximately 80 departments in all the colleges, counting schools such as the School of Hotel Administration as one department.

Viewing the statistics by College, the percentage of women professors in 2001-02 ranges from 11.3 percent in the College of Engineering to 52.8 percent in the College of Human Ecology, according to the May 2002 report entitled “Summary Update: Progress Toward Diversity and Inclusion.”

The percentage of minority professors ranges from 7.7 percent in the hotel school to 27.1 percent in the Johnson Graduate School of Management. The University does not release such numbers for individual departments, although they vary widely.

This year, 12 new minority faculty members joined the University. Last month, Harris and Martin held a luncheon to acclimate the new professors to Cornell and its environment.

The luncheon was a small part of Harris’s plan to improve efforts at retention.

“It’s not just a matter of advertising and recruiting minority faculty. The climate is also important,” Harris noted.

Despite these efforts, Turner raised several issues with various departments’ handling of faculty diversity. Although he believes that Martin “has been straightforward” in asserting the University’s commitment to diversity, he said that “departments don’t match that commitment with their efforts to bring in candidates.”

There are several ways, according to Turner, that departments do not achieve the stated level of commitment. First is what he calls “superstar syndrome.”

He explained that although all departments have faculty members of varying quality, “they think somehow that women and minorities can’t just be good.”

“Well gee, everybody in your department isn’t Toni Morrison,” Turner added. Another issue is the trend of minority faculty candidates interested in research “at the cutting edge” rather than in more traditional areas.

“They may have had different backgrounds in terms of the kinds of work they have pursued,” he said. “You have to be more flexible. They will bring a different interest in the common subjects.”

Additionally, in discussing the state of minority recruitment for faculty, Turner made a comparison to the recruitment of students 25 years ago, when admissions deans were forced to look in different areas to find qualified minority students.

“I think we have to have a willingness to look in different places to find more diverse faculty members,” he said.

Finally, Turner raised a connection between the diversity of the faculty with that of graduate students.

“The number of minority graduate students has stagnated,” he noted.

He explained that there is a connection in that minority graduate students seek mentoring and connections with professors who might be on their advisory committees.

Jeyifo also noticed the trend in the English department.

“There are general problems with attrition and retention of grad students,” he said, and the department “is just beginning to devise ways of retention.”

On the other side of campus, Prof. Michael Spencer ’70, electrical and computer engineering, taught at Howard University before returning to Cornell as part of the faculty.

“Howard University is a very special place. Written into its mission statement is the education of minorities,” he said. “Obviously it’s going to be quite a different experience [as a professor] from that point of view.”

But, he added that “Cornell certainly deserves credit for increasing” the number of women and minorities on the faculty since his time as a student.

Archived article by Andy Guess