October 29, 2007

Cornell Lags Behind in Faculty Diversity

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It has been seven months since Provost Biddy Martin delivered the first Academic State of the University Address in Cornell’s history. The speech emphasized the importance of improving faculty and student diversity, but according to Charles Walcott, dean of students, the University may not have done as well as it would have liked in these past months.
“Have we been doing as well on diversity as we should be, probably not. My sense is that we didn’t,” Walcott said. “We’re struggling trying to figure out how best to improve it.”
The University has been experiencing a large turnover in faculty, due largely in part to a great number of retiring faculty.
“Many distinguished individuals are retiring,” said Vice Provost Robert Harris.
However, according to Harris, Cornell is not the only institution experiencing this turnover in faculty. The turnover trend has generated wide-scale competition over well-qualified women and minority faculty, making it difficult for the University to expand as desired. The University is attempting to overcome this using more proactive approaches to recruitment.
“We have to be on the lookout for talented individuals who will bring strength to the University. We don’t only conduct searches when someone has left; we utilize pre-emptive searches to maintain the strength of units,” Harris said.
In order to prevent subtle and unconscious biases that can undermine the expansion of diversity within the faculty, over 120 search committee and department chairs brought in the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble to their biannual meeting to help them examine their hiring processes and understand how changes could be made. Harris presented an example of a dilemma that could occur in hiring.
“If you have two candidates with equal qualifications, then we would choose the one that strengthens diversity. Say you have a white male dedicated to researching diversity, and a black female who does more traditional research, I would hope that they would select the white male,” Harris said.
Walcott seconded this, but emphasized the University’s attempts to change the parameters of the situation to better suit diversity.
“It’s clear that there is tremendous competition for good faculty, particularly for minority faculty. So yes, it’s the best candidate, but were trying hard to find a situation where it would be a woman or a minority,” Walcott said.
Since faculty diversity discussions tend to focus on the need for minority faculty, it is important to consider the necessity for gender diversity in addition to racial diversity. The University has received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to facilitate the workings of the newly established Advance Program.
“The purpose of the Advance Program is to increase the number of female faculty in the social sciences, the sciences and engineering,” said Deputy Provost David Harris. “But, Cornell has said that one of the reasons we’re excited about this is because we think it’s also going to help us increase the number of minority faculty. Some of the same kinds of issues that arise and those strategies that we develop, we will be able to implement to increase the number of minority of faculty, and again, make better hiring decisions overall,”
Since over 600 faculty will be replaced over the next ten years, these better hiring decisions are more important than ever. According to Robert Harris, it is a matter of seeking out better teachers, as opposed waiting for them to find the University.
“Are you involved in searching or are you involved in sifting through the applications you receive? If you are only sifting and not searching, you’re going to have a less diverse pool. We have to be proactive and engaged in searching for new teachers, not waiting for individuals to respond to ads that we place,” Robert Harris said. “The deans of the colleges are becoming more engaged in looking at the progress within their colleges for faculty searches and appointments. They are encouraging the faculty to be more proactive.”
The Provost made some lofty goals for herself and the University when she pledged her commitment to expand diversity in the Cornell community. These changes, though, may not be easy.
“The things that she was talking about are things that are going to take a while,” Walcott said.