October 18, 2010

Cornell Names New Provost Fellow to Increase Diversity in Hiring

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Prof. Zellman Warhaft, mechanical and aerospace engineering, was appointed provost fellow last Thursday to assist the administration’s diversity and inclusion efforts for new academic hires. This comes at a time when 47 percent of Cornell professors over the age of 55, which prompted the University to boost hiring efforts to replace retiring faculty in the next five to 10 years.According to the University, a provost fellow is appointed when the Provost needs specific assistance on a particular project for a limited time. Prof. Warhaft was appointed for a one-year term, and will work with deans and faculty from each college, Provost Kent Fuchs and Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman to carve a path for his newly established position and move the University’s diversity efforts forward.

The Sun sat down with Warhaft Monday to discuss his new position as provost fellow and his plans and goals for his tenure.

THE SUN: Could you describe your main responsibilities as provost fellow?Prof. Zellman Warhaft: This is a new position and I will be working with Provost [Fuchs] to identify the diversity issues at the University as a whole. My role, initially, will be to look across the University to see what has to be done in terms of encouraging University diversity. I want to do a comparative [assessment] at the different units … from there, gather information and then work out what is the best way to move ahead in terms of diversity in its broadest sense — not only gender and ethnic diversity, but also intellectual diversity.

Sun: What are your visions for inclusion and diversity and how will you carry them out? Z.W.: I have to study the situation before I can say what my goals are. Obviously, I want to see a much more diverse institution. I’d like to see many more professors and researchers from different ethnic groups, more women in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] areas, more interdisciplinary research, more hiring of people across disciplines … However, I would have to understand how the University as a whole is working in this regard, and then work out what is the best way to [make changes].

Sun: How do you determine the benchmarks for the different kinds of diversity? How diverse is “diverse enough”? Z.W.: It’s probably dangerous to have definite criteria for these kind of things. They change as time goes on … some departments have more women than men, so in those departments you would want to encourage more males … The reason [for diversity] is to have professors in the classroom, either black or Hispanic, women or Native American … [who are] tremendous inspirational examples for students. If you’re a woman and have never seen a woman professor in engineering, it’s not a very encouraging way to go through education. You don’t have role models … It’s so exciting to see professors from your own ethnic [or gender] group.I [also] think it’s important for the faculty to have different intellectual and cultural backgrounds. Think of a faculty [that is] all white, male and over 60, sitting in a department meeting — it’s boring to see a group like that. You want to have a breadth of vision, and that breadth comes from diverse constituencies.

Sun: Under founders A.D. White and Ezra Cornell, the University introduced the egalitarian ideal where students could freely choose their curriculum, embodied by the motto, “any person … any study.” With calls for interdisciplinary appointments, which could undermine the amount of academic options available, how will the University balance its hiring goals with student choice? Z.W.: I don’t think there’s any fear of that [because] interdisciplinary work will make it more exciting for the student, offering more choices … there will be more diversity in thinking. It doesn’t mean you’re confining yourself, it really means you’re spreading yourself. I think just the opposite. I think it will be more in the spirit of [the founders] of Cornell, just as becoming too narrow and too deep in research is not quite in that spirit … I think broadening, without losing the depth, is a very important part of what a modern academic should be doing. When we look at the problems we are facing … all of these problems encourage interdisciplinary studies and discussions. For example, to understand global warming, not only do you need to understand the physics [of] the problem, but also the sociology — what are the consequences of global warming, where are people migrating; you’ve got to understand how it affects water and food. These are all a part of global warming and that’s an interdisciplinary activity that enriches the institution, rather than impoverishing it.

Sun: How will your former background as the College of Engineering’s first associate dean for diversity help you with your efforts as provost fellow? What are some lessons you learned that could be applied this time? Z.W.: One of the big lessons I learned is [in order] to increase diversity, you have to have the faculty very involved in the problem. The dean of engineering [then] was Kent Fuchs, and he appointed me to the position. [For the first time] we had faculty who [were concerned] with diversity; before that the diversity office was run by non-professorial staff, and it was less visible to the rest of the [professors]. One way of encouraging the discussion … is to get faculty involvement into the discussion itself. Another thing that’s very important, of course, is diversity itself. Working with African-Americans, working with women, working with [the] underrepresented of all sorts, including physically disabled and others, and understanding what their problems are and how they should be addressed is also essential.

Sun: You’ve been a faculty member since 1977, right after the first major wave of hiring that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How did the University hire back then? What do you think are the major differences this time around? Z.W.: It’s changed so much. The hiring has become broader and the problems are different. If I look at the old days, a lot of the hiring in mechanical engineering was aerospace and a lot [was] military. Now we look at the young faculty in [the same area], they’re doing biomechanics, the environment, systems — all sorts of [subjects] that didn’t really exist at that time. There are new problems and new social issues, and we are hiring faculty to address that. This goes for the entire campus …  Faculty hiring should address the problems of our times … [and existing] faculty have a major role in all hiring. No question.

Original Author: Andrew Hu