Following a nationwide reckoning on the importance of racial justice over the summer, increasing the diversity of faculty has emerged as one of Cornell’s key priorities.
Prof. Avery August Ph.D. ’94, immunology, vice provost for academic affairs and leader of the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, shared his optimism with The Sun, writing that the past six months have offered an opportunity for higher education to change for the better.
“I picture the Cornell faculty and academic departments changing the way that we teach, and how we teach it to include the contributions of more diverse peoples, a more critical look at our history, and how we interact with each other in our departments, classes, laboratories and studios,” August wrote in an email to The Sun.
As part of a series of reforms unveiled by President Martha E. Pollack in July, August was permanently appointed a member of the University’s 17-person senior leadership team. August is currently the group’s only Black member.
In an email sent to the Cornell community, Pollack explained that August’s participation on the team will be to ensure that they “keep anti-racism front of mind” in the future of the University.
The diversity and development office provides training and support for faculty members, offering individual professional development, training and grant opportunities. The office is also charged with reviewing the University’s employment policies, aiming to find ways to increase diversity in faculty hiring processes.
According to fall 2019 data, almost 74 percent of Cornell’s professors were white, with only 8.6 percent from underrepresented groups.
“I am excited about working with the OFDD in supporting the recruitment of diverse faculty, and broadly supporting faculty here at Cornell,” wrote August, who said that the office is currently focused on instituting the recommendations made by the Provost’s Task Force on Faculty Diversity.
First convened by Provost Michael Kotlifoff in 2017, the task force released its findings in July 2018, which outlined a bevy of steps the University could take to increase the representation of people of color in Cornell’s faculty. Proposals included raising the salaries of “outstanding” underrepresented faculty whose salary is below-market, providing bias training for search committees and increasing funding to support the hiring of diverse staff.
According to Avery, the office is also planning a summit for “early career potential faculty” that may be recruited to increase Cornell’s faculty diversity.
In addition to serving as Vice Provost since 2018, August is a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and former chair of the University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. His research deals with inflammatory disease and the regulation of T-cell activation.
After discovering a passion for research, August received a degree in medical technology from the University of California, Los Angeles and his Ph.D. from Weill Cornell.
“I have never regretted this decision [of becoming a scientist] and have enjoyed both the life of being a faculty member at a major research university, but also the platform this has afforded me to follow my other passion of diversifying STEM and more broadly higher education,” he wrote.
August believes diversity in faculty members is crucial for Cornell students and society in general.
“My favorite part of my career as a professor is performing research, discovering something that has never been discovered before, and sharing that with students,” he wrote. As a vice provost, he looks forward to “being part of institutional change towards enhancing faculty development and diversity, the campus climate and therefore the overall educational environment for our students.”
But while August said he believes the future of diversity at Cornell is bright, there is still much more work to be done.
“Cornell has made significant progress in diversifying our undergraduate student population [as well as graduate student population and staff] … and I believe Cornell is committed to doing this work,” he wrote.