In and out: A revolving door for Yale’s professors of color?

In and out:
A revolving door for Yale's professors of color?

Published on November 17, 2015

“You know what I would like to see?” Yale history professor Beverly Gage ’94 asks from her desk one warm October afternoon. “The John C. Calhoun Faculty Diversity Initiative.”

Laughing, she explains: “To translate [this conversation about race at Yale] into not just renaming a college but actually looking at Yale today and turning it around and doing something big.”

Editor's Note: To reflect recent developments, minor additions were made to the online story after the Magazine had already gone to print. Additionally, Jafari Allen would like to clarify that he withdrew from tenure consideration this summer, after accepting an offer from the University of Miami.

Gage is no stranger to calls for increased faculty diversity at Yale. She’s witnessed them across three decades — first as a Yale undergraduate in the early 1990s, then as a new professor in the mid-2000s, and now as chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, a representative body of 22 professors that meets monthly to address a wide range of faculty issues. And she’s seen many of her colleagues leave despite these calls. “Most of the junior faculty of color that have been here during my time in the History Department have left, for one reason or another,” she says.

Gage, along with many other professors, cites systemic reasons for why so many minority faculty leave: the University’s lengthy tenure clock, suspicions that certain academic fields historically dominated by minority faculty are undervalued, and an overburdening of minority faculty with service and mentoring responsibilities.

On Nov. 3, 2015, Yale announced a new initiative, providing $50 million over the next five years to support the recruitment and development of an “excellent and diverse faculty.” Gage is hopeful, saying in an email, “It seems great. Just the kind of leadership and resources we need.”

But with heightening student demand for faculty diversity and the $50 million plan still in development, the onus may be greater than ever on Yale to prove that there are more reasons for minority faculty to come in than to go out.

(Elinor Hills, Photography Editor)

Jafari Allen, an African-American professor of anthropology, didn’t have any illusions about where he’d decided to work when he arrived at Yale seven years ago. Referencing two 20th-century civil rights activists, Allen jokes, “I knew I wasn’t coming to Audre Lorde University in the Department of Bayard Rustin.”

Allen recently announced he will be leaving Yale for the University of Miami at the end of this year. He maintains that “Yale has all in all been an awesome experience,” not the “soul-crushing place” that professors at other schools warned him it would be. He doesn’t feel at all that he was forced out. But, he says, “My experience has been an experience of always having to raise particular issues and to push particular conversations.”

“When I thought about what my life would be like as a full professor here,” Allen says, “the thing that came to mind most acutely was that I would be constantly fighting for the same things that [other professors] had been fighting for, however many years before.”

This fight can take its toll on professors, says Birgit Brander Rasmussen, an American Studies professor. “There is something incredibly sad and demoralizing about seeing people leave over and over and over again because all these lines have to be fought for,” she says. “It’s expensive, and it takes a lot of time and energy.”

Besides Allen, three other professors of color made waves this year by announcing they will leave Yale at the end of the semester or academic year — Elizabeth Alexander ’84, Vanessa Agard-Jones ’00 and Karen Nakamura GRD ’01.

In a Yale Daily News column published on Oct. 16, Richard Bribiescas, deputy provost for faculty development and diversity, and Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote: “Despite our efforts, the natural ebb and flow of faculty will result in departures. However departures that are hastened by campus-climate issues or weaknesses in faculty development are unacceptable.”

Allen keeps a mental list of black professors — “world-class scholars,” he says — who are planning to leave or who have left Yale in recent years, some after receiving tenure and others well before receiving it. He names Sean Brotherton, Alondra Nelson, Kamari Clarke, GerShun Avilez, Marcus Hunter, and Agard-Jones, among others.

To him, their departures suggest that natural ebb and flow is not a “generative or progressive” way to read the University’s minority faculty retention problem.

“The ebb and flow of individual careers is conditioned by the possibilities that particular institutions create,” Allen says. “So one way to read [my departure] is: ‘Jafari is a Caribbeanist; [at Miami] Jafari will be three feet from the Caribbean.’ Okay, that’s cool. But if we also believe the other rhetoric that Yale is the best institution in the world, and has the best resources, and has the best students in the world, why would Jafari leave?”

“The common denominator here,” Allen continues, “is this institution.”

“When I thought about what my life would be like as a full professor here, the thing that came to mind most acutely was that I would be constantly fighting for the same things that [other professors] had been fighting for, however many years before.”

—Jafari Allen, professor of anthropology

“By our count, this is the 18th Yale Committee, since 1968, to report on the recruitment of minority or women faculty.”

Thus begins the 1991 Jaynes Report, released by a committee headed by economics and African American Studies professor Gerald Jaynes as an update on recommendations made in another report filed just two years earlier. The Jaynes Report continues: “Almost every major item contained in the present report has been proposed, in some form or another, by one or more of the previous committees.”

The history of faculty diversity initiatives at Yale spans more than four decades. The passage of the Education Amendments of 1972 pushed Yale to create an Office of Affirmative Action. Soon afterward, the office began monitoring hiring and tenuring practices of the University, convening various committees to discuss diversity issues.

In one of the earlier reports on faculty diversity, released in 1989, faculty members recommended setting quotas for the hiring of minority professors and giving hiring power to Ethnic Studies programs, calling for an increase in minority faculty from 7 percent to 14 percent over 10 years. Additionally, the report called for a formal mentoring system, competitive responses to outside job offers and additional compensation for minority faculty overburdened with committee assignments because of administrative efforts to diversify committees.

Twenty-six years later, on a fall morning this year, a bulletin board-sized poster condemning Yale’s lack of minority faculty appeared on Cross Campus.

With graphs displaying a stark disparity between the percentage of minority undergraduates (42 percent) and the percentage of minority professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (17 percent), the poster declares the University has only seen a “1 percent average increase in black faculty per century.” It ends: “Your move, Yale.”

(Alex Zhang, Contributing Photographer)

In 2005, former Yale President Richard Levin set a goal of adding at least 30 minority faculty over the next seven years. By 2011, he’d reached that goal, having hired 56.

Jaynes, the African-American professor who chaired the 1991 faculty diversity committee, believes that since his committee filed its report, “there’s been a lot of progress” toward recruiting a diverse faculty.

One of the first major efforts came in 1989, when Yale began offering Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships to encourage minority undergraduates to enter academic careers. President Levin would later expand that effort in 1994, inaugurating a Yale-specific program, the Edward A. Bouchet Fellowship, named after the University’s first African-American graduate.

A major impetus for change on the hiring level, Jaynes says, came when Levin’s predecessor Benno Schmidt took faculty advice and allowed departments to hire “outstanding minority candidates” even when they had no faculty spots officially open.

Recent faculty diversity initiatives have attempted to expand beyond hiring. Two years ago, the Provost’s Office created a new mentoring program for junior faculty. And in 2014, the University appointed anthropology professor Richard Bribiescas as the first ever deputy provost for faculty development and diversity, placing responsibility for advising the Provost on diversity strategies into one centralized office.

Bribiescas, whose responsibilities include monitoring faculty searches and training promotion committees to combat implicit biases, says he and his office have been working hard with deans and other members of Yale’s leadership to “make sure that our campus community is welcoming and inclusive.”

Bribiescas writes in an email: “We are saddened whenever a faculty member makes the deeply personal decision to pursue their career elsewhere and wish them nothing but continued success. However, we are equally delighted by the continual addition of new faculty who add new diverse voices to the Yale community. Does this mean our work is done? Of course not.”

Part of the work, Gendler says, involves reminding professors who have outside job offers of “the ways in which Yale can provide them a unique opportunity to interact with colleagues and students” with the “chance to do the kinds of research and teaching that Yale supports.”

“We try to do that,” she continues, “in a way that [professors] aren’t forced to make a choice on financial grounds between the two institutions, but rather feel free to make the choice on intellectual grounds.”

In their YDN op-ed, Bribiescas and Gendler wrote that in the past year, Yale has made “consistent strides” toward hiring a more diverse faculty. Of the 28 Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors arriving in this academic year or hired in the last hiring cycle, three are of African descent and six are of East Asian or South Asian descent.

And Yale’s newly announced $50 million commitment over the next five years could help make faculty diversification easier, both through providing funds to hire visiting professors and through creating a university-wide “teaching academy” for existing faculty.

Gendler believes the new initiative is “equivalent to all of the strong plans that are going on at universities around the country.” Comparing it to Columbia University, which has allocated $63 million to diversity efforts since 2012, Gendler says of Yale’s initiative, “my understanding of [Yale’s plan] is that it’s almost identical in scale and scope.”

The new initiative, Gendler says, will provide the “opportunity to really make spectacular and enticing offers to excellent faculty that we hope to attract.”

March of Resilience, Nov. 9, 2015

(Yale Daily News)

While Jaynes believes Yale has made significant progress on the hiring front, he and others maintain that Yale’s biggest problem now is the retention of minority faculty. President Levin may have reached his 2005 goal of bringing in at least 30 minority professors over seven years, but by 2012, only 22 of the 56 minority professors hired up until then remained.

Many faculty members agree that minority professors at Yale tend to receive more outside job offers than their white colleagues, increasing the chances that they may leave Yale. But why exactly have so many jumped ship if Yale is, as the rhetoric goes, “the best institution in the world”?

The answer, according to several professors, may lie in informal obstacles within the tenure process.

Because minority students often identify more with minority professors and will thus ask them to be advisors, Jaynes says minority professors tend to be overloaded with mentoring responsibilities, diverting crucial time away from the most important factor in tenure decisions — research. Likewise, says English professor Amy Hungerford, administrative committees often try to include minority professors to add diversity to their discussions, meaning minority professors can be overloaded with committee responsibilities as well. According to Hungerford, some of these committees drain time but do not always provide significant career payoff.

Part of the problem, too, says Rasmussen, are Yale’s inconsistent standards for promotion. According to Rasmussen, some professors who have published significant books and journal articles are promoted, while others who have done so are not. Annual evaluations for professors could help remedy this, she says, as this would create both a mentoring process as well as a paper trail so that if a professor were not promoted, there would be fewer suspicions of bias.

Nonetheless, says Hungerford, who is also divisional director of the Humanities, Yale is different from other schools in that divisional committees read scholars’ works during tenure decisions. Moreover, Hungerford believes there are certain markers across fields that are respected as signs of accomplishment, like special archival finds, mastery of languages and innovative research methods.

Hungerford, Rasmussen and Allen all agree that Yale’s lengthy tenure clock makes job offers from other schools more attractive to minority professors. Unlike most other U.S. universities, which often offer tenure after six years (upon promotion to associate professor), Yale generally does not offer tenure until after nine years (upon promotion from associate to full professor).

“The formal recognition of tenure [at Yale] is delayed almost longer than anywhere else,” Allen says. “Which means people wait to have children, people wait to buy houses, people wait to get into committed relationships … because anything can happen.”

Bribiescas reports in an email that he has been working with Gendler on a committee to reevaluate the tenure process. Writes Bribiescas, “Yale’s tenure track system is barely out of the nest, having been in existence only eight out of the last 314 years. As with any other aspect of university professional life, it should be constantly assessed, and it is.”

Until the tenure process is changed, though, minority professors might opt to leave early provided a more secure opportunity elsewhere.

“Everyone recognizes that if you’re writing about Shakespeare, it’s intellectually valid. If you’re writing about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, they’ll say, ‘Theresa who?’”

—Birgit Brander Rasmussen, professor of American Studies

Deeper sores beyond issues of tenure likely also diminish Yale’s ability to retain minority faculty.

A survey released in 2008 revealed that underrepresented minority (URM) senior faculty at Yale are three times as likely as non-URM peers to feel that they must work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as legitimate scholars. Fifty percent cited others’ lack of interest in their research areas (versus 15 percent for non-URMs), and 61 percent cited exclusion from informal networks (versus 11 percent for non-URMs).

The most startling statistic: compared to only 5 percent of non-underrepresented minority faculty, 22 percent of underrepresented minority respondents said they would not come to Yale if they could decide again.

Rasmussen believes part of the problem is that fields historically dominated by minority faculty do not receive sufficient respect. She thinks that scholarship in Ethnic Studies is especially undervalued at Yale, and perceived to be so by minority faculty, contributing to the feelings of isolation reflected in the survey.

“Everyone recognizes that if you’re writing about Shakespeare, it’s intellectually valid,” she says. “If you’re writing about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, they’ll say, ‘Theresa who?’”

One concrete recommendation, discussed in committees going all the way back to 1989, involves giving interdisciplinary programs unilateral hiring power.

Yale’s African American Studies Department received hiring power in 2000, though only after the program’s chair Hazel Carby resigned in protest of Levin’s neglect of the program. (Earlier that year, Levin had attended a dinner celebrating Henry Louis Gates Jr. — a leader in Harvard’s African American Studies department who was denied tenure at Yale in 1985 — and had made remarks about the “jealousy” he felt towards Harvard’s “extraordinary program.”) A week after Carby’s resignation, African American Studies received departmental status.

The Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program at Yale, however, has yet to receive hiring power. Though the program has been around for years, first created as a subdivision of the American Studies program in the 1980s and then made formally independent in 1997, the University has never made it into an official department.

Maybe that’s why, Rasmussen says, the mood among faculty in ER&M and departments like American Studies and African American Studies is “somewhere between grim, demoralized and angry.”

Rasmussen believes interdisciplinary fields such as ER&M and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies are “the sites on campus where best practices [for hiring a diverse faculty] can be observed,” and administrators could just “ask faculty how to do it.”

Matthew Jacobson, the chair of ER&M for this academic year, believes allowing ER&M to hire its own professors — and to hire more professors — would create a long-term spillover effect for the University. He says ER&M may hold the key to faculty diversity by creating a “center of gravity” that shows academics that Yale is hospitable not just to minority faculty but also to the study of racial minorities.

Asked about why ER&M hasn’t received departmental status yet, Jacobson is quick to respond: “I don’t know why. But Yale has systemically devalued Ethnic Studies in a way that [faculty] diversification becomes an uphill climb. It routinely behaves as though Ethnic Studies is just a side thing, that it’s not incumbent for any university to teach these things. And yet, when you turn on the television, what do you see and what is everyone talking about? Ethnicity, race, immigration.”

March of Resilience, Nov. 9, 2015

(Yale Daily News)

“Students call for more minority faculty.”

So reads the headline of a Yale Daily News article, published not this fall but 28 years ago, on April 22, 1987, after student leaders of various cultural groups penned a letter criticizing administrative responses to violent racist incidents at Yale. Describing how retention of minority faculty would help ease racial tensions on campus, the letter read: “Not only has the University failed to increase its minority faculty, but it has succeeded in driving them away in droves.”

Two days after Yale announced its $50 million diversity initiative this year, more than 200 students gathered on Cross Campus and surrounded Jonathan Holloway, the dean of Yale College, vocalizing their frustration with his silence on current incidents involving race at Yale. Within a day, DOWN Magazine — a publication that highlights voices of students of color — published a list of demands for administrators and students. Among these demands, students called for more course offerings in African American Studies, ER&M and WGSS, as well as commitments to retain faculty in these departments. Five days later, students submitted new demands to President Salovey, including the promotion of the ER&M program to departmental status.

Since the beginning of this school year, Yale students have catalyzed dialogues across campus that have reached the national media — dialogues ranging from forums about changing the name of Calhoun College to discussions about cultural appropriation, racial profiling, faculty diversity and more.

Bribiescas says he has been in conversations this fall with deans of Yale’s four cultural houses to host open forums on faculty diversity, saying that he looks forward to the forums and is “eager to listen to [students’] thoughts, concerns and suggestions.”

“It is safe to assume that every student cares about Yale and its future,” Bribiescas writes in an email. “No matter what, students are always welcome to participate in the conversation of how we build and maintain an excellent and diverse faculty.”

Gendler believes students can also help alert faculty to academic topics they’re interested in, adding, “We as a faculty try to be responsive to those concerns.” Explaining that while Yale might sometimes be able to rely on existing faculty to provide courses in high-demand areas, whether in computer science or Ethnic Studies, she says that other times the University may need to bring in more faculty to teach those courses.

“Sometimes we realize that in order to train the next generation in the questions that they’re interested in, we need to bring in faculty with different sorts of skills, different sorts of experiences, or faculty who are addressing different sorts of questions,” Gendler says.

With the announcement of the new faculty diversity initiative, Yale should have more resources to do just that. But as the Yale community waits for administrators to release more details in the coming months, some remain cautious.

Rasmussen says while she thinks it’s “great to see the University making this commitment,” unless many of the hires are brought in as senior faculty with tenure, “the initiative is just a kind of window-dressing with potentially devastating consequences for [junior] faculty of color and women who are brought into hostile environments with little support.”

Yuni Chang ’18, an intercultural outreach coordinator for the Asian American Studies Task Force, is also cautious.

“I want to be hopeful,” she says, “but Yale is very good at making it seem like it’s making genuinely progressive measures when it does not have a strong track record of following through on its promises.”

Ryan Wilson ’17, a member of the Yale Black Men’s Union, agrees. He adds, “Diversity needs to mean more than bringing marginalized people to campus. It needs to mean making sure those people have the resources and support they need once they are here.”

(Elinor Hills, Photography Editor)

Near the end of my conversation with Jaynes, he shares with me one of his most vivid memories from his many years at Yale.

It was 1979, and he was a new assistant professor. He heard a knock on his office door, and an undergraduate Native American woman walked in.

“She wasn’t a student of mine, she just came in to talk,” Jaynes recalls. “She … kind of had an emotional breakdown and started crying. She was lonesome. She talked about how hard it was being a Native American student at Yale. And because there weren’t that many minority faculty, and I was young, she felt like I was the closest thing she could come to and talk to who might have some empathy, empathy based in real experience.”

He leans back in his chair, takes a deep breath and exhales.

“I’ve always thought about that moment.”



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