UP CLOSE: Systemic issues overshadow faculty diversity initiative

Systemic issues overshadow faculty diversity initiative

Published on March 30, 2016

On Nov. 3, 2015, the same day administrators announced a headline-grabbing $50 million faculty diversity initiative, Karen Nakamura GRD ’01, a renowned interdisciplinary scholar of gender and disability studies, sent the University her resignation letter.

The irony is almost self-evident: Nakamura, a tenured professor involved in the Anthropology, East Asian Studies, Film Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs, was one of only a few scholars studying disability issues at Yale and embodied the very diversity the initiative seeks to foster. Yet despite repeated calls from her colleagues for the University to retain her, Nakamura has left Yale for the University of California, Berkeley, where she is now the chair of Disabilities Studies. UC Berkeley will provide her with new, centrally located lab space devoted to researching disabilities.

While it is unclear whether this financial support was the main motivation for Nakamura’s departure, her colleagues suggested that Yale was unwilling to offer even a modest counteroffer. Nakamura declined to comment.

“Nakamura very much enjoyed being here … but she was treated so shabbily by the administration,” anthropology professor Bill Kelly said. “It would’ve taken such a small percentage of the initiative’s money to keep her here. So when we get an email about a $50 million initiative, we just roll our eyes.”

Under the new plan, Yale will provide up to $25 million University-wide to support half the salary of any new hires who increase faculty diversity. Individual schools will provide the other half. The initiative will also invite visiting scholars and increase funding for graduate student research.

“I wager that three years from now, Yale will be $50 million poorer and the faculty will be even less diverse than it was in 2004–2005. I can only hope that I’m wrong.”

—African American Studies and American Studies professor Glenda Gilmore

But the $50 million sum, while hefty, pales in comparison with similar initiatives at peer institutions with far smaller endowments: Columbia University has dedicated more than $80 million to faculty diversity over the past decade, and Brown University recently announced a $165 million Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.

And while Columbia’s and Brown’s initiatives have been widely praised, Yale’s new initiative has generated skepticism. Last fall, a committee of 33 Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors met four times in secret with top administrators to raise concerns about the lack of detail and research in the initiative’s planning. Interviews with more than 20 professors, many of whom served on that committee, revealed doubts about whether the University’s new initiative will do anything to address longstanding problems with Yale’s hiring, promotion and retention of diverse faculty members — problems that have repeatedly been raised over the last few decades to little effect.

“I wager that three years from now, Yale will be $50 million poorer and the faculty will be even less diverse than it was in 2004–2005,” said African American Studies and American Studies professor Glenda Gilmore. “I can only hope that I’m wrong.”


By all accounts, Yale’s faculty diversity statistics are cause for concern.

“Without a doubt, the numbers are not good,” Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Richard Bribiescas said. “It’s not at what we would like it to be.”

(Sam Laing, Production & Design Staff)

Of the 655 ladder professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 24 are black, 62 are Asian, 18 are Hispanic, two are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders and one is Native American, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research. Together, they comprise 16.5 percent of FAS ladder faculty members.

These are the numbers that University administrators cite when asked about Yale’s faculty diversity. But some faculty members say these percentages — already low — may still overstate minority representation.

Technically, Asian-Americans and internationals do not fall under the definition of “underrepresented minorities.” If these two groups are removed from the count of faculty, the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty in the FAS drops to a mere 6.6 percent.

Even using Yale’s metrics, the University’s faculty diversity has deteriorated recently. In the 2011–2012 academic year, 17.6 percent of FAS ladder faculty members were minorities — 1.1 percent more than now. That year was a high point for underrepresented minorities as well, with Latino, black, Native American and Pacific Islander professors making up 8.2 percent of the faculty. By any metric, Yale is doing worse than four years ago.

The University is also doing worse than its peer institutions with similar diversity initiatives. In 2011–2012, Yale outpaced Brown in its percentage of minority faculty, 17.6 percent to 16.6. Today, minorities comprise 18.4 percent of tenure-track faculty at Brown — 1.8 percentage points more than at Yale. At Columbia, the contrast is even starker, with minorities making up 19.2 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty members. If Columbia included international faculty members in this count, as Yale does, the number would shoot up to 26.7 percent.

“We presented these numbers and comparisons with Brown and Columbia to the University years ago, and little happened. It’s not that they didn’t know,” said former English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander, who left Yale for Columbia in 2015. “Why does the campus have to explode for faculty diversity to be addressed? Why do faculty of color have to push for this? This should be coming from the top leadership.”


For the first time in its history, the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program is conducting faculty searches to recruit top scholars studying issues of diversity and ethnicity, who are often also of minority descent.

ER&M’s historic hiring troubles underline how Yale’s faculty hiring system, also known as the slot system, has failed to support interdisciplinary and nontraditional departments. And the new faculty diversity initiative does little to change the system, Gilmore said.

The University allocates resources for faculty hiring by assigning each FAS member a “slot.” Most of these over 700 slots are controlled by individual departments. Slots free up when a faculty member retires or leaves, and departments can fill vacant slots with administrative approval.

The FAS also holds six “pool” slots, which a faculty committee can give out at its discretion to any department to encourage diverse hiring. When hires made on pool slots leave, the committee can reassign the slot to any department.

Traditionally, there have been six pool slots. But Tamar Gendler, the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said her office has added four more pool slots specifically to hire candidates who bring “excellence and diversity” during the current and following two academic years. In addition, one pool slot was designated in November to support faculty whose work addresses the histories, lives and cultures of unrepresented and underrepresented communities, bringing the total number of pool slots to 11.

The combination of the departmental and pool slots creates stability and flexibility for long-term departmental development, Gendler said.

“Why does the campus have to explode for faculty diversity to be addressed? Why do faculty of color have to push for this? This should be coming from the top leadership.”

—Former English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander

But most faculty members interviewed said that while the slot system makes sense in theory, in reality it is confusing and frustrating, especially in hiring and retaining minority faculty. Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program Chair Margaret Homans said she found it “irksome and surprising” that her program was unable to immediately replace assistant professor Vanessa Agard-Jones following the announcement that she was leaving for Columbia. Since Agard-Jones was hired through a pool slot, WGSS has to reapply to keep the position.

“I think the system is benignly designed to foster diversity, but it’s not working,” Homans said. “It’s clearly a disaster.”

Under the slot system, larger and more established departments have more departmental slots and thus more hiring power. Newer departments — such as those that study ethnicity or identity — are naturally at a disadvantage.

According to Gendler, departmental slot assignments are largely a historical matter. The original configuration was determined in 1992 and has remained largely unchanged since then, she said.

But this means that traditionally marginalized departments still have largely the same limited hiring power that they did over two decades ago, despite growing student interest.

“[The number of slots] is an embarrassment,” WGSS professor Inderpal Grewal said. “WGSS has been here for a while, but it is Yale’s attitude towards women and gender studies that leads to the program getting very little attention and respect. This attitude is not a reflection of society at large.”

Before student protests last fall surrounding structural racism on campus, the ER&M program, which first offered undergraduate majors in 1998, had virtually no say in faculty recruitment. Even Yale’s African American Studies Department — one of the leading departments in the country — only has one full faculty appointment and thus has to rely heavily on joint appointments or pool slots.

“Since we’ve been here for 50 years and we are one of the leading programs in the world, why not give us the permanent resources to maintain that stature?” African American Studies Department Chair Jacqueline Goldsby GRD ’98 said.

(Sam Laing, Production & Design Staff)

Gendler said department chairs can submit proposals to turn pool slots into departmental slots, although she has not received such a proposal in the past. Goldsby said she is currently in the process of submitting one for Af-Am Studies.

“Units that promote emerging fields of study are best off, for the long run, being shaped by departmental lines that remain in that unit’s permanent control,” Goldsby said. “Pressing for — and winning — that policy change is a crucial area for administrative activism, so far as I’m concerned.”

Some faculty members said they are worried that the new $50 million initiative will not resolve the paucity of slots for departments that study and attract diversity.

“My big hope would be that the initiative really puts the funds toward departments where minority scholars are: Af-Am, ER&M and WGSS,” said Marcus Hunter, a former assistant professor in the Sociology Department who is now at UCLA. “That is where diversity is really happening. But it’s the last place that gets that kind of attention when efforts come around to support diversity.”

Alexander said the competitive structure of the initiative may unfairly put historically diverse departments on the same footing as “other departments who have mostly only hired white people for decades.”

Gendler said she does not differentiate by department when submitting names of candidates to the provost for consideration for the initiative.


While the onus to diversify faculty often falls upon individual departments themselves, some professors noted that certain departments simply have not made diversity a priority. And the administration, they said, has not held these departments accountable for this — a failing that may dilute the efficacy of the new initiative.

Several professors pointed to the Political Science Department as a prime example of a lack of motivation and accountability in addressing diversity.

Over the past four years, the department has turned down the opportunity to hire four black male professors. Additionally, a recent informal list of 70 potential faculty hires in the department had five women and no underrepresented minorities, according to a faculty member in the social sciences who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject.

The Political Science Department’s hiring strategy exhibits a pattern that undermines or completely ignores diversity, the professor said.

“People just give lip service. They don’t actually value the kinds of approaches and research minority faculty tend to do,” the professor said. “In political science, black faculty tend to contribute to racial inequality and racial power. If you do not consider these [research areas] as legitimate or important, when you have a general search, black faculty are competing on unequal terrain.”

One of the black candidates who was ultimately turned down, the professor said, was a renowned scholar who had an accomplished resume but gave a weak talk during his interview process. Rather than giving him another opportunity, the department decided not to hire him.

“I think more eyebrows should have been raised,” the professor said. “Shouldn’t we have lingered on this longer, given that we have zero black men? We are effectively scuttling any opportunity to hire a black man. It’s been really demoralizing.”

Political Science Department Chair Steven Wilkinson said the department already has some of the nation’s leading political scientists working on gender, race and the concept of difference. But he admitted that it needs to do more to recruit top minority scholars. Hiring another scholar who works on issues of immigration and diversity is a departmental priority, he said.

Other departments have taken broader, more concrete approaches to increasing diversity. Yale’s English Department has become very “forward-looking” and recognizes that the field can no longer just be Euro-centric, Goldsby, also a professor in the English Department, said. And in the Anthropology Department, Kelly said, the search committees look beyond American universities to create a diverse candidate pool. If the search is done correctly, there should be no conflicts between the best faculty and diverse faculty, Kelly said.

Some have pointed to the varying successes of different departments as evidence that the administration has not systematically held all department leaders and senior faculty accountable for promoting diversity.

Economics and Af-Am Studies professor Gerald Jaynes, who led a review of faculty diversity in 1991, said the administration needs to be proactive in changing the attitude of certain departments that have not approached diversity with the appropriate alacrity.

“At this stage in 2016, if a field of knowledge is not attracting a diverse set of people, one should have serious questions about that field and the leadership,” American Studies professor Michael Denning said. “The leadership and senior faculty in a lot of fields are not setting any examples. The real question is how the University should hold the different disciplines and departments accountable to how well they are attracting diversity.”

Gendler said there are already incentives and checks in place for departments to engage in building diversity. For example, departmental search committees must have an internal diversity officer, who makes sure the candidate pool is diverse.

“We presume that departments are doing work in good faith,” she said. “Departments that do not make concerted efforts for diversity are not in a good position to ask for pool slots for any hirings.”

Still, concerns about accountability persist, and several professors are worried that there will be no mechanism within the new $50 million initiative to ensure that departments participate.

“At this stage in 2016, if a field of knowledge is not attracting a diverse set of people, one should have serious questions about that field and the leadership.”

—American Studies professor Michael Denning

Grewal said departments have control of the kind of searches they make, and the diversity initiative would not have much effect if departments already have a particular vision for their work that does not include a diverse faculty.

Gendler said the initiative does not change the process of faculty searches and hires but simply allows her office to craft more competitive salaries and research-related packages when offers are made. There is no extra incentive and accountability to ensure that departments participate in the initiative, she said.

“A robust diversity program must hold [departments] accountable … Provost Polak and Dean Gendler control faculty hiring slots and search authorizations and can use that power as diversity management tools,” Gilmore said. “In my opinion, neither seemed to realize that they would have to develop a structure to hold departments accountable for diversity.”


Even when departments do succeed in recruiting underrepresented minority scholars, keeping them at Yale can present a more significant challenge.

Those who have worked to promote faculty diversity at Yale say the University’s problems with retention are well known and entrenched, and partially a product of Yale’s unique tenure system. When Jaynes authored the 1991 faculty diversity report, its recommendations pointed out retention issues. But in the ensuing 25 years, the University has still not done a good job of retaining minority faculty, he said.

“If we had been able to retain even half of the minority faculty we recruited, we would have pretty good statistics,” Jaynes said.

In 2006, Yale launched a faculty diversity initiative that aimed to hire at least 30 new professors from minority backgrounds and another 30 female professors. Between the start of the initiative and November 2011, Yale successfully hired an additional 56 minority and 30 female faculty members. But after a series of departures, Yale ultimately only retained 40 of those new hires — fewer than half.

Several of Yale's faculty of color have left the University for other institutions, including Columbia. (Courtesy of Columbia Spectator)

The new $50 million initiative similarly does not propose an explicit plan for retention, although part of the budget may be used for retention efforts at the dean’s discretion, according to Gendler.

Retention issues have particularly plagued the Anthropology Department, which over the last five years has lost eight faculty members — seven of whom were female or underrepresented minority professors. But that department’s retention woes are not unique, and three high-profile departures in the Af-Am Studies Department this past year brought the issue of minority faculty retention to the fore of discussions about diversity at Yale.

Bribiescas acknowledged that retention is a challenge but suggested that the issue is not systemic.

“When it comes to retention cases, every case is personal and unique and every case is a challenge,” Bribiescas said. “The faculty needs to be aware that in addition to some retention cases where faculty members leave, there are numerous cases where we successfully retain faculty. But these are not publicized because the details are confidential.”

Bribiescas and other administrators have often said that faculty members’ decisions to leave Yale may involve a personal dimension, such as a preference to raise young children in New York rather than New Haven, or job opportunities for faculty spouses. But in many cases — such as Nakamura’s — they seem to relate more to Yale’s climate and culture.

And Yale’s unusual tenure system only exacerbates the problem.

Yale has an unusually long tenure clock, which means that professors are often not reviewed for tenure until their eighth year. Assistant professors who are promoted to the associate level often do not receive tenure. At most of Yale’s peer institutions, the tenure clock is typically 6 to 8 years, and associate professors receive tenure as they work toward a full professorship.

For young, midcareer faculty members, the prospect of job security elsewhere is often too appealing to pass up.

“You are asking people who are top scholars in their fields to accept the unknown here,” Asian American Studies specialist Mary Lui said. “That is truly difficult.”

Junior faculty members of color are especially likely to be poached, Jacobson said, due to the high demand for excellent scholars who also bring diversity to institutions.

“Other institutions roll out the red carpet,” said a minority faculty member who asked to remain anonymous.

Gendler is leading a faculty committee to re-examine the decade-old tenure process, with particular attention toward the loss of minority faculty members. She said she hopes the faculty will consider revisions to the system to address the problems with the mismatch between the tenure clock at Yale and other institutions.

Still, some faculty members have suggested that challenges with retention stem primarily not from the tenure clock, but from more systemic biases, such as the devaluing of minority scholars and their scholarship and mentorship work.

When American Studies assistant professor Birgit Rasmussen, who specializes in Native American literature, was denied promotion by the Humanities Tenure and Promotion Committee in 2014, several faculty members in the department raised concerns about scholarship bias.

“If you in an undervalued field — even if you are the most brilliant scholar — you will be undervalued,” Jacobson said.

(Sam Laing, Production & Design Staff)

Professors also noted that the tenure review does not place enough emphasis on the mentorship roles of minority faculty, who often take students under their wing. Because of Yale’s low number of minority scholars, the service and mentorship burdens disproportionately fall on a small number of women faculty and faculty of color.

“Everyone says it’s good when you help the undocumented student who came to you in the middle of the night, but that sort of mentorship and service is not taken into account in promotions,” a minority professor said. “I am called on to do everything — I am not going to turn down a promising black student who needs a senior advisor. That is the biggest area of frustration for being a woman and minority faculty member.”

Amy Hungerford, divisional director for the humanities, said the committee is careful to ask many questions about service during the review process, but noted that the committee is currently taking steps to make these discussions more concrete.

But for all their work mentoring others, minority faculty themselves often lack mentorship.

A 2014 diversity summit report, which was conducted by outside experts and scholars, noted that there is too little accountability among department chairs and deans at Yale for mentoring junior faculty. The report noted that this deficit can affect the general climate for minority faculty, and it suggested that the University develop more concrete mentorship strategies.

“You have to be more concerned about whether junior faculty are happy,” Jaynes said. “You have to ask what the climate might be for different junior faculty members. We need more concrete mentoring structures in departments.”

Gendler said junior faculty mentoring is a priority of her office and setting up a robust mentorship structure will be one of the first tasks of the new deputy dean of diversity in her office, when the position is finalized.

But despite these efforts, some faculty members who recently left Yale said the administration simply seems indifferent to diverse faculty departures.

“The Yale senior administration does not feel any special urgency to retain the faculty who bring diversity to it,” said a senior professor of color who left the University within the last year. “It’s telling that none of the faculty who left that I have talked to received exit interviews from the senior administration. The assumption appears to be that our leaving is just part of the natural process of faculty coming and going, and that there is no need to examine the process by which faculty are retained and promoted at Yale.”

Five former faculty members interviewed had differing accounts of the seriousness of the administration’s efforts to retain them. Gendler said the FAS addresses competing offers for junior faculty by considering early promotion and crafting “strong retention packages” that may include salary, research and programming support. But these packages only seem to materialize in some cases.

“In my case, tremendous effort was taken to retain me,” a recently departed minority faculty member said. “Part of the problem is that I was able to watch the ways in which little effort was taken to retain others. The fact that some efforts to retain minority faculty are not taken as seriously as others matters.”

Former professors said the University relies too much on its reputation in its retention efforts. Two professors no longer at Yale said even though they received offers from leading departments at other institutions, the administration maintained that they should be “honored” to be at Yale.

Alexander said that while she was proud of the work of the Af-Am Studies Department and her role as department chair during her time at Yale, she left because of imaginative new opportunities at Columbia and at the Ford Foundation. She also said she had a sense of frustration about the broader project of diversity building at the University.

“Did I feel that along with my colleagues devoted to these issues that I was not made a true partner in positive change? Yes. Did I leave because of a series of absolutely wonderful opportunities that I was recruited to … after 15 great years at Yale? Yes,” she said. “I went away not angry, but feeling that it was not the right moment for me to build further at this university. I hope that now is the moment for bold chance at the University I love so much.”

Although none of the $50 million from the new diversity initiative is specifically earmarked for retention, Gendler said the additional funding will give her more flexibility to provide competitive retention packages.


While Yale professors have pointed out the ways in which the new diversity initiative may fail to address the University’s myriad issues with hiring, retention and climate, they have also identified the scale and strategies of Columbia’s and Brown’s initiatives as potential models.

Both other initiatives have much more funding, for one. Columbia’s consists of $85 million over the past decade, and Brown’s is worth $165 million — more than twice the cost of Yale’s initiative, even though Brown’s endowment is less than an eighth of Yale’s.

Yale’s initiative, Homans noted, really only consists of $25 million, since the other $25 million is coming from the schools themselves. Other professors said they were unsure how much of the budget would go toward hiring FAS faculty, as opposed to professors at the professional schools.

“My view is that it’s a start. Brown University’s commitment is much larger, of course, so Yale’s has been overshadowed,” Grewal said. “But of course if it’s $50 million for the entire university, including the professional schools, it may not be enough. We wait to see what the share of FAS will be.”

(Sam Laing, Production & Design Staff)

Columbia’s and Brown’s initiatives exceed Yale’s not only in price, but in planning and scope as well.

Columbia’s diversity initiative consists of five different investments over the past decade, each of which is earmarked for a specific area of the university. The initiative, which has won awards such as the 2015 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from a higher education magazine, has also focused its attention on specific kinds of diversity at different points in time. For example, the university announced an LGBTQ initiative — the first of its kind among peer institutions — this past January.

Columbia Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Dennis Mitchell, who oversees the diversity initiatives there, suggested that an institution must go beyond monetary commitments in order to build a diverse faculty. It must pay close attention to creating and nurturing an inclusive climate, which includes a critical mass of faculty from historically underrepresented groups, Mitchell said.

Brown’s initiative is much newer — the finalized plan was announced three months after Yale’s — but the university has already provided a detailed and concrete plan in the form of a 67-page document. $100 million of the $165 million allocation, for example, will go toward creating 25 new endowed professorships. According to Liza Cariaga-Lo, Brown’s vice president for academic development, diversity and inclusion, the university aims to double its underrepresented minority faculty within five years.

The initiative also includes emphasis on departmental accountability, a defined numerical goal for faculty diversity and a specific structure for faculty mentorship.

“We strongly believe that we can make pronouncements and set goals, but the intentional work to hire professors is really done in the departments,” Cariaga-Lo said. “Our plan aims to increase deliberate accountability within departments.”

She added that each department at Brown is required to submit individual diversity inclusion plans by June. If they do not do so, the university will not approve its faculty hiring plans.

Jacobson said in order for Yale’s initiative to make lasting change, it must similarly reimagine the University’s intellectual culture.

“The natural momentum of the place is very conservative,” he said. “To disrupt that, you have to go against the grain.”

Correction, March 30: A previous version of this article incorrectly calculated that Columbia’s minority faculty make up 23.5 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty members, and stated that with international faculty members added, the number increases to 38 percent. In fact, the accurate percentage is 19.2 percent minority faculty, which increases to 26.7 percent with international faculty included. 


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