Students, faculty address diversity during forum

In hopes of raising the profile of faculty and curricular diversity as the College orchestrates its largest concentration of hirings in a decade, the Minority Coalition (MinCo) held a forum between faculty members and students to explore the issue on Saturday in Goodrich.

The conference began with a short preface and welcoming remarks from Abhishek Basnyat ’04, who moderated the event. Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, spoke about his initial perceptions of the faculty’s diversity when he first arrived here as an assistant professor.

“My first impression, I have to say, wasn’t all that favorable,” said Schapiro. “I was used to teaching a student body that was much more diverse than the one I found when I joined the faculty in the Purple Valley in 1980.”

While faculty diversity has improved, said Schapiro, “we’re at a position that no one is happy with.” He pinpointed a lack of cooperation and commitment as causes for the current disparity in diversity between the student body and faculty. “The reason we have so far to go is not that we don’t care,” he said. “It’s because we haven’t been smart enough to work together on this issue.” He also mentioned that his previous comments in a recent article in the Record, in which he suggested that one of his highest priorities in overseeing the hirings would be increasing faculty diversity, had caused controversy in both faculty and student circles. Despite the contentiousness of the issue, he reemphasized his commitment to the initiative.

Rory Kramer ’03, MinCo co-coordinator, then offered a student perspective on the issues that created the impetus for the conference. “It’s wonderful to see that the institution is traveling along the right path, [but] to be completely blunt, we’re moving at a snail’s pace, and outside forces make it critical that we pick up that pace,” he said. He emphasized that students seldom see any effect of their work to bring about change on campus due to administration’s inertia. After addressing some of the problems on campus, Kramer suggested that more aggressive recruiting of faculty of color and spending more resources to improve minority faculty retention rates as solutions. “Failing should not be an option, especially not on this,” he said.

After the initial speeches, Basnyat called upon members of a panel, composed of Nancy McIntire, assistant to the president for affirmative action and government relations; Regina Kunzel, professor of history and chair of American Studies; Scott Wong, associate professor of history; Enrique Peacock-Lopez, professor of chemistry and Alex Willingham, professor of political science, to comment on the issue from their various areas of expertise.

McIntire discussed the College’s hiring practices and its attempts to attract minority faculty. She said that in addition to ads placed in national journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, the College also advertises in focused publications like Hispanic Outlook and the Affirmative Action Register to target minority graduate students. “We encourage the departments to make sure that the professional meetings where they’re looking at perhaps a semifinalist pool that they are as extensive as they can be when they’re [evaluating] the candidates,” she said of her office’s efforts to increase the hiring of faculty of color. Alumni networks are also utilized to spread the word.

Following McIntire, Kunzel addressed the issue of faculty diversity in terms of interdisciplinary programs at the College. “The faculty gave much support to interdisciplinary studies,” she said, but mentioned that the support had not translated into substance. She suggested that increasing programs’ roles in hiring would have a parallel effect of diversifying the faculty. She suggested that currently the department structure at the College does not enable the institution to take advantage of the many areas of graduate study that are emerging, such as film, ethnic and performance studies. According to Kunzel, the way to take advantage of this phenomenon would be to give interdisciplinary programs greater autonomy in hiring professors.

Wong, who focused on curricular innovation, changed the course of the discussion. “What I think is important to understand too is that diversity is not just a matter of having more women, more people of color,” he said. “It’s also about what they teach, and so therefore . . . to diversify the faculty should also mean to diversify the curriculum.” He applauded the grassroots initiative for a Latino studies program, but emphasized that the College needs a campus-wide impetus for ethnic studies. Wong is currently the only full-time member of the faculty to teach classes on Asian-American material. He also said that he will be taking a sabbatical next year, during which he will spend a semester at Wesleyan University to “kick-start their Asian-American program.”

He spoke about his disappointment that Williams has had no similar initiative, emphasizing that the burden lies with the administration. “The administration has to pick the departments and say that ‘these departments can contribute to the increased diversity of the faculty and of the curriculum’,” he said.

Peacock-Lopez spoke about the dearth of minority applicants for positions in science departments. He began by emphasizing that one of the chemistry department’s priorities is currently hiring more female professors. He also said that the College’s science departments’ problems mirror a national lack of minorities applying for posts in academia. Peacock-Lopez also echoed Kramer’s argument that the faculty and student body operates on two different time scales; while four years may seem to be a short period of time for a professor, it is a student’s entire career. Thus, he said, the College must speed up its efforts. He also exhorted the student body to be tenacious in pursuing its goals for faculty diversity. “Don’t forget that your role as students goes beyond your four years here,” he said. “Alums play a very important role.”

Peacock-Lopez also addressed some criticisms that have emerged that unduly focusing on hiring minorities could cause a candidate’s qualifications to be subverted by his or her ethnicity. He said that qualifications are paramount, but since there are so few qualified minorities in the market, they have a choice of where to go, and the College must make an extra effort to make them come to Williamstown.

Willingham, who discussed minority faculty retention, spoke last. “I am an example of affirmative action hiring. Myself,” he said. Willingham, who was one of the few black members of the faculty when he joined, indicated that an extra effort must be made if the College is to make inroads towards having a faculty representative of society.

He also discussed the troubling disparity between the diversity of the student body and faculty. “What we’re left with then is a curious contradiction, in which we have an increasingly visible diversity of the student body and a faculty and staff that is far less diverse,” said Willingham. Lastly, he emphasized the need for campus discourse in influencing the direction of the faculty’s composition. “There’s a need I think to have a diverse campus and open campus in which we know about, share and generate institutional data,
in which we talk about the pluses and minuses. . . and think about what we are in fact doing,” he said.

After Willingham finished, Basnyat read a statement from George Crane, professor of political science, who could not attend as a result of unexpected family duties.

“I think we need to do a better job of bringing people from other countries to Williams,” said Crane in his e-mail. Crane reminded the group that diversity also includes knowledge of different cultures, and spoke about the resistance that College faculty might have to such practices. “Williams faculty are a proud lot,” he wrote, and went on to speak of the difficulty of comprehending different styles of instruction, but with sufficient commitment, international diversity would positively impact the level of instruction at the College.

Once the panel concluded all the prepared speeches, Basnyat invited the audience to ask questions and make comments. Gail Newman, professor of German and faculty director of the Multicultural Center (MCC) spoke about the need for the College to regain its status as a trendsetter. While she acknowledged that many peer institutions are having similar problems with issues of minority faculty hiring, she suggested that dismissing the problems as an immutable trend was anathema at the College.

“It’s not the Williams way – we should be trailblazers,” she said. Specifically, Newman called for increasing the Bolin program, which brings minority post-doctoral fellows to the College teach and research at the College.

Several faculty members continued the exchange, and the group then split into three workshops to address curricular innovation, minority faculty retention and faculty recruitment. After the workshops, the group reconvened to discuss their findings. Some solutions included increasing minority applicants’ access to the College to break down biases of insularity, pursuing more aggressive recruitment campaigns, and fostering greater intra-faculty interaction to promote the construction of a more congenial community.