College policy aims to increase faculty diversity

“Williams College is an equal opportunity employer” – it is the standard-issue line provided by almost every employer in the country, but here in the Purple Valley, the phrase takes on additional meaning. The College has a long history of promoting diversity among its faculty and proactive steps by the administration have led to significant success in the hiring of women and minorities.

Unlike the University of Michigan, which has recently made headlines for an affirmative action case currently being considered by the Supreme Court, the College is not a federal contractor and as such, is not required to have a federally mandated or designed affirmative action plan; Williams’ affirmative action program is entirely voluntary. The College’s commitment to this plan stems not from government regulations, but rather from a firm belief that a diverse faculty is essential to the educational mission of the College.

The Hiring and Affirmative Action Report, a document that details the College’s affirmative action policy, states: “Our graduates will inhabit, contribute to and in many instances, play leadership roles in our richly diverse society. Their capacity to do this well is strengthened through being educated in a community that reflects that diversity, not only among students, but among their teachers and the staff of the College as well.”

To achieve the goal of a diverse faculty, the College has put in place a variety of mechanisms to promote female and minority hiring. In 1979, the College established the position of Assistant to the President for Affirmative Action and Government Relations, now held by Nancy McIntire, as well as the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee.

Six years later, the College allowed “somewhat foreshortened search procedures” for outstanding women and minority candidates when there was an opportunity to “fill a pressing departmental or College-wide need,” according to the report. In 1988, the College made a more concerted effort to hire minority scholars in visiting positions.

To this day, the College attempts to match, in its faculty, the national averages of women and minorities receiving doctorates in each academic field. Every year, McIntire sets targets in each division for women and minorities. This year, the goals are six, nine and five women or minorities in Divisions I, II and III, respectively. However, her numbers are by no means set in stone and she characterizes her role as more “cajoling” than enforcing.

Tom Kohut, dean of the faculty, emphasized the flexibility of the system and noted that hiring decisions are very much in the hands of academic departments. “The administration’s role is to encourage or to nudge,” he said.

This “nudging” has produced some impressive results for the College over the past few decades. Division I, with 56 percent of its professors female, meets the national average exactly. Also, 21 percent of Division I’s faculty is classified as minority, well above the 14 percent national average; minorities are represented above the national average in Division II.

While both McIntire and Kohut downplay the significance of their “cajoling,” some quasi-institutional mechanisms exist which encourage minority and female hiring. Currently, the administration encourages the inclusion of at least one female or minority candidate in the 3-person finalist pool for each position. Female and minority candidates are also taken out on what some faculty call “Nancy breakfasts,” in which candidates are allowed to ask questions off the record.

The Hiring and Affirmative Action Report describes the goal of these meetings: “To make sure that women and minority candidates understand that this community is especially welcoming to them, and as a way of responding to any confidential inquiries they may wish to make about the community, such candidates meet with the Assistant to the President and a selected group of faculty from other departments for an informal, unofficial occasion.”

These efforts have been successful in increasing the numbers of female and minority professors – especially when one looks at the younger members of the faculty. Of the College’s 79 assistant professors, 54 percent are female and 24 percent are minorities. Nationally in 2000-2001, 42 percent of doctorate degrees went to women and 17 percent to minorities.

The difficult task the College faces is balancing the need to diversify the faculty now, with the implications of specifically targeting women and minorities for the future. Looking at the number of women and minority professors at Williams that have tenure, the diversity of the Williams professorship could certainly be questioned – only 31 percent of tenured faculty are women and 14 percent are minorities.

Of course, trying to bring these numbers up by having a higher concentration of women and minorities among young professors invites the question of what happens after the older, tenured professors retire.

This question seems particularly pertinent in Division I where the College appears to be particularly ahead of the national curve. At Williams, 91 percent of assistant professors in Division I are female, compared to only 57 percent of doctorates given out in 2000-2001. Further, 46 percent of Division I assistant professors at Williams are minorities, while only 14 percent of Division I doctorates given out went to minorities.

These numbers have started to concern certain members of the community, who argue they indicate what may have once been a noble effort to diversify the academic ranks is now overcompensating at the expense of scholars not looked at as part of the affirmative action program.

“The juggernaut of affirmative action hiring continues despite long-ago demonstrated success,” said Robert Jackall, professor of sociology. “At what point will the College declare victory and peace with honor and leave the battlefield?”

In light of such high numbers of female assistant professors in Division I, Jackall is concerned that in a few years, when many of those professors receive tenure, the Division I faculty will be largely female and will, in fact, “undermine the very notion of what diversity is.” Calling it a “self-contradiction,” Jackall noted that the current hiring practices now encourage exactly what the College was trying to fix when it adopted the affirmative action program years ago.

When asked about the necessity of current hiring practices, McIntire said, “it’s time to take a look at that,” adding, “I suspect the Committee on Academic Policy (CAP), dean of the faculty and I will begin that discussion this year.”

“That discussion” will not be an easy one to initiate about an issue which is very dear to the hearts of many students and faculty. “This has become a taboo issue in the academy,” Jackall said.

Kohut expressed a similar sentiment. “It would be nice to have a college where we aren’t quite so nervous to discuss these issues,” he said.

Affirmative action and the debate over its implementation will continue far into the future, according to Kohut. As he put it, the day Williams will no longer need to worry about diversity in its faculty “is going to come when we’re going to stop worrying about it as a society.”