Faculty Staff Initiative forms updated goals

The Faculty Staff Initiative (FSI), a grassroots organization formed in the fall of 2007 to recruit, retain and mentor faculty members who teach in programs, junior faculty and faculty and staff of color, has set forth an array of issues it would like to address in the near future. FSI has established four working groups to reach goals related to its mission, and plans on adapting to a new leadership team after the end of this academic year.

The four FSI task forces address: the development and implementation of a staff climate survey; faculty professional development on diversity and inclusion; initiation of new mentoring programs for faculty and staff; and an audit of staff representation on College committees.

The FSI was founded by Joyce Foster, director of academic resources; Maria Elena Cepeda, assistant professor of Latina/o Studies; Stephane Robolin, assistant professor of Africana Studies; and Dorothy Wang, assistant professor of American studies. Wang is currently on leave from the College, and Robolin resigned from the College last month to teach English at Rutgers University. The FSI is currently chaired by Wendy Raymond, associate dean for institutional diversity; Lili Rodriguez, associate director of Admission and director of diversity recruitment; and Ed Epping, faculty director of the Multicultural Center and professor of art.

According to an introductory document released by the FSI, the group began as a collective of faculty and staff members who wanted to address the fact that a significant number of faculty of color had left the College during the 2006-07 academic year. In the years since that time, the group’s focus has shifted away from issues of minority faculty towards broader concerns, such as the treatment of staff on campus, Wang said.

Rodriguez noted that there are discrepancies in the way faculty, staff and students are treated by the College. “Faculty and students get surveyed almost every single year,” Rodriguez said. “Staff are never surveyed in that way. The voice of staff concerns is not as obvious as the voice of students and faculty.”
The FSI has discussed staff surveying options and professional development with Steve Klass, vice president for operations. “We discussed the shape of career paths in higher education, how to develop professional opportunities for staff at various points along their career trajectories, and the intentionality with which we need to approach the structural challenges inherent in large, complex organizations like the College,” Klass said. “I anticipate further involvement along these lines over time, depending on FSI’s needs and how, if at all, my involvement adds value to their work.”

According to Rodriguez, one of the FSI’s main focuses is supporting and mentoring professors, particularly junior faculty of color, in academic programs.
“It’s hard to know what your professional role is on campus or how you can develop yourself further,” she said. “We all need better mentoring on campus.”
In addition to mentoring, the FSI has made some concrete progress in the years since its creation. This progress includes making changes to the course catalog and instituting diversity training for the administration at the beginning of each academic year, along with prompting and supporting the sometimes less visible conversations and dialogue.

“Institution-wide, there’s a real gap between the way in which interdisciplinary programs are envisioned compared to departments,” Cepeda said, noting the course catalog’s former “hierarchy of departments over interdisciplinary programs.” Cepeda explained that in the past, the printed catalog would list, for example, a cross-listed English and American studies course only under the English department and not under the American studies program, giving precedence to the larger College departments over the smaller academic programs. According to Cepeda, even such a seemingly simple change took a significant amount of time for the FSI to accomplish.

Raymond believes that the FSI has succeeded in changing the College environment.

“The community of faculty and staff of color and their allies has become much more visible,” she said. “We know more about each other than when FSI started.”

To Wang, the changing focus is a positive thing; however, it is accompanied by a relative loss.

“While I am very glad that staff concerns are being taken seriously – FSI is one of the rare places on campus where faculty and staff and sometimes students meet to discuss issues as equals – I do worry that the group’s original purpose has been slightly occluded,” she said. “The concerns around minority faculty retention, recruitment, quality of professional and social life at Williams are as urgent as ever.”

Wang explained that the original FSI faculty had raised to then-Dean Wagner concerns affecting minority faculty and those whose work and teaching focused on issues of race.

“Junior minority faculty shoulder not only the normal teaching and research duties all junior faculty face but they must also mentor and cousel minority students, educate colleagues and administration officials on issues of race and face professional and social isolation.” Wang said. “We were concerned that there are not that many senior faculty of color at Williams, and we did notice that a lot of people had left, and that the administration didn’t seem to be doing a lot to retain people.”

For many, the FSI remains a positive force. Vince Schleitwiler, assistant professor of English, became involved in the FSI this academic year.
“I’m impressed by how many people have been willing to put in so much time and effort to try to improve this community,” Schleitwiler said. “FSI is a grass-roots effort, with no formal institutional standing. As a junior faculty member, it’s encouraging to see all this effort.”

Rodriguez said she never wanted FSI to become an official College committee.

“It’s a political grassroots organization [and] it’s working really well that way,” Rodriguez said. “Our foundation is about how to improve the diversity awareness and equitability across faculty and staff.”