Resurfaced 2009 report sheds light on struggles of minority faculty, staff

Rebecca Tauber

Departures of faculty of color in 2007 prompted the formation of the Faculty Staff Initiative (FSI), a grassroots group that examined the experiences of minority faculty and staff at the College. Led by Professor of Latina/o studies Maria Elena Cepeda, then-Professor of Africana Studies at the College and current Associate Professor of English at Rutgers Stéphane Robolin and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang, FSI published a report in 2009 that outlined many problems faculty and staff of color faced and provided suggestions for concrete future steps. 

The recent cancellation of courses by Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Kai Green ’07 and Assistant Professor of English Kimberly Love has compelled a closer examination of the College’s history regarding its retention and well-being of faculty of color. Contributors to the FSI Report said that the problems presented by the report are still relevant, and administrators said that they recognize those problems and are committed to working to address them.

Professor of Art Laylah Ali ’91, who signed the report, maintained the continued significance of the report’s findings. “The College’s optimistic POC rhetoric and statistics do not always match what is happening on the ground, with colleagues, in meetings, in our town, etc. for many faculty of color, both untenured and tenured,” she said. “We need to really address both recruitment and retention of staff and faculty of color not simply through words and reports and committees — there have been quite a few of these in my almost 18 years as faculty here — but through actions that will profoundly and rapidly change the conditions under which we are operating, not just put out fires or nibble at the edges. And the College has historically treated faculty of color who challenge the College’s mainstream, outdated approaches as troublemakers or as difficult individuals instead of hearing the truth in what they are raising, often at great cost to themselves.”

Dean of the Faculty Denise Buell recognized the struggles of minority faculty as a problem that requires collaborative effort to resolve. “This is work that’s on our minds all the time, that we’re collaborating around, she said. “This is work that can’t just be done in or from Hopkins Hall. It’s really important to have college leadership committed to improving the institutional climate, to make it one that is truly equitable for all. But it’s not sufficient just for leadership to say these are our core values.  The entire campus community needs to own and participate in the work if we are going to live into these values.”

While the College often creates committees and issues reports, Wang emphasized the unique nature of the FSI report. “It’s almost unprecedented to see a grassroots working group that just appears, especially among untenured junior people,” she explained. 

According to Robolin, the unconventional nature of the report stemmed from what he characterized as the administration’s unwillingness to work on the problems raised by minority faculty around the time of the departure of many professors of color in 2007. “There was very explicit discussion between us and the dean of the faculty,” he said. “We didn’t feel as though that sense of crisis was taken as seriously as those of us on the ground felt it to be. Therefore, we decided to move on our own.”

The College viewed these departures as isolated incidents. Then-Dean of the Faculty William Wagner, recalled his impressions from 2007. “I can only go by what the faculty of color who left told me in my conversations with them,” he said. “In all the cases that I personally dealt with save one, the reasons given concerned professional opportunities and aspirations and personal and family circumstances, and the move made good sense from those perspectives.” However, Wagner said that he recognized the common difficulties that faculty of color faced. “This is not to say that the particular challenges of being a faculty member of color working at Williams and living in the northern Berkshires did not factor into individuals’ equations,” he said.

FSI members believed there were alternative reasons for the faculty members’ departures. “There’s always a narrative that it’s an individual reason, and that it’s not actually a problem with the College or the culture around race, a refusal to connect the dots,” Wang said. 

Although 47 faculty and staff attended at least one FSI meeting, and 39 faculty and staff signed the report, the group was not positively received by all. “FSI was never warmly received by the administration,” Wang said. “We were putting in so much unacknowledged uncompensated labor that was actually super helpful for the college, to know what the issues were for minority faculty and staff. Because it was not officially condoned by them, they were not only not receptive, they were pretty hostile to it. We were made to feel that we were these rogue disobedient faculty.” 

Last October, at a faculty meeting, Buell and Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Leticia Haynes ’99 gave a presentation titled “Faculty hiring, retention and climate,” providing data on this issue.

The presentation included retention rates of faculty by race/ethnicity and gender from 1990-2017. Although this data did not reveal staggering disparities in faculty retention among the different groups, Buell stressed that these numbers could be misleading. “If you’re just looking at the percentages, the retention rates actually look good, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” she said. “Every faculty departure makes a difference. Proportionally, the impact of the departure of a faculty member from an underrepresented group is large.”

The impact of the absence of faculty of color has been a persistent problem beyond the past 10 years. An interview published in the Record with Jacques Payne ’90, an original member of the Coalition Against Racist Education (CARE), recalled the reasons for a takeover of the dean’s office in 1988. “The issue was basically over minority faculty on campus, and recruiting minority faculty,” Payne said (“Former CARE member discusses ethnic protests,” Mar. 6, 1990).

Years later, the 21-page FSI report focused on the problems that come from the small size of minority groups at the College. The document detailed many issues faculty and staff of color experienced, from administrative challenges to added responsibilities to general quality of life to the difficulties many professors faced by being hired into programs as opposed to departments. 

In addition to structural issues, the report explained the extra workload placed on minority faculty, who are often the only scholars at the College in their particular fields and the only faculty of color in their respective departments. “Thus, faculty of color, while staying immersed in the research and pedagogical concerns of their field, must also take on extra-classroom and extra-research obligations,” it stated. The report also raised the concern that faculty of color lacked mentoring for their careers.

As the FSI research progressed, its members soon realized the problem extended beyond faculty and to staff. “Finally, what it ended up being was actually an organ for staff members in general to have a voice because staff had very little voice at Williams with their senior people,” Wang said.

The second half of the FSI report outlined problems facing staff of color, including lack of mentoring and support as well as exclusion from the community. “Support staff in particular feel they are at the very bottom of our institutional hierarchy, and thereby, less valued by others,” the report said. The report also raised issues regarding the absence of management training and participation in administrative policy-making. 

In light of the issues raised, the FSI report gave suggestions to improve the experiences of faculty and staff of color. For faculty, report suggestions included, “Formalize the relationship between departments and programs … offer regular professional development around diversity and inclusion,” and more.

For staff, the report proposed that the College “establish a systematic method of tracking staff experience … [and] infuse the campus climate with a sense of community that includes staff,” among other recommendations. 

Despite these recommendations and the report’s presentation to the administration, FSI members felt that the College did not take action following the release of the report in 2009. “I think there’s a surface way in which diversity is trotted out, but the deep structural work and the work of thinking deeply and hard about the culture at Williams was not done,” Wang said.

Robolin extended the issues raised in the FSI report to problems in the country at large. “The fact of the matter is that this is still America, and colleges and universities regardless of their sizes reflect America’s problems in their own particular ways,” he said. “It is the duty of each of the colleges and universities that express America’s problems to confront, reckon with and find resolutions to them. And FSI was born precisely because Williams was not adequately or appropriately responding to them.”

Wang believes that this lack of recognition and work regarding minority faculty experiences and retention rates connects the 2009 report to Green’s and Love’s decisions to cancel their classes this semester. “I think the concrete evidence of people still leaving, as we know with Green and Love experiencing violence and feeling so traumatized by this place … shows that many of the issues raised in 2009 are actually still here, sadly.”

The data presented by Buell and Haynes last fall quantified the persistence of struggles by minority faculty. A survey conducted by the Higher Ed Research Institute in 2016-2017, asked faculty, “Please indicate the extent to which discrimination (in forms such as prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia) has been a source of stress for you during the past year,” and compared the College’s results by gender and race with other institutions. Female faculty reported experiencing higher rates of stress due to discrimination compared to male faculty, and faculty of color reported higher rates compared to white faculty, both at the College and within the comparison group.

The presentation also detailed the ways in which the College is seeking to solve these problems, including through research and residency fellowships promoting diversity, hiring workshops to educate on implicit bias before conducing searches, surveys and listening sessions and more. 

Buell and Haynes stressed the importance of listening to all faculty regarding these issues. “We want to make sure that we have a climate where people can lift up any kind of concerns that they have so that we can address them, and we are diligently supporting grassroots efforts to further equity, inclusion and diversity on campus,” Haynes said. 

Some of these efforts have further raised the issues facing minority faculty and staff. The FSI report is cited in the Curricular Planning Committee (CPC) Report on Asian American studies (AAS) released last Thursday regarding the creation of an Asian American Studies program. While working on the report, Grace Fan ’19 and Tyler Tsay ’19 brought the FSI report back into current conversation by connecting it to the working group and insisting on its reference in the CPC report. “Over a decade later, many of the concerns raised in the FSI final report continue to persist and remain unaddressed–for example, institutional and cultural practices and norms of behavior that disproportionately harm faculty and staff of color,” the CPC report said. “Recent public statements from Professors Kai Green and Kimberly Love have decried the ‘college’s violent practices’ against people of color at Williams.” The suggestions made in the FSI report helped inform the recommendations made in the CPC report, such as with the CPC document stressing the importance of mentoring and hiring multiple faculty
members together. 

Both the CPC and FSI reports stress the importance of diverse faculty to the College as a whole. “Asian American studies is an intellectually important and vibrant interdisciplinary field of study that is indispensable to a liberal arts education,” the CPC report wrote. The FSI report also connected its goals to the College’s by quoting the institution’s mission statement, writing, “The presence of minority faculty, administrative staff and support staff … are essential prerequisites to ‘the finest possible liberal
arts education.’”