Provost search should keep balance in mind

Outgoing Provost Susan Hockfield keeps breaking barriers. In 1998, Hockfield, a neurobiologist, added a much-needed scientific presence to the administration when she became the dean of the Graduate School. When she became the University’s provost in 2002, Hockfield became Yale’s top female administrator. And when Hockfield steps into her new role as the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in December, she will become not only the first president of MIT to have a background in the life sciences, but the first woman ever to head that institution. While Hockfield’s move to Massachusetts is great for her and for MIT, her departure leaves a void in the Yale administration in several important demographic areas. As University officials search for a new provost, we hope they keep in mind the need for diversity in the administration.

Not only was Hockfield the top-ranked female administrator, she was also the only scientist among the University’s top administrators. University President Richard Levin is an economist. Yale College Dean Peter Salovey is a psychologist. And Graduate School Dean Jon Butler is an historian. For MIT, Hockfield’s appointment means she will become the school’s first president with a natural science background. But to Yale, her departure means that she leaves no scientists in the upper levels of the University’s administration.

It’s vital that Yale replace Hockfield with a scientist. Given the ambitious Science Hill building project — in which the provost will undoubtedly play a large role — and the rethinking of science education, it would be a major mistake not to have a scientist among the University’s highest-ranked administrators.

Establishing academic balance is more important than establishing gender balance when trying to fill Hockfield’s position, and it’s more vital that the University pick a scientist for this position than pick a woman. What troubles us, though, is that the search for a replacement is likely to come down to a decision between picking a scientist and picking a woman. Female science faculty — especially those with tenure — are much rarer at Yale than they should be. The University is making strides in this regard, but progress, as can be expected, is slow. The hiring of two female physics professors over the summer, for instance, tripled the number of female professors in the department. While it’s great that the University hired two women for those positions, it’s a little shameful that there was only one female physics professor before then. That the University will probably have to choose between picking a woman and picking a scientist reveals a troubling feature of Yale’s faculty and administrative composition.

Even with Hockfield, a female scientist, as provost, the administration still remained homogenous. High level administrators from minority racial or ethnic groups are rare — a problem that is also unlikely to be remedied by the appointment of a new provost. Granted, picking a provost should not come down to finding candidates that have the perfect combination of desirable demographic and academic characteristics. But the fact that a new provost would need to be represent all three groups — by being a female minority scientist — to even begin to approximate diversity in Yale’s top administrative positions reveals a troubling phenomenon indeed.

Comments