Building a diverse faculty requires new effort

When asked, Yale’s top administrators often seem to say the right things about diversity. Every time they are challenged on the University’s record, they offer clear statements emphasizing their hopes of building a student body and hiring a faculty that, in Provost Andrew Hamilton’s words, more closely “mirrors the diversity of society.” At times, they have also offered the actions to back up their rhetoric — filing a brief before the Supreme Court in defense of affirmative action two years ago, or creating a new initiative to expand the number of minority applicants at the Graduate School.

But that doesn’t make the statistics any less troubling when it comes to diversity among Yale’s tenured faculty. According to a 2002 report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Yale had the lowest percentage of black tenured professors in the entire Ivy League. (That fact is more distressing given that even at the top-ranked school, Columbia, only 4.3 percent of tenured professors were black.) Likewise, when it comes to the sciences, women are sharply underrepresented, as well. The result is that Yale’s undergraduates suffer, taught by a faculty that is increasingly irreflective of the diversity of the student body.

We believe the University is sincere in its desire to build a more diverse faculty, and we realize there is no easy fix for the lack of underrepresented minorities among tenured professors at Yale or other American universities. The challenge is translating what appears to be a genuine commitment to diversity to actual diversity — a leap that requires Yale to be proactive, and not simply reactive. A case study in what not to do can be seen at Harvard, where new initiatives aimed at increasing the number of female scientists on the faculty came only after President Lawrence Summers’ controversial comments on gender and science. Such efforts are undoubtedly necessary to counteract the disastrous message Summers’ statements likely sent to prospective Harvard professors, but they also seem half-hearted — an effort at damage control rather than a genuine commitment to equality.

Yale, to a lesser degree, risks falling into the same trap. Facing criticism about diversity on its faculty, the University has pursued some worthwhile steps, but often without the urgency or the boldness that suggests the University sees this as a major problem. Now, Yale must convince the University community, along with prospective hires, that this rhetoric is more than lip service intended to defend against public protest. While maintaining its commitment to attracting the best academic talent, Yale must intensify its efforts to recruit throughout the world for underrepresented minorities who are at the top of their fields.

Just as importantly, Yale must make very clear its desire to become a leader among universities in building a diverse faculty, and it must initiate a public discussion on how to achieve that goal. Doing so might not yield immediate results, but it would signal to top minority academics that Yale is a place where they will be welcomed. And until that statement is made, when Yale is questioned about the diversity of its faculty, it will have to keep searching for answers.