For minority profs, time is scarce

When Stephen Pitti ’91 first joined Yale’s faculty, he served on 14 committees in his first year. As an eager young faculty member, alumnus and one of Yale’s first Latino professors, he was bombarded by requests to take on administrative and committee work. Pitti agreed to an unusually large number of these requests — and he paid the price, sacrificing sleep to balance his academic and administrative obligations.

Now, 10 years later, Pitti is a tenured professor, the master of Ezra Stiles College and a member of only a handful of committees. But looking back on his time at Yale, Pitti identified excessive committee work as a significant hurdle in the paths to tenure for female and minority junior faculty.

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“It made me care more about this place,” Pitti said of his committee assignments. “But there is such a thing as too much.”

Interviews with 13 faculty and administrators suggest that for many underrepresented minorities and women, the need for diversity on committees results in a disproportionate number of demands on their time. As a result, such professors, especially junior faculty, find themselves stretched thin. With less time available for research, their scholarship sometimes suffers, hurting their chances of receiving tenure.

Administrators and professors said Yale’s dependence on faculty committees to help make administrative decisions is a point of pride for the University. And committees need representatives from different faculty cohorts to make these decisions properly, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said.

While most of the professors who took issue with the balance of committee assignments recognized the importance of diversity, they also said Yale should consider diversifying its faculty, improving the mentoring of junior professors and, in select cases, de-emphasizing the importance of committee diversity.

SKEWED DISTRIBUTION
In many ways, the committee problem is a matter of numbers — there are simply not enough female or minority faculty at Yale to diversify every committee without doubling up on assignments.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, of Yale’s 244 term faculty, 98, or 40.2 percent, are women, while 63, or 25.8 percent, are minorities, though there is overlap between the two categories. The numbers shrink as professors get promoted. Of the 420 tenured faculty members, only 81, or 19.3 percent, are female, and 50, or 11.9 percent, are minorities.

But in the 2007-’08 academic year, there were 72 University-wide standing committees that could potentially have professors from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on them, said Hannah Brueckner, co-chair of the Women Faculty Forum. During that year, she said, there were 77 female and 327 male tenured faculty, meaning that if each committee needed one tenured woman, almost every one of them would receive an assignment.

And since many faculty members take sabbatical or are occupied with other administrative work, Brueckner said, the number of women actually available to serve on these standing committees is even smaller. As the numbers of minority faculty are similarly limited, the same effects apply, Pitti said.

A 2006-’07 Provost’s Office survey on faculty satisfaction found that “women who are full professors are significantly less satisfied than men who are full professors with committee and administrative responsibilities,” and that among the junior faculty “men are 50% more likely than women to say that teaching and administrative assignments are distributed fairly.”

The survey did not discuss the breakdown of minority versus non-minority responses — but interviews reveal that minorities, as well as women, feel the same frustration.

“My colleagues and I have felt there simply aren’t enough faculty of color and women to meet the demands,” said one Latina professor.

THE DOUBLE BIND
One solution to the problem of numerous committee demands is for professors to just say no, but many junior faculty members have difficulty doing so.

Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway explained that committee work often falls to junior faculty because their tenured colleagues find it much easier to decline assignments.

“The road to tenure is littered by faculty who were great citizens but didn’t get tenure,” Holloway said.

Holloway, too, battled committee work, though he said the then-chair of the history department protected him from over-committing to administrative work as he approached his tenure evaluation.

Both Holloway and Pitti said though they think department chairs should shield junior faculty — especially those nearing the end of their terms — from committee work, the onus is still on professors themselves to say no.

But Thomas DeFrantz, a visiting professor in theater studies who is black, said junior faculty are often afraid to do so. As a minority professor, he said he was asked to be on nearly every type of administrative committee when he was a junior faculty member but was only able to say no effectively once he attained tenure.

“When you’re not tenured there’s always this sort of specter of not being considered collegial,” DeFrantz said, noting that collegiality is an “invisible” factor in tenure evaluations.

He called the situation a double bind, saying that junior faculty can neither consistently accept nor decline committee work without negative consequences.

A female social science professor who wished to remain anonymous said women face a similar dilemma, aggravated by the differences in perceptions of female and male academics. Women who do a lot of committee work tend to be seen as good citizens, she said, but not necessarily as serious scholars.

“At the end of the day, I got tenure at Yale, which is pretty unusual,” the professor said. “But I felt like it slowed down my progress in terms of how much research I was able to get done.”

‘EVERYBODY’S THE SAME
But this may not be true for all women and all minorities, other professors said. History professor Carlos Eire, who is Cuban but does not self-identify as a minority, said he does not believe any particular demographic group is forced to do more committee work than another.

“As far as I know, everybody’s the same,” he said. “Nothing else enters into the picture — it’s just whoever can get the work done.”

Eire said his department is careful to protect all its junior faculty from doing too much committee work.

Lillian Tseng, an assistant professor of history of art, said she has not observed the phenomenon and believes the University, in her experience, is careful to distribute committee work more heavily to senior faculty. Junior faculty, she said, are generally able to focus on academic research.

The situation seems to vary across departments. Melinda Smith, an assistant professor and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department director of undergraduate studies, said she herself has not experienced undue committee demands. She attributes this, in part, to her department. The sciences, she said, protect their junior faculty, and the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department has no senior female faculty. But Smith said she has heard about the problem from her colleagues in different departments.

“Committee work does put more demands on a person’s time above and beyond a normal, average day’s work,” Smith said. “I can certainly see it might have that kind of ramification.”

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
Faculty and administrators collectively proposed three main solutions to the committee dilemma.

Judith Chevalier, the deputy provost for faculty development, said the administration encourages departments to recruit actively. Rather than waiting for candidates to apply, Chevalier said, departments should seek out well-qualified candidates who could help diversify the faculty. Every job search, she said, has an appointed diversity representative, whose job it is to ensure the committee explores all possible hiring options.

The University launched a diversity initiative in 2005 to add 30 professors to the minority faculty cohort by 2012. Since the 2003-’04 academic year, the number of women faculty, both tenured and term, has increased from 155 to 179, while the number of minority faculty has increased from 83 to 113.

Another option, Chevalier and other professors said, is to encourage senior faculty to advise junior faculty on which committee assignments to take or leave.

“Senior colleagues want you to succeed, so you often hear senior people saying ‘I wish so and so had talked to me before taking that on,’ ” Chevalier said. “Everyone needs to have the right information.”

A third — and perhaps more sparsely populated — camp of faculty suggest that diversity may not be as important as administrators believe.

“I’ve never been absolutely convinced that it’s always important to have a woman on a committee, that women see things very differently that men do,” said the female social science professor.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said in some cases, the individual needs of faculty may need to take precedence over administrative desires for committee diversity.

“My inclination would be to err on the side of judicious requests to non-tenured faculty,” Butler said. “No one should be overburdened because of their unique role in the faculty.”

As more Latino faculty were hired, Pitti said he found his committee burden somewhat lifted. And though, at first, he thought he had to agree to every request, he said, he eventually learned to say no.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    The role of director of undergraduate studies is (or should be) very demanding. It requires a much greater commitment than many committees.This is exactly the type of assignment a department should not assign to junior faculty. I was surprised to read of not one but two female assistant professors who are required to serve as DUS.

  • JasonM

    HERESY!

    “I’ve never been absolutely convinced that it’s always important to have a woman on a committee, that women see things very differently that men do,” said the female social science professor."

    Someone is begging to be excommunicated from the communion of the First Church of Diversity to whose creed assent is otherwise compulsory for all holy academics.

    Also, talk about the law of unintended consequences. Put diversity-mania up there with rent control and protectionist tariffs as textbook bad examples from Econ 101.

  • GSAS Alum

    Thanks for this great article on a really important issue.

  • jeff g

    What's the problem? Most professors are over paid and under worked. Wow, committee work must be difficult,sit around a table drink coffee and discuss the issue of the week. Did they ever hear of the term , earning your keep? Look at the medical industry, they have the doctors or interns working around the clock, how about major league baseball players, they have to start in the minor leagues and work their way up to the majors if they are good enough. This paper idolizes the professors at Yale, maybe your brown nosing for a better grade, I hope not.

  • Recent Alum

    “I’ve never been absolutely convinced that it’s always important to have a woman on a committee, that women see things very differently that men do,” said the female social science professor."

    I hope for the sake of the quoted female social science professor's prospects at getting tenure that she does not espouse this opinion in front of her peers.

  • Anonymous

    This article brings up an important issue often overlooked. Thanks for writing it!

  • Hiero II

    Mandated diversity creating unintended problems? PERISH THE THOUGHT.

  • Anonymous

    Great article exploring an important issue in academia. Jeff G (#4) needs to get a clue.