Elizabeth Alexander, poet and professor, to depart for Columbia
Faculty question Yale’s commitment to diversity
Famed poet and English professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84, who recited a poem at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, will leave Yale for Columbia at the end of this academic year.
Alexander’s departure is just one of three departures of black professors affiliated with the African American Studies Department announced in the last few months. Those departures have led many to question the University’s ability to not just hire, but retain a diverse faculty.
Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Vanessa Agard-Jones ’00 will leave for Columbia alongside Alexander. Likewise, Anthropology, African American Studies and American Studies professor Jafari Allen will also depart at the end of this year for the University of Miami. Several professors attributed these departures to systemic problems with Yale’s appointment and tenure system and the culture surrounding it, especially as these affect faculty of color.
Agard-Jones said Yale excels at hiring diverse faculty members, but its retention rates for black faculty in particular have been “strikingly poor.”
“I am dismayed that rather than identify these losses as part of a structural pattern, [departures of diverse faculty members] are instead chalked up to attrition at the whims of individual choice,” Agard-Jones said. “I know that my alma mater can do better, and I encourage all of us to continue to think about ways to create a thriving environment for scholars of color at Yale to become leaders in their fields — while also having the support they need to become university leaders.”
While Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler said that faculty turnover is inevitable, Yale’s peer institutions are taking concrete action to address the issue — action some professors said they would like to see brought to New Haven. In April, Columbia announced it will commit an additional $33 million to its faculty diversity initiative, started in 2012 with $30 million.
Yale, meanwhile, is still catching up.
“We have not made nearly enough progress on diversifying the faculty, and my colleagues in the higher administration know that I have long believed we need to have powerful commitments from on high, both in continued, stated vision and also with extensive resource allocation,” Alexander said. “Yale lags behind its peers where we should be leaders, and [faculty diversity] goals, in my opinion, should be a priority, as they are elsewhere, including Columbia.”
The University took a significant step in November when it appointed Anthropology Department chair Richard Bribiescas the first deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. His appointment came on the heels of the release of the February “Yale Diversity Summit Report of Discussions and Recommendations,” which was circulated to faculty by the Provost Benjamin Polak in November 2014.
But 10 months into his tenure, Bribiescas has not publicized any specific benchmarks in regards to diversity hiring. And faculty have taken notice.
“Junior faculty of color don’t stay and senior people don’t come unless they see indications of a welcoming and supportive environment,” History, American Studies and African American Studies professor Glenda Gilmore said. “Meanwhile, our peer institutions have executed robust plans to increase diversity on their faculties, and they have succeeded at our expense.”
Bribiescas has stated that developing an effective strategic plan to promote faculty diversity and the process of establishing gender equity is “too important to rush.” He added that the administration is currently working on a strategic diversity and gender equity plan, which will involve partnering with University leadership and soliciting ideas both from within and outside Yale.
“What is most important, beyond benchmarks, and even resources, is proactive buy-in and commitment by the University community. Commitment to faculty diversity and gender equity is resolute at all levels of the Yale leadership,” Bribiescas wrote in an email to the News. “However the success of faculty diversity and gender equity efforts will hinge on crucial conversations in search committees, hallways, classrooms and offices across campus.”
But these abstract goals have not kept professors of color on campus. English professor and African American Studies chair Jacqueline Goldsby GRD ’98 noted that Columbia recruited several professors specifically away from Yale, since their new efforts appeal to professors looking for greater job security.
If part of Yale’s charge is to recruit and retain underrepresented faculty, Goldsby said, there need to be real resources behind that effort to make it a reality.
“I don’t think we should be embarrassed or shy about having a goal and being able to hit it, just like we had a five year plan to recruit more students in STEM, for example,” she said. “Still, I want it to be sustained … I would rather us build steadily and strongly, and with an open mind for many years to come.”