On Founders Day morning this past Wednesday, a large poster condemning the lack of faculty diversity at Yale appeared on Cross Campus, only to be removed several hours later. Still, the poster, which survives digitally on the popular Facebook page “Overheard at Yale,” has prompted discussion among professors and students about not only the composition of Yale’s faculty, but also the underlying issues that led to the problems identified by the poster.
“The students are waiting. Your move, Yale,” the poster read. The yards-wide sign also illustrated the disparity between undergraduate and faculty diversity in several large charts and graphs: 42 percent of the Yale College student population is of minority descent, compared to just 17 percent of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Additionally, there has been just a 1 percent average increase in the number of black professors each century since Yale’s founding — a number that appalled many of the poster’s Facebook viewers.
But while students and faculty interviewed agreed that the statistics are concerning, they also identified different factors beyond Yale’s hiring practices that contribute to the lack of faculty diversity on campus.
Fiona Scott Morton, an economics professor at the School of Management, said the major problem lies with the lack of diversity in the hiring pool for professorships and not with the University’s reluctance to hire professors who come from minority backgrounds. Academic careers usually attract people with some financial stability, Scott Morton said, adding that many talented prospective professors who come from immigrant, first-generation or underprivileged families end up choosing to work in industries that generate higher incomes than academia.
Scott Morton added that while the Economics Department at the SOM tries hard to recruit underrepresented faculty, the place to make a real difference is within the current undergraduate population. The University can encourage more undergraduates of color to pursue careers in academia, Scott Morton emphasized, so that the pool of individuals qualified to become professors can be more diverse in the future.
Crystal Kong ’18, co-community development chair for the Asian American Students Alliance, expressed a similar sentiment.
“It’s very well-documented that students with lower incomes tend to major in ‘useful’ fields, such as pre-law and pre-med,” she said. “The same demographics who are low-income also tend to be minority.”
In addition, if students do not see professors of color at their schools, they may be less motivated to enter academia themselves, said Katie McCleary ’18, social chair for the Association of Native Americans at Yale. She said professors with the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds as students are able to act as role models for students. There is only one Native American professor in the FAS, she said, adding that the University is sending the message that professors from Native American backgrounds do not have a place on campus.
Still, Kong noted that the lower number of minorities in the pool of prospective professors is not an excuse for the lack of faculty diversity on campus, which she attributed largely to the University’s inability to retain faculty of color. In recent months, English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84, who recited a poem at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, as well as two other black professors with ties to the African American Studies department, have announced that they will leave Yale at the end of this academic year. Alexander and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Vanessa Agard-Jones will go to Columbia University, which recently committed an additional $33 million to its faculty diversity initiative.
Titania Nguyen ’18, political chair of the Vietnamese Students Association at Yale and co-chair of the Asian American Studies Task Force, said Yale has not made a comparable effort to invest in faculty diversity. Yale’s reputation has been successful in bringing minority professors to campus, but the administration has failed to offer enough support to make them stay, she said.
“Yale is Yale, [and] unless the number of talented minority faculty is zero, Yale should be able to get them to come,” Nguyen said. “[But] many minority professors have left, being lured away by better tenure offers.”
Reminding minority faculty members that they are wanted on campus, Kong said, is an important role that students can play to address the lack of faculty diversity. The support that the poster garnered online is a positive sign, she added.
Scott Morton said the discussion the poster sparked is part of a healthy debate that will make campus a better place. As a faculty member, Scott Morton expects and relies on students to direct the way they want Yale to go.
“I think students should always push the University to try hard,” Scott Morton said.
According to a faculty head count performed in the fall of 2013, 2.8 percent of Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors are Hispanic, 3.5 percent are African American and 9 percent are Asian.