One week after the University announced a $50 million faculty diversity initiative, Yale is losing a professor whose work spans four departments.
Anthropology and East Asian Studies professor Karen Nakamura GRD ’01 announced in a Nov. 4 statement on her personal website that she will leave Yale to teach at the University of California, Berkeley at the end of the semester. Last spring, Nakamura was offered an endowed professorship and more laboratory resources than she currently receives at Yale. Her colleagues, who have repeatedly called on University officials over the last year to work to help retain Nakamura — who is a tenured Asian-American professor — said losing such a talented and interdisciplinary professor damages the Anthropology Department and diminishes Yale’s broader faculty diversity.
Anthropology professor William Kelly, who advised Nakamura’s dissertation, described the University’s inability to keep Nakamura at Yale as “a very strong failure of nerve and imagination.”
“This is somebody of quite significant dimension who is leaving,” Kelly said. “The [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] administration [is] uninterested and incompetent in addressing the issues of retaining diverse faculty.”
Nakamura said leaving was a difficult decision, and criticized the $50 million faculty diversity initiative announced by University leaders last week as “smoke and mirrors” that does not fully address issues with faculty retention.
At Yale, Nakamura is involved in the Anthropology, East Asian Studies, Film Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Departments and the LGBT Studies Committee. Her work includes research on Japanese people with disabilities and writings on transcending the gender binary. Nakamura has taught several introductory lecture courses at Yale, including “Introduction to Visual Anthropology,” as well as the popular seminar “Ethnographic Filmmaking.”
Several of Nakamura’s colleagues interviewed said her ability to reach students of different backgrounds using a variety of media, including film, is notable.
“She showed them a whole new medium for expressing social science inquiry,” Kelly said of the students in “Ethnographic Filmmaking.”
At UC Berkeley, Nakamura will be the chair of Disabilities Studies and a professor of anthropology. According to Nakamura’s Nov. 4 statement, UC Berkeley will provide her with new centrally located lab space devoted to researching disabilities. UC Berkeley hired her as part of its Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, an initiative to address social justice and inclusion.
“Both my partner … and I feel a very strong commitment to issues of social justice and inclusion,” Nakamura wrote. “We are thrilled at the opportunity to become members of a public institution where that is a fundamental part of its DNA.”
According to anthropology professor Helen Siu, who taught Nakamura as a graduate student, Yale’s Anthropology Department is smaller than those at many at other schools, which means Nakamura’s departure has a larger impact on the department than that of a professor in another department might.
While the financial details behind Nakamura’s decision to leave have not been released by the University or Nakamura herself, her colleagues said the administration was unwilling to offer her the same resources she will have at UC Berkeley. Kelly described the UC Berkeley offer as “very attractive” and added that the University administration was uninterested in making serious efforts to retain Nakamura.
“What she wants is a respectful, self-reflective environment for her research and students,” Siu said. “It’s painful to see Nakamura leave. I’m still trying to get over it.”
Nakamura’s departure sheds light on larger problems with the University’s priorities on the makeup of its faculty, Siu said. In meetings with the FAS administration over the past year, Siu and Kelly said they argued the case for providing the resources necessary to retain Nakamura. Siu said the administration showed a lack of confidence in the kind of versatile and flexible intellectual vision that Nakamura has.
According to Kelly, Nakamura’s announcement comes in the aftermath of several other faculty departures in the Anthropology Department. Kelly said four women and two people of color have left the department in the last two years and have yet to be replaced. Other prominent faculty of color who have recently announced their intentions to depart include English and African American Studies professor Elizabeth Alexander ’84 and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor Vanessa Agard-Jones ’00. They are both leaving for Columbia University.
Nakamura said she was part of a “cohort” of African American and Asian American professors the University hired between 2004 and 2009. Retaining faculty is easier through a cohort of faculty members, she added. Now, Nakamura said she is the last member of a cohort in the Anthropology department that has already dissolved.
“It’s a huge blow to the department,” she added.
But according to FAS Dean Tamar Gendler, the numbers of FAS faculty who departed after December 2014 or who will depart after December 2015 show that more white male professors are leaving Yale than women or faculty of color. Of tenured professors who left last year or who are leaving next year for tenured positions at other universities, six were male and five were female, Gendler said. Nine of these professors were white, while only one was African-American and one was Asian-American. Of the 15 senior faculty retirement announcements during the same period, all were white male professors.
Still, the University has recently taken steps to bring more women and underrepresented minorities to the faculty. Last week, University Provost Benjamin Polak and University President Peter Salovey unveiled a new initiative that aims to increase faculty diversity. While much of the funding will go to hiring a more diverse faculty across all of Yale’s professional schools and the FAS, some of the money is designated for improving faculty retention by creating a University-wide teaching academy for minority faculty.
Siu said greater attention should be put on helping the current faculty at Yale. To do otherwise is a waste of time and energy, she added.
“Retaining the current faculty is far cheaper than trying to go out and seek others,” Siu said. “We have this initiative while completely forgetting those [professors] we already have here … What a waste.”
Kelly said a number of FAS faculty members are concerned about what they perceive to be an institutional emphasis on fiscal austerity at the cost of educational pedagogy. Kelly added that the new faculty diversity initiative does not address the complexities of faculty diversification and retention.
Nakamura’s next research project at UC Berkeley will look into using robotic and prosthetic technologies to solve problems of aging and disability in both the United States and in Japan.
Correction, Nov. 10: A previous version of this article stated that Nakamura will be an associate professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. In fact, she will be a professor of anthropology.