Phoebe Gould

As faculty members and administrators continue to discuss implementation strategy for a recently announced $50 million faculty-diversity initiative, the mixed success of a 2008 initiative to bolster South Asian scholarship may serve as a cautionary tale that flashy multimillion initiatives do not guarantee success.

The $75 million India Initiative, announced in 2008 by former University President Richard Levin, was supposed to launch Yale into a new era of “unprecedented” engagement with South Asian scholarship by supporting the MacMillan Center’s South Asian Studies Council and funding faculty hiring and new academic programs. The council itself has no hiring power but can partner with departments, whose hires in South Asian Studies would receive the initiative’s funding via the MacMillan Center. But eight years after the announcement, the alarming attrition rate of junior South Asian scholars has overshadowed vibrant academic programming and jeopardized the long-term future of South Asian scholarship at Yale. According to data that professors provided to the News, eight of 11 faculty members hired between 2006 and 2014 who engage in South Asian scholarship have left or are planning to leave Yale.

“We have lost all of our junior faculty — six in the last three years — except for one position in History. People have left or been denied promotion for various reasons,” South Asian Studies Council Chair and Political Science professor Karuna Mantena said. “Our program and major are doing okay, but it is important to know what happened to the University’s commitment, and to learn from this as we move forward with other initiatives for faculty recruitment and curriculum development.”

Professors interviewed said the India Initiative has been instrumental in developing the Council’s robust academic events and programs. But the continuous attrition of faculty members means that there are simply not enough professors to sustain all these programs. Political Science assistant professor Tariq Thachil, who will be leaving for a tenured position at Vanderbilt this coming fall, said student interest and attendance in the South Asian Studies programs have increased over the past few years, but if the number of professors studying South Asia continues to decrease, the University may be forced to cut back on programming. Mantena said that the South Asian Studies major and program are currently sustained by just a few active senior faculty members, part-time lecturers, visiting scholars and postdoctoral scholars — most of whom are not permanent faculty.

Despite the current lull in momentum, the ambitious India Initiative achieved tangible results during its early years. At the time of its 2008 announcement, the Yale India Initiative boasted a budget of $75 million, with $30 million from Yale’s unrestricted endowment resources and the rest from donations. Faculty members interviewed said that the council and South Asian Studies in general enjoyed “tremendous” growth during the first several years of the initiative, including the hiring of almost a dozen faculty members in related fields.

However, many junior professors hired during the growth of South Asian studies have since left Yale, either voluntarily or because of tenure denials. In particular, the denial of tenure to two scholars of South Asia in the History of Art and Linguistics Departments last year has damaged morale and raised concerns about how nontraditional fields such as South Asian Studies are judged in promotion and tenure reviews.

A scholar of South Asia who has left Yale recently said junior South Asian Studies-affiliated professors have tended to perform poorly in Yale’s tenure reviews. The professor said one of the reasons for these denials is that South Asian Studies scholars’ research does not have “broad appeal,” which the professor claims is a coded way of passing judgment about the value of the field. Similar charges of scholarship bias have been leveled by professors in other newer fields, such as Ethnicity, Race and Migration.

“The two tenure denials were surprising to us and that led to an effect where other junior faculty members felt vulnerable,” Mantena said. “There was a lot of demoralization. There is a feeling that some fields still don’t see South Asian study as an essential field.”

Political Science Department Chair Steven Wilkinson, who studies communal conflict in South Asia and whose hiring was also partially funded by the India Initiative, said he does not believe South Asian scholars are being disproportionately cut at the tenure review. But he acknowledged that Yale’s long tenure clock does lead to undesired attrition of junior faculty.

Still, Thachil said there were “concerning aspects” in both tenure denials last year, noting that these decisions played a role in his impending voluntary departure. He added that there have been general concerns about Yale’s broader interest in sustaining South Asian Studies.

“It was easier to leave after seeing the decisions made against my South Asian Studies colleagues,” Thachil said. “There is tremendous institutional fluctuation. What we have heard is that there has been an institutional shift under the new administration [and] it doesn’t seem like there is the same level of enthusiasm.”

The level of institutional support for South Asian scholarship is hard to determine due to the uncertain status of the India Initiative and the availability of funding. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Tamar Gendler ’87 told the News that the MacMillan Center “has not reduced its South Asia funding.” But Mantena said that when she took over as chair of the council in 2014, the Initiative had funded three junior-faculty slots. Yet when two of the three faculty members left, their departments were told that there was no initiative funding available to replace them.

“As far as I know, the India Initiative allowed junior positions to be hired, but that money seems to be gone now,” Mantena said. “We have lost the push on the junior faculty hiring.”

Political Science professor and MacMillan Center Director Ian Shapiro GRD ’83 LAW ’87, however, reaffirmed the center’s commitment to the India Initiative and to the support of South Asian Studies more broadly. He said that the center has not reduced its support for relevant faculty positions or teaching.

“In the instances where South Asia faculty are leaving, I will be surprised if any of the relevant departments decide not to replace them,” Shapiro said. “Certainly I don’t know of any such plans.”

Wilkinson added that the Political Science Department will try to replace the loss of Thachil and expects continued support from the MacMillan Center for the hiring of scholars who study South Asia.

Still, some faculty in South Asian Studies expressed doubts about the efficacy of the India Initiative, or of any similar new initiative designed to promote faculty diversity.

“It’s great to have a new initiative, but a lot of money was already spent [in the India Initiative],” Mantena said. “And we didn’t really learn anything and didn’t retain too many people.”

South Asian Studies can only be taken as a second undergraduate major in Yale College.