I was recently talking to my friend about our schedules for next semester when she voiced a sad reality about her courses: as a junior STEM major, she has yet to see a single African American professor standing in front of her classrooms. She has not learned from a professor who looks like her.
That experience is certainly not unique. As an Economics and Mathematics major, I am always surprised when I see a professor of Asian descent teaching an economics course at Yale, mostly because of how rare it is. In my sophomore spring, I took an econometrics course taught by professor Yuichi Kitamura, and it was profoundly encouraging to see someone with the same cultural and ethnic background as a leader in my academic field.
Unfortunately, my STEM major friend has not been able to find the same inspiration.
Many of us find role models in our professors. For some of us, these professors invigorate our intellectual hunger. At the same time, we have to recognize that the most fulfilling relationships between students and mentors do not rest solely on common intellectual interests. When students study under an instructor who they can identify with on the basis of shared heritage, they gain a strong, potentially life-changing advisor.
The benefits of students seeing themselves in their professors may seem amorphous, but we ought to go back to the basis for role models. When we see a successful person who shares similar life experiences, we come to believe that we, too, can succeed. As a result, we are driven to work harder. In those dark moments when we doubt ourselves, a role model with the same identity can provide hope and motivation.
According to the Yale College Council’s 2016 Fall Survey, 78 percent of Latinx undergraduates at Yale would be more likely to seek mentorship from an instructor of the same background. For African-Americans it is 83 percent; for Native Americans, 91 percent; for first-generation students, 63 percent and for low-income students, 63 percent.
Yale has begun a $50 million-dollar initiative to bolster faculty diversity and development, but as with all other challenges at our University, diversifying the faculty is far easier said than done. For example, other institutions are also trying to strengthen the diversity of their faculty, meaning that they vie for the same professors as Yale. Sometimes, we inevitably lose the bid.
This is but one of many challenges. Variations among departments and majors only further complicate the goal of a diverse faculty. For example, it is common knowledge that professors who teach in the Ethnicity, Race and Migration major are more racially diverse than instructors in the engineering department. These imbalances raise questions about whether all undergraduates have access to faculty mentors of color. To make things worse, many professors of color have left Yale in the past few years because they felt they would receive stronger academic support at another university.
Despite the complexity of the issue, students should still join the conversation and help generate concrete next steps for the University. Because our instructors are such powerful sources of inspiration, we have the credibility to speak with the administrators of our respective academic departments and majors to understand what role we can play in promoting faculty diversity.
This will not be an easy or straightforward process, but we must continue pushing for diversity because it improves the academic environment for ourselves and our peers. This push often seems like it takes place strictly within the confines of Woodbridge Hall, but I sincerely believe that students can take on a more involved role.
Tonight, the Yale College Council will hold a town hall on faculty diversity. We hope you will join the conversation.
Peter Huang is a junior in Silliman College. He is the president of the Yale College Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .