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University of Rochester Students Demand More Faculty Diversity

Students at the University of Rochester are demanding that university officials hire more faculty members from underrepresented groups, insisting that the administrators spend less time strategizing about diversity and make it a reality.

Promises for a more diverse faculty have echoed in the halls of the university for nearly a decade and wrought little to no gains, students say. A group of students has been meeting with administrators to move things along and a series of opinion pieces in the student newspaper has supported that effort.

In 1999, 200 undergraduate students staged a sit-in in the office of former President Thomas H. Jackson. That protest resulted in three university commitments: the creation of the Office of Minority Student Affairs; an increase in financial support for the university’s Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies; and a declaration from the former president that the university would seek to diversify its faculty, staff and students.

While the school has made strides in gender diversity, racial diversity among faculty remains stagnant. For instance, the number of women in tenured and tenure-track positions within the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering increased from 8 percent in 1980 to 21 percent in 2005. Overall, women make up about 28 percent of  tenured or tenure-track faculty.

Just 41 of the 1,200 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, or less than 4 percent, teaching at the 7,500-student university are from underrepresented groups.

In 2005, the university’s new President Joel Seligman announced a task force to address faculty diversity. In 2006, the task force comprised of various UR deans and professors submitted 31 recommendations to improve faculty diversity. The president accepted all 31 recommendations. Dr. Lynne Davidson, vice provost for faculty development and diversity, and Dr. Peter Lennie, dean of faculty, were charged with carrying out the recommendations.

Frustrated by the lack of diversity in the faculty ranks, Marquis Harrison contemplated transferring to Morehouse College during his first year to overcome the perpetual feeling of racial isolation. Anchored by a competitive financial-aid package, Harrison took stabs at campus diversity via the university newspaper, the Campus Times, and spearheaded the Minority Student Advisory Board, a student organization designed to advocate for diversity issues.

Harrison, a 2007 graduate who is conducting research as a UR Take Five Scholar this year, says the university’s approach to faculty diversity is lacking.

“Our problem is the university’s approach. They didn’t conduct a national search to lead the university-wide committee on diversity. [Davidson] has never been a faculty member and has little experience with diversity-related issues,” says Harrison.

Each of the six schools at the university have their own diversity-related initiatives, and that decentralized approach might also contribute to the slow pace of progress, Harrison says.

According to Davidson, there are a number of diversity-related initiatives in the works on many different fronts. “We are a very decentralized university. Each of the six schools have programs in place to address student, staff and faculty diversity, however these six school don’t always talk to each other,” she says.

Davidson, whose efforts began in January of 2007, insists the university is making a concerted effort to improve the numbers. “We’ve only been at it for year. In the fall of 2006, we had 37 faculty members of color. In the fall of 2007, we had 41. But again, hiring happens at the department and school level. I’m not always aware of openings,” she says.

Davidson, like many diversity officials, lacks the authority to hire. Her power lies in her ability to appoint and influence. Since taking the helm of the university diversity initiative, she has appointed a diversity official in all six schools. She convenes these officials regularly to discuss their progress.

Currently, the campus administration is focusing much of its efforts on increasing the applicant pool and creating a pipeline of Ph.D. students to become UR faculty.

For the fiscal year of 2008, the university pledged $400,000 for special opportunity hires. For fiscal year 2009, the university plans to pledge $500,000 to recruit diverse faculty from underrepresented groups.

In 2007, Dr. Joann Moody, a leading expert in faculty diversity, was asked to advise university officials on expanding the applicant pool and preventing unconscious bias from permeating the hiring process. Those lessons were incorporated into a hiring resource package.

“College is supposed to prepare its students for the real world. The real world is diverse, and we are not being exposed to that,” Harrison says.

UR is not alone in its struggles to have a more diverse faculty. In 2005, underrepresented minority faculty made up only 16.5 percent of all full-time faculty at degree-granting institutions and the numbers have experienced little growth since then.

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