The Pursuit of Diversity

It is imperative that Harvard hire and tenure more women and scholars of color

At last Tuesday’s faculty meeting, Dean of Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser presented on the current composition of the faculty, focusing particularly on trends in the hiring of women and minorities. Given recent comments by administrators surrounding female and minority faculty, it is evident that there is still much that can be done to improve faculty diversity. Having a faculty that reflects Harvard’s increasingly diverse student body is critical, but unfortunately Harvard could be losing numerous qualified minorities due to the current hiring and tenure process. The loss of talented female applicants and applicants of color is an urgent issue to which more attention must be paid.

Zipser noted that while more women were hired this year than last, there are still additional factors that make it more difficult for women to thrive in an academic environment. These include a lack of mentorship and increased pressure to serve on committees. Given that female junior faculty leave at higher rates than their male counterparts, there is still much to be done to ensure the faculty better approaches gender parity.

In addition, Zipser described a plateau in the hiring of minorities, including underrepresented minorities. That is a deeply troubling trend. Minority faculty members already can feel that they must work harder to have their scholarship taken seriously because they are the only racial minority in their department, underscoring the importance of finding more scholars of color.

While Harvard should prioritize excellence in offering jobs, it must make the process of tenure transparent to all applicants. In the past decade, there have been clear indications that this process, while inherently difficult, is also riddled with latent biases and allegations of discrimination. Before 2003, there was no defined tenure track at all, and a lack of clarity still surrounds the process. Steps like the ad hoc committee meeting are described as “greatly shrouded in mystery” with “remarkably little [being] written about it,” keeping the process from being fully open. These challenges make it harder for minority professors to invest in the tenure track.

This issue is not an unimportant one. Lack of faculty diversity leaves minority students without a sufficient number of mentors who can relate to them. Faculty of color also tend to fall into roles supporting those students of color, even though that labor can overwork those faculty without necessarily leading to rewards in the tenure process.

We recognize the inherent obstacles to a broader range of professors—of Ph.D. holders, only 5.9 percent identify as African-American and 5.4 percent identify as Hispanic—and that the challenge of faculty diversity begins at the undergraduate level. But this just heightens the importance of getting the tenure process right for the relatively few minority and female junior faculty that are already here. At the end of the day, Harvard can do more to draw back the curtain, and in so doing, hopefully level the playing field for all scholars, regardless of gender or race.

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