'Party of One': Diversity and Isolation in Harvard's Faculty

These stories provide a window into what it’s like to be an underrepresented minority professor at Harvard, an old and powerful institution that has openly struggled with faculty diversity in the past and present.
By Abigail L. Simon

Just 24 years ago, in 1992, Melissa E. B. Franklin became the first woman to receive tenure in Harvard’s physics department. She remained the only female professor in that department for a full three years, until Mara Prentiss was tenured in 1995.

Today, sun streams through the glassy windows of Franklin’s spacious office in the Lyman Laboratory building. Franklin has just finished resolving a research dilemma with an undergraduate student; diagrams and complex mathematical equations scatter the chalkboard that spans an entire wall. Her day is finally slowing down, and her voice is heavy with exhaustion. She leans back in her swivel chair, reflecting on her experience as the first tenured woman in Harvard’s physics department. For Franklin, the feeling of being the only woman in the room was nothing new.

“Did I ever have a woman professor?” She pauses for a moment, thinking back on her long academic career. “Undergraduate… No. Graduate… No. You know, I never really thought about it, though,” she says. “It was a good strategy, just to be kind of clueless.”

At an administrative level, Harvard’s Office of Faculty Development and Diversity has been tracking the state of diversity among faculty across the University by releasing annual reports ever since 2006. Later this month, the new annual report for the 2016-2017 year will be released. Ahead of that report, I spoke to faculty members like Franklin who have firsthand experience with issues of representation and diversity in their respective fields. These professors say that their positions can be both isolating and empowering, bringing unique challenges but also opportunities for leadership. Their stories provide a window into what it’s like to be an underrepresented minority professor at Harvard, an old and powerful institution that has openly struggled with faculty diversity in the past and present.

The most recent statistics published in the Office of Faculty Development & Diversity’s 2015-2016 annual report show that Harvard has made some progress in diversity and gender parity among both tenured and tenure track faculty over the past 10 years. From 2006 to 2016, underrepresented minority candidates increased from 10 percent to 11 percent of tenure track faculty and from 5 percent to 8 percent of the tenured faculty. (In its report, Harvard cateogrized minorities who are not Asian as “underrepresented.”) Over the same span of time, the percentage of women in Harvard’s tenure track increased from 35 percent to 38 percent and the percentage of tenured female professors increased from 20 percent to 26 percent.

According to Judith D. Singer, a professor of education and the senior vice provost for Faculty development & diversity at Harvard, as of this year, over 39 percent of Harvard’s tenure track faculty are women. Minorities make up 22 percent of both tenure and tenure track faculty combined, 61 percent of whom are Asian or Asian American and 39 percent of whom are Black and/or Latino.

In an emailed statement, Singer wrote that the Office is deeply committed increasing the diversity of faculties across the University. “The Office of Faculty Development and Diversity works closely with faculty colleagues and deans across the University to enhance our recruiting efforts to ensure that we keep the institution productive, creative, competitive and successful,” Singer wrote. She added that each new faculty search “provides a strategic opportunity to reshape the faculty.”


For Franklin, these faculty statistics have personal meaning. The increasing number of tenured female faculty in the physics department has created a stronger sense of community for her. “It actually makes a big difference,” she says. “There are times when there’s more than one woman in the room.” She jokes that “there are definitely more people in the bathroom, and you can have conversations in the bathroom now.”

“It’s still pretty small numbers,” she says, “but you definitely get the sense that there’s some kind of solidarity.”

Melissa E. B. Franklin speaks in 2007.
Melissa E. B. Franklin speaks in 2007. By Joseph T. Mcgrath

But Franklin’s experience at Harvard wasn’t always like that. She can still vividly recall the discomforts of her first years as a professor at the University. “People thought I should go slowly, and not be too vociferous during faculty meetings at the beginning,” Franklin remembers, shaking her head and chuckling. “They were all guys.” She says it was hard to tell whether that advice was predicated on her gender, or something else.“That’s the problem with having small numbers. You don’t know if anything has to do with you,” she says. “Maybe I talk a lot… or maybe it was surprising to have a women’s voice [in the meeting].”

That was back in the early 1990s. Since then, according to Physics Department Chair Masahiro Morii, Franklin has been joined by four tenured and two associate female colleagues in the physics department, which he says is home to about three dozen professors. Although Franklin is quick to note that other women were always present as assistant and associate professors, she has remained one of only a handful of women in the physics department through her entire career.

Nevertheless, other underrepresented faculty members at Harvard say that existence here can still feel very lonely. Just 4 years ago in 2013, John Johnson, Professor of Astronomy, became the first African American to receive tenure in the physical sciences at Harvard. He is still the only African American Astronomy professor at Harvard today, and, as of 2016, he is one of three black tenured professors in the natural sciences.

“My experience at Harvard is that any time I attend any faculty event, it’s very rare that I’m not the only black person in the room,” Johnson says. To Johnson, it feels like a constant reminder that his acceptance into a profession dominated by white men, and at Harvard more generally, is “more or less conditional…on me being so exceptional in what I do.”

In the 2012-2013 academic year, the Office for Faculty Development & Diversity conducted the most recent University-wide Faculty Climate Survey. That survey revealed that 43 percent of women disagreed “that the climate for female faculty in the School/Department is at least as good as for male faculty,” compared to 20 percent of men. Women also felt, more than men, that they had to “work harder to be perceived as a legitimate scholar” and that they “feel excluded from an informal network.” Furthermore, the data revealed that 39 percent of “underrepresented minority” (URM) respondents disagreed with the statement that “the climate for minority faculty in the School/Department is at least as good as for non-minority faculty” compared to 21 percent of non-URM respondents. URM respondents also felt that they had to “work harder to be perceived as a legitimate scholar.”

Johnson clarifies that “in the astronomy department, I have been welcomed and respected. I’m treated as an equal.” In fact, he cites Harvard’s astronomy department community as one major reason for his transfer from the California Institute of Technology to Harvard in 2013. However, he maintains that “I don’t always feel welcome campus-wide, and my particular experience with that is not unique.”

Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, who is a History and Literature Lecturer and public policy lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government, says he knows few other openly BGLTQ faculty at the Kennedy School and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, this feeling of solitude is all-too familiar. McCarthy acknowledges that “as much as I love teaching and working at Harvard, I’m also quite lonely here.”

McCarthy notes that “ironically, I know I’m not alone in feeling lonely. I’ve heard that over and over again­­—from queer faculty [and] faculty of color.” In particular, he points to conversations with BGLTQ faculty “who have come here and [said] ‘I don’t know if this is the place for me.’ I don’t know how many people are willing to say that on the record, but I will say that for them.” Sometimes, he says, being a gay faculty member at Harvard can feel like being “a party of one.”

That’s not the only challenge that underrepresented faculty members face at Harvard. Some professors who are minorities or women in male-dominated fields say that their positions come with additional burdens. Speaking about diversity is just one of the many added expectations that encumber minority voices at Harvard. Because they are pioneers in their fields, professors like Franklin, Johnson, and McCarthy are often asked to serve on panels and diversity committees, take part in recruitment initiatives, or mentor students to an extent that they say their counterparts are not.

It’s a huge responsibility, according to Johnson. The work falls disproportionately on faculty of color, and, he says, it often goes unnoticed by other colleagues. “You’re either going to have to turn away a large number of students of color who are going to seek you out for support, mentorship advising, guidance… or you’re going to have to take on a lot of extra responsibility,” he says. “That’s not an easy decision for anyone.”

Johnson cares deeply about mentoring students and says he has embraced his role, but he acknowledges that it can be tiring. Continuously hearing students of color question their role in the sciences because of stereotypes or lack of representation can be a “burden,” he says.

“There’s a real pragmatic reason to hire more faculty of color,” he says. “If you’re going to tout the diversity of your undergraduate population, then you have to support them as well.” He thinks having a more diverse faculty would provide that kind of support.

McCarthy agrees. Many BGLTQ students want his advice, both academic and personal, because they can relate to him. “It means we shoulder that burden,” he says, “and we do that unpaid and unappreciated labor far more than [others] do.” While, like Johnson, he has welcomed that work, he also says that he can’t forget that “there are hours and even days added onto my weeks and months and years doing this kind of work that is not part of my formal job. And it’s because I am a ‘diverse’ faculty member.”

Nina Zipser, the dean for Faculty affairs and planning at the college, said in an emailed statement that “we take very seriously the service impact on our underrepresented faculty. We watch this closely and work with department chairs to relieve faculty from being too overburdened, and we do our best to recognize exceptional citizenship.”

The STEM Crisis

Johnson credits the success of his academic journey to one of his college professors. As an undergraduate, Johnson had a professor who took particular interest in him and became his mentor. “That was enough to make the difference for me, I think,” Johnson reflects. “He gave the message that one day I’m going to have to choose between Harvard or Princeton or Berkeley for graduate school, and nobody else talked to me that way. Nobody else encouraged me that way.”

Even so, Johnson almost left his graduate program at UC Berkeley on two separate occasions. As a student, he remembers feeling,“if you’re a person of color, you’re going to have to basically be superhuman [to enter academia.]” Both times, he had jobs lined up elsewhere; all he would have had to do to leave school was fill out some paperwork.

Decades later, Johnson sometimes wonders why he never left academia. “It was probably just my stubbornness,” he said. “My family is full of stubborn people and as a kid, I was never allowed to quit… so I thought if I signed up for the PhD program, I was going to get my degree.”

That “stubbornness” has served Johnson well as one of the only black professors tenured in the natural sciences at Harvard. He says that even today he feels haunted by negative stereotypes that cast African Americans as unable to do the kind of work he has pursued. As a result, he finds that he often has to “simultaneously push back against those stereotypes in my moments of deepest doubt and push through in my work.”

Johnson says he’s particularly unsettled by homogeneity within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

Notably, faculty diversity at Harvard varies greatly by field. According to the 2015-16 report, tenured women make up larger percentages of the social sciences and the humanities (30 percent and 34 percent, respectively) than the natural sciences and engineering (17 percent and 15 percent). Underrepresented minority professors constitute 15 percent of the social sciences, compared to their much smaller representation in the natural sciences, humanities, and engineering (5 percent, 6 percent, and 2 percent, respectively).

According to Zipser, the FAS has worked particularly hard to increase diversity in the STEM fields and has seen improvements, particularly when it comes to gender. Over the past three years, the college has hired five tenure-track junior faculty women in Physics, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Chemistry. The Mathematics department is trying to offer positions to three women, and the Statistics department recently hired a tenured female faculty member.

Franklin says that the physics department is “not diverse at all.” “There’s a lot of white men,” she says. In particular, Franklin notices a striking dearth of racial diversity, noting that the department has no African-American tenured professors. “It would be nice to be more diverse and I think we should be… but things really don’t change that fast,” she says.

Her observations align with a national pattern: a 2014 American Institute of Physics study of university physics and astronomy departments found that only 2.1 percent of faculty are black. Half of those African American faculty members are employed at historically black colleges and universities.

For Johnson, this is an indication of broader structural inequality. “We don’t live in a meritocracy. There is some set of structural forces that prevent black people from entering into the academy at the professor level,” he says. “And that’s an uncomfortable truth for most people.”

For their part, department heads at Harvard say they have worked to combat the dearth of women and minority professors in STEM. As chair, Morii oversees the search process for new candidates. Although he doesn’t have final say over who is hired, Morii says that he “complains if the committee is only looking at the kind of candidates who look like themselves.” He also avoids limiting the search to overly narrow subsets of the discipline, saying that “the narrower you set the field, the less likely you’ll be to find women and minority candidates.” In Morii’s three years as chair, the last two junior faculty hires have been female.

Professor Masahiro Morii is Physics Department Chair at Harvard University.
Professor Masahiro Morii is Physics Department Chair at Harvard University. By Thomas W. Franck

Chair of the Astronomy Department Avi Loeb recently wrote an opinion piece for Nature Magazine about the importance of competing interpretations and diverse viewpoints in the sciences. Loeb oversees the search process for new faculty in the astronomy department. “I try to do that in a way that sets a tone that promotes diversity,” he says. “I don’t just do that because ethically it’s the right thing to do. It has a practical purpose. Having people from different genders, different ethnic backgrounds, gives us the best chance of arriving at the truth and solving the academic problems that we approach in our research.” But because candidate searches are limited to the number of open professorships, he says, departments may be slow to change despite best intentions. Singer also pointed to low rates of turnover and retirement among professors and limited creation of new faculty positions as reasons that “the composition of the faculty changes slowly over time.”

Zipser said in an emailed statement that she works with various Faculty of Arts and Science departments to ensure “best practices” in faculty searches. As part of those efforts, she collaborates with Mahzarin Banaji, who is chair of the psychology department and the Senior Adviser to the FAS Dean on Faculty Development. Banaji authored a report which contains concrete suggestions for best-practice hiring techniques that will minimize bias. According to Singer’s annual report, department chairs and search committees are asked to use her report as a guide for hiring.

Johnson and Franklin say that it is important for female students and students of color to see themselves reflected in the composition of the faculty. This is particularly important, they say, for encouraging a cohort of young scientists.

“You often find students who have never had a women professor,” Franklin observes. “There are a lot of really smart women who are good at physics and could go into physics but don’t, and more female professors could change that.”

Johnson says professors of color can help encourage students of color to enter academia. “You can not only be an undergraduate and earn your degree here, but you can aspire to be on a faculty.”

Tania Fabo ’18, who studies Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, is the President of the Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers. The group serves as both a social and professional space for black scientists at Harvard, giving them a place to work on problem sets, share academic work and research, and engage in networking opportunities with speakers and scientific professionals.

“Teacher diversity is important because I feel like it’s part of this broader envisioning process, whereby you’re able to see yourself in a certain position by seeing someone that looks like you or has similar experiences as you in those positions,” Fabo says.

In her three years at Harvard, Fabo says she hasn’t had any black professors. This is par for the course: according to Fabo, the HDRB department has no black professors.

In response, Tabo recently went beyond the Harvard community to find a mentor she could relate to, shadowing a black neurosurgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “That’s something I would never have found if I hadn’t gone above and beyond to reach outside of the Harvard community,” she says.

The Blockers

McCarthy’s office is small, warm, and homey. It’s well-decorated with framed pictures, stacked books, and Yankees paraphernalia. A black dog paces the floor at McCarthy’s feet, licking his hands with frantic energy before eventually falling asleep. McCarthy was a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard. After getting his PhD from Columbia in 2005, McCarthy returned to Harvard’s campus to establish his career as a joint lecturer at the College and the Kennedy School. He’s been teaching here ever since.

McCarthy advocates for a type of diversity that Office of Faculty Development & Diversity data doesn’t cover: BGLTQ diversity. “It’s no secret that Harvard does not spend as much time thinking about diversity when it comes to sexuality or LGBTQ faculty in the same way that it does with respect to gender, specifically as it relates to women, and faculty of color,” he says.

Singer wrote that issues of climate and diversity for all faculty “including women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community” are a point of ongoing work for the Office as well as the University-wide Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, on which she also serves.

McCarthy clarifies that he believes it’s essential that Harvard prioritize the hiring and tenuring of women and underrepresented minorities. However, he says he sees the hiring of BGLTQ faculty as a “both/and” situation – he thinks Harvard can still improve in “prioritizing the recruitment of LGBTQ faculty and the retention of them, because this is not a place where we feel a robust sense of community and inclusion.”

McCarthy says that he has many students at the Kennedy School who come from countires where BGLTQ people are persecuted or discriminated against. Many times, he is the first gay adult in an authority position whom these students have ever encountered. “I’ve had students that come to my office hours and say they took my class because they were wondering what it was like to be taught by a homosexual,” he says. “I’m the only homosexual that some of my students have ever encountered in real life.”

He thinks this type of exposure has a meaningful impact on many students, especially for those who will go on to shape public policy in their home communities. “It’s not just LGBTQ students that benefit from having us around,” he said. “It’s also people who have never been exposed to that, and thoughts and actions can change as a result.”

McCarthy says he has always tried to mentor and support students as a minority member of the faculty. More recently, McCarthy has begun to turn his own academic study towards BGLTQ people. He has also begun to advocate for devotion of more resources to BGLTQ and sexuality studies at Harvard, which he believes should be a department. He believes creating more opportunity for study of these subjects could bring in an influx of more diverse faculty. He cites the success of the Department of African and African American Studies, which garnered “stunning faculty, tons of money, central locations.” He watched the department experience a “renaissance” during his time as an undergraduate with the arrival of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Meanwhile, Johnson says he’s taking lack of diversity among STEM faculty and students into his own hands. “My particular way of coping… is my activism,” he says. “I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to use my position and my prestige within the community… to speak out.”

In the summer of 2015, Johnson founded the Banneker Institute, named for Benjamin Banneker, an influential African American astronomer. The Banneker Institute is a summer program that identifies, trains, and mentors promising graduate students of color. The program aims to combine social activism with the astronomical sciences.

With the help of the Banneker Institute, the Astronomy Department has made strides toward diversifying its graduate student pool. According to Johnson, seven of the department’s 63 graduate students are black, and two more black students have just been admitted. “We quadrupled the number of black students that have ever been in our department,” Johnson says, “and we did that over three years.” Johnson says that over half of these black graduate students came from his program.

McCarthy shares Johnson’s focus on stewardship and mentorship, adding that Harvard faces particular responsibility. “Other schools have resource constraints that Harvard doesn’t have. We should be at the front of this,” McCarthy says. “There’s still much more work to do.”

-Franklin describes her role in Harvard’s progress toward diversity with a football metaphor, explaining that she envisions herself as a blocker––a member of the team who helps the quarterback achieve success. “I feel like a lot of the bruises I have are those kind of bruises that just come with the territory,” she explains, “but it makes everything better for women later.”

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