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Harvard is throwing money at its faculty diversity problem — and it might just help. Earlier this month in its annual report, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences defied the University’s projections for a budget deficit and ended the 2021 fiscal year with a $51 million surplus; within days, FAS Dean Claudine Gay outlined a plan to direct some of these unexpected funds towards diversifying FAS’s faculty. The proposed initiative would invest heavily in procuring a robust, representative pool of applicants through “high quality,” “labor intensive” searches, aiming to identify and recruit rising scholars from a variety of backgrounds.
Dean Gay’s proposal embodies a laudable sentiment, one that Harvard — at FAS and beyond — hasn’t always lived up to. Increasing minority representation among faculty is vital. As of 2021, only 8 percent of all tenured FAS faculty are Latinx, Black, or Native American. Only a quarter of those individuals, 14 professors, identified as women, a number dwarfed by the 325 tenured white, male professors. We have expressed our regret at how academics of color, from Cornel R. West ’74 to Lorgia García Peña, have been disregarded by our institution. Indeed, our faculty might not need diversity efforts quite so direly if we didn’t keep losing talented minds by denying them tenure.
From a student perspective alone, it is worth pondering the emotional and psychological impact of rarely seeing scholars of your background reflected at the highest academic level. Not that our faculty’s demographic make-up is solely a symbolic matter: Faculty homogeneity inevitably reduces the perspectives included in academic pursuits, rendering us vulnerable to significant blind spots. The breadth, depth, and quality of our scholarly work are negatively affected, limiting students’ ability to study topics or even entire fields that cannot be found in our departments.
Examples of these detrimental effects abound. Computer scientists have been coding algorithms and advancing artificial intelligence for decades. But without researchers like MIT’s Joy Buolamwini, a Black woman and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, how long might it have taken her field and the Big Tech companies it supports to notice the biases present in facial recognition software? On our own stretch of the Charles, Professor Roland G. Fryer Jr.’s departure (and prompt return) after allegations of sexual misconduct illustrate the extent to which relying on too few faculty members of color to bring representation and academic insight to a field is entirely unsustainable.
Of course, identifying a worthwhile goal doesn’t mean fulfilling it. While we find Dean Gay’s proposal encouraging, we are skeptical that it fully adresses our current paradigm. Her focus is sharply on the earliest stage of acquiring and retaining diverse faculty; Harvard’s recent track record suggests the issue might lie at least partially in their final stages of granting tenure. As both West and Garcia prove — and as our board has opined before — the current tenure system is less than perfect. The rosy results of Harvard’s tenure process review aside (which did not investigate the potential impact of race on tenure decisions), the existing system is opaque and inspires little confidence. It also relies heavily on inherently subjective peer recommendations that can benefit those from backgrounds better represented and entrenched in academia. While the inclusion of more diverse candidates at the onset of the hiring process is sure to be helpful, it can’t blind us to the fact that even ideal inputs cannot fix a broken system.
Our diversity efforts must therefore be continuous in character, rather than focused exclusively on initial recruitment. They should also aim to address specific diversity gaps across certain departments, fields, and interests. The sciences, for example, report even worse diversity metrics than the FAS as a whole. The entire tenured engineering faculty includes exactly zero female professors from underrepresented minority backgrounds.
Further, we yet again lend our support to student calls for an ethnic studies program. Earlier this semester, alumni donated $45 million for an Asian American studies program, lauding Dean Gay’s “vision to advance racial justice by attracting exceptional faculty.” On the tails of this windfall, cited monetary concerns for stalling ethnic studies should no longer apply; when the administration makes justifications based on financial constraints, these decisions need to be re-justified when fortunes change, as they have here. With our current budget surplus and new donations, we strongly encourage the administration to genuinely commit to building an ethnic studies department, with its broad, intellectually and demographically diversifying potential.
When it comes to diversity, and in the spirit of algorithmic fairness, the administration cannot stop at getting better inputs. It needs to fix the rest of the process, too — tenure allotment, ethnic studies, and discipline-specific gaps alike.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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