While the attention of many undergraduates focused on the protests on Low Steps last spring, the faculty and administration at Columbia were engaging the issue of diversity at an entirely different level.
Today, Columbia announced the result of those efforts with the appointment of Jean Howard to the new position of Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives.
According to Howard, the key word in her new title is "Initiatives."
"I'm supposed to think of ... innovative new ways to increase the number of women and underrepresented faculty at all levels," she said.
The position was suggested by a group of faculty leaders that began meeting over a year ago to address the under-representation of women and minority groups among the faculty of the University.
According to Susan Sturm, the George M. Jaffin Professor of the Law School and one of the leaders of the search process, the group was looking for someone who could "communicate across many different domains, has shown a commitment to both academic excellence and gender and racial diversity at Columbia, and who was respected by many different constituencies."
"It was the unanimous view that [Howard] was the ideal person for this position," Sturm said.
Howard has been a celebrated member of the English faculty at Columbia since 1988 and has decades of experience addressing issues of diversity. She served as director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender in the 1990s, and chaired the University Senate's Commission on the Status of Women.
In a press release today, University President Lee Bollinger said that the appointment was a recognition that Columbia's goal of "promoting intellectual excellence" can be realized "only if the University, in all of its aspects, reflects the diversity of American society and of the complex world in which we live."
Provost Alan Brinkley stressed the University's commitment to change.
"The purpose of this appointment is not to assess and make reports. It's to get us started in the actual process of recruitment and hiring."
Brinkley said that the goal was to strengthen faculty in areas that "we ordinarily associate with diversity," and also "to ensure we have significant racial and ethnic diversity in various disciplines that have no relationship to these issues."
Howard agreed. "We need Latino Shakespeare scholars and black chemists ... We won't be a truly color-blind society until that happens."
She also made clear that she wanted to address not only faculty composition, but curriculum decisions as well.
"We need diversity of knowledge as well as a diverse population in some sort of demographic sense," she said. In that light, Howard will be sitting on the Academic Review Committee for Arts and Sciences.
Sturm pointed out that current growth at Columbia provided an opportunity to "build questions of equity and diversity right into" the development of new programs such as those in the sciences and globalization.
"There are a lot of ideas that are exciting and have tremendous innovative potential," she said. "Having someone in a position where they are working very closely at senior levels... will make it possible to not only achieve concrete results but to generate institutional capacity that will benefit a whole set of programs" beyond gender and racial diversity.
Howard has agreed to hold the position for three years. While she does not intend to serve for longer than that, Brinkley said that the position itself may not last any longer.
"This is likely to be a relatively short term position," he said. "We are not yet convinced that we need to have a permanent provost for diversity. We're going to see how it goes. At the end of three years we'll assess."
Howard insisted that she is a professor, not an administrator, and is taking the position because she sees it as an opportunity to make an impact on the University. "I like institutional change," she said.
She is planning to start immediately, bringing together a Presidential Advisory Committee on Diversity Initiatives in the next two weeks that will include Farah Griffin, Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Gary Okihiro, Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and Lila Abu-Lughod, Director of IRWG, as well as other faculty members.
While she hopes to expand her scope to include the entire University, Howard will start with the faculty for Arts and Sciences, which she is familiar with. She already has some ideas for recruiting and retaining new faculty, including linking assistant professorships to post-doc positions, and defining searches for new faculty differently.
The new vice provost gave the example of target of opportunity searches, in which a department sees an opportunity to attract a specific leader in a field. According to Howard, positions filled in this way "overwhelmingly go to white men ... Maybe we need to scrutinize the target of opportunity as a category of searches."
Howard says that she was first approached by Brinkley in the spring, but didn't begin serious discussions until August, after Nicholas Dirks was chosen as the Vice President for Arts and Sciences.
"You have to have the absolute support of the President, the Provost, [the head of] Arts and Sciences, and the deans of the other schools," she said.
"I do [feel that I have that], and I intend to call on it often."
Strum also expressed optimism for the University's commitment to change.
"The fact that the position was created, and that it was created at a senior level," is a good sign, she said. "From the first moment that we went and spoke with [the administration], they acknowledged the importance of the issue and the importance of making some kind of high level changes. The challenge is going to be to sustain that commitment."