Columbia has dedicated $185 million in an effort to diversify its faculty since 2005, by far the largest public commitment an Ivy League institution has made to such an initiative. But over the last decade, the percentage of full-time black faculty in Arts and Sciences has shown a nearly-steady decrease, the percentage of full-time Latinx faculty has stagnated, and the percentage of full-time female faculty has only increased incrementally—around 4 percent.
Columbia’s board of trustees first approved these efforts through the creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity Efforts—now known as the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement—in 2004, pushing the University to the forefront of institutions of higher education in its commitment to faculty diversity. Most recently, in October 2017, University President Lee Bollinger announced an additional commitment of $100 million dollars to support recruitment and career development, in addition to pipeline programs for doctoral and postdoctoral students.
Much of the money allocated for diversity initiatives has been used by the provost’s office to subsidize and incentivize Target of Opportunity hires, a program that allows departments to apply for additional funds to recruit underrepresented minority and female faculty members. The funding from the office is meant to sustain these diversity hires for three years, after which Arts and Sciences—an organizational unit including Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of the Arts, and the School of Professional Studies—must cover the cost of their salary.
But interviews with department chairs, divisional deans, and faculty on the Committee on Equity and Diversity—a group created to advise Arts and Sciences administrators on implementing recommendations regarding diversity and equity—demonstrate that this substantive, University-wide push for faculty diversity is grappling with a great tension. Citing financial constraints and the Timely Replacement Policy, which promises to maintain the size of the Arts and Sciences faculty at a constant—but stagnant—number, faculty say that departments can either foster the growth and stature of their departments by hiring established and renowned faculty, or improve the diversity of their faculty body.
In an interview with Spectator last October, Bollinger denied that increasing faculty diversity necessitates growth in the size of the faculty body, stating that much can be done to increase diversity within Arts and Sciences without allocating funds for additional positions.
“I can't accept that diversity can only be achieved by expanding existing faculty. That is a proposition that really needs critical analysis,” Bollinger said. “If we’re a faculty of 50 faculty members, the fact that we’re not growing to 55 does not mean that we can’t become more diverse in our hiring in the next decade. I don’t accept the proposition.”
But department chairs, who point to the financial needs of both their departments and Arts and Sciences, state that faculty diversity initiatives—though not unsuccessful—are unnecessarily slowed without allowed room for growth in faculty size. Particularly, they cite barriers that seem to pile up: low rates of faculty retirement that leave limited vacancies, specialized hiring practices to fill niche and academically famous subfields within departments, and restricted opportunities for cluster hires—which have historically been the most successful and retaining underrepresented minority (URM) faculty when they arrive.
“This is a very strange way to do business at an academic institution,” said Shahid Naeem, chair of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology, and former member of the Policy and Planning Committee. “We now lose a position because of the commitment to diversity. That sounds like the commitment to diversity actually comes at a cost. You might say, ‘Well, isn't the department willing to pay that cost?’—and absolutely. Except that, in this case, we’re not seeing any new hires.”
In 2004, a group of faculty members across the University spearheaded the first push for faculty diversity in Arts and Sciences, leading to the creation of the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity Efforts. Led by Jean Howard, the first vice provost for diversity initiatives, the office conducted frequent outreach to department chairs and search committees, met with faculty multiple times throughout the year at dinner parties, and supplied consistent advice on best search practices to increase the number of female and URM applicants—all with a $15 million budget.
“I love this work. This is the most important work I've done at Columbia, and I'd just like to see it thrive,” Howard said.
When data tracking the first year of the initiative was released, the results showed significant improvements: URMs made up 11 percent of faculty hired in 2005, and 26.5 percent of those hired in 2006, while women made up 34 percent of those hired in 2005 versus 38 percent in 2006.
The initiative also saw two significant advantages: Because Columbia remained at the forefront of the push for faculty diversity, few other universities were competitors in the fight to hire URM faculty. Most of the $15 million commitment went directly to Arts and Sciences, which, at the time, also had no cap regarding its faculty size.
Howard said the biggest difference between the diversity efforts of today and hers 10 years ago is the dissolution of a central focus on Arts and Sciences, citing the Timely Replacement Policy along with broader, perennial budgetary concerns. As a professor of English and comparative literature, she brought additional focus, broad faculty involvement and engagement, and, most importantly, a monetary focus on Arts and Sciences to the original initiative.
“[Now], departments, especially if they’re small … are very anxious about being only able to find somebody who qualifies as a diversity candidate who doesn’t fit in there. Then they think, ‘Oh my gosh, how can we do without 19th century European history?’, and so they become reluctant to participate,” Howard said. “Money is part of the problem here. We simply need more.”
Today, Arts and Sciences has continued to make significant strides in pushing for cultural change, analyzing specific suggestions and policy changes needed to address issues of diversity and equity. In October, the Policy and Planning Committee—a body of faculty elected to represent the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the university leadership—released a 145-page equity report outlining significant concerns about Columbia’s ability to sustain long-term growth in female and URM faculty members. It provided extensive recommendations, including sensitivity training and improved reporting systems for harassment and discrimination, culminating in the creation of an equity committee, meant to create a timeline for and enforce these extensive plans.
Maya Tolstoy, the interim executive vice president of Arts and Sciences, said that departments have also increasingly taken advantage of Target of Opportunity hires through the diversity initiative over the years, spiking in particular over the past year. Fifty percent of faculty accepted positions offered through Target of Opportunity hires over the past four years, according to data from the provost’s office.
But, faculty note, the numbers show that the diversity initiative has not yet reached its full potential. According to these faculty, the 2014 Timely Replacement Policy—initially born out of concerns that the size of faculty would shrink due to replacement delays—has dragged faculty diversity improvements within Arts and Sciences to a slow crawl.
According to Dennis Mitchell, vice provost for faculty advancement who oversees the University-wide faculty diversity initiative, questions about how to retain a diverse faculty lie at the juncture between central governance, Arts and Sciences, and individual departments. While Mitchell emphasized that central initiatives cannot make progress without willing faculty, he also acknowledged the potential for Columbia policies—such as the TRP—to play a role.
“We can't overspend on faculty, but, at the same time, we should be careful about stifling growth in many areas, diversity being one of them. These are conversations I believe we do need to have going forward, so we can come up with what is the ultimate best direction,” Mitchell said.
In some departments, a lack of retirements among senior faculty leaves little space or budget for new hires, making it difficult to plan for when there might be room for a Target of Opportunity hire. In the English department, the 40-member faculty has only had four lines, or vacancies—two retirements and two deaths—in the last decade.
“We’re aware that if we make an [Target of Opportunity] appointment that in the long run, someone might not get replaced. If someone doesn't retire, we won’t get that line. We’re not doing this expecting the department to expand,” Alan Stewart, department chair of English and comparative literature, said.
For Pablo Piccato, a history professor and member of the newly created Committee on Equity and Diversity, the idea that a faculty position may no longer be open down the line has discouraged his department from even considering Target of Opportunity hires.
“Recently, we haven’t been able to do Target of Opportunity hires, because if we hire someone now, we might have to give something later—and that might come from a different field,” Piccato said.
According to Tolstoy, this mindset itself is ultimately detrimental to faculty diversity, and departments must come to recognize that the idea of stagnating faculty growth and a dilemma between diversity and academic success are ultimately not at tension. Further, Tolstoy pointed to the growing number of applicants as a sign that the initiative was progressing.
“I think it’s really an opportunity to grow not just our diversity, but our excellence. … The initiative should really provide departments with the incentive to grow,” Tolstoy said. “We haven’t really had much trouble getting faculty to take advantage of it recently. … Raising awareness more broadly through things like the equity report really makes a difference.”
But whether or not the two are truly at conflict, Naeem added, limited faculty growth immediately presents a discouraging factor. The result of this stagnation has already been felt by faculty, who report greater workloads, less time to teach, and subsequently, the loss of colleagues to peer institutions.
“The lack of funds for faculty growth makes coming to Columbia less attractive, preventing diverse faculty from accepting positions,” Naeem said.
Even for departments that may have anticipated vacant positions, the lack of faculty growth greatly limits their options. Throughout academia, departments traditionally focus on covering a comprehensive disciplinary breadth, and are often renowned for older faculty members who focus on hyper-specific subfields. As such, when faced with a retirement or a departure, departments aim to fill the spot with someone from the same field. However, due to the long-standing exclusion of URM and female faculty from academia, their fields often lie in more contemporary areas.
Naeem points to his department as both an example of the benefits of hiring diverse faculty in contemporary fields and the tradeoff that the TRP presents. His department has replaced an outgoing professor internationally recognized for his teaching and research in one field with a new hire in another, which Naeem cited as a particularly important—but vastly different—field within the sciences.
“We're now looking at a loss of a field that we once covered quite well, now going to no coverage whatsoever,” Naeem said. “It's like we're being penalized for having recruited somebody who represented both an opportunity and a diversity hire.”
Dean of Humanities Sarah Cole emphasized that this notion—that a department’s ability to diversify is inherently tied to replacing either anticipated or already outgoing faculty—enforces the false hierarchy that pits academic speciality over diversity, an equally valuable qualification. But she also acknowledges that financial needs are at stake—for humanities and social studies departments in particular, having faculty specialties that span across thousands of years of art and culture is highly valued.
“We’re just stuck in a rut,” Cole said. “We’re saying to departments, don’t think of one-to-one replacement, think of reshaping their fields ... [But] that runs against deep field and subfield commitment, and that’s how academia is organized. Absent growth in the Arts and Sciences community, this impasse is going to remain.”
Citing the success of Howard’s initiative in the mid-2000s, Piccato said that room and resources for faculty growth ultimately play a significant role in the efficacy and momentum of any diversity initiative, particularly by avoiding these underlying tensions.
“In general, this has been the experience of Columbia 10 years ago. … Diversity improves the most when you hire more people, when the size of the faculty increases,” Piccato said. “We know if we had new lines, we could improve in that front.”
Workplace diversity experts have historically referred to the idea of cluster hires—where a department hires multiple candidates of similar backgrounds—as a potential solution to retaining more diverse candidates. According to Howard, cluster hires can contribute significantly to improving the climate and culture of a department due to increased opportunities for collaboration.
“If women are not coming to a particular department, for whatever reason—it may be climate, it may be better opportunities outside academia; many people think work-life in corporations is better than in academia, and they make that choice—sometimes group hires help,” Howard said. “If you can hire three women in a cohort all at once, sometimes that will allow more to come.”
Mitchell said that two departments have tried to make cluster hires—political science and sociology—but declined to comment on whether the faculty accepted Columbia’s offers. For other departments that have low rates of faculty retirement, however, cluster hires are nearly impossible under the TRP.
“Cluster hires involve massive investment from the institution because you’re talking about several lines—and not replacement lines, but new lines. This is something that goes beyond Timely Replacement and Target of Opportunity,” Picatto said about the history department.
Some departments in the natural sciences division, such as chemistry, have seen greater success in pushing for a holistic perspective of faculty diversity. These departments have created their own internal equity committees to facilitate more consistent thinking about faculty diversity search processes and cultural changes.
All faculty interviewed mentioned the importance of addressing matters beyond hiring policies and compensation. The PPC’s equity report pointed to peripheral issues—access to childcare and schooling for children, better mentoring for minorities and women, better attention paid to role assignment, and work-life balance—as factors that prevent the success of professors of color and female professors at Columbia.
“It’s not just about throwing money at the problem: We have to look at why people want to leave, and basically what we hear from the [equity] report is that people would love, in some departments, to have a better climate, to be appreciated, to have collaboration,“ Picatto said.
Richard Davis, the chair of the statistics department, said that he has had a particularly challenging time getting women to join his department for reasons that extend beyond the purview of the faculty diversity initiative. He has had enough open positions since 2014 to offer positions to 16 candidates, 11 of which were women or underrepresented minorities. Only two of the 11 candidates accepted offers, though Davis said he is unaware of why the rest rejected.
Maria Uriarte, an E3B professor and chair of the PPC, emphasized the need for longer-term thinking as exemplified by many departments within the natural sciences. Further, she pointed to the fact that the Office of the Provost asks departments are asked for candidates twice a year, but receive no communication from the provost reminding them of searches otherwise.
“I always feel myself scrambling, and even though they do it twice a year, I have to think, ‘OK, [who] do you know?’” Uriarte said. ”If we had a way to think about this more systematically and long-term, I think the outcomes would be better.”
When asked about the potential for more consistent communication, Mitchell said that his department would consider sending out more frequent reminders, but that the office tries to avoid inundating already full inboxes.
“If departments legitimately felt that [sending] it out once a month ... would make a difference, we don't have a problem with doing that. There's so much communication with email by the University we try to not to deluge them with that,” Mitchell said.
While faculty acknowledge the extent to which Arts and Sciences, in addition to the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, has been significant in pushing for increased faculty diversity, they often point to the broader structural limitations as unnecessary hurdles to the initiative. Citing the success of Howard’s initiative in 2004, Picatto said that there has already been a successful precedent.
“What was done then should be done again,” Picatto said. “We should look at that moment as something that could offer us ideas of what needs be done.”
In analyzing the success of her own initiatives, Howard emphasized that Columbia—particularly as an elite institution that aims to be at the forefront of many academic and worldly disciplines—has the potential and obligation to drive change at a faster pace than what might be expected of slow-moving academia.
“Our undergraduate education almost totally occurs in Arts and Sciences, and that's where the rubber hits the road first, and we must diversify that faculty.” Howard said. “The long arc of history bends toward more diversity, but we should be speeding it up, especially at Columbia.”