Taking Stock of Diversity at Cornell - Higher Education


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Taking Stock of Diversity at Cornell

by Maria Eugenia Miranda

During the past 10 years, Cornell University has made significant strides in recruiting underrepresented minorities and women in its faculty ranks, but a new internal study at the university is revealing that its success is a mixed bag.

The number of minority faculty has grown about 52 percent, and the number of female faculty members has increased more than 38 percent in the last decade, according to a 2008 report by Dr. Robert Harris Jr., the former vice provost for diversity and faculty development. “Things have not changed dramatically,” he says.

Dr. Zellman Warhaft, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who was commissioned last fall by the university’s provost to conduct a follow-up study on Cornell’s diversity recruitment and retention.

Warhaft is in the process of finishing the report, which includes interviews with faculty, findings from work/life surveys and previous faculty studies and recruitment and retention information from other schools. So far, Warhaft concludes that women and minorities still think that the campus climate is less favorable to them, based on initial feedback from e-mail surveys and in-person interviews.

However, overall, women perceive the environment at Cornell to be more favorable to them than do underrepresented minorities, says Warhaft, and that could be because they went from being 22 percent of the faculty in 2005 to 27 percent of the faculty in 2010. An initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to recruit more female STEM faculty members, the CU-ADVANCE Center, also seems to have struck a chord with female faculty on campus, he says.

The center works with 53 departments in STEM to avoid unconscious bias in recruiting, train search committees where to look for female faculty and teach people about how gender factors into interviews.

There also is a service called “coffee with the candidate” wherein a female faculty member is paired with a recruit who has a similar background or has had similar life experiences. “It’s kind of raising awareness [in the departments] of the pitfalls,” says the center’s executive director Yael Levitte.

Now in its fifth year, the center has met two goals: it has recruited 75 women and, among those, 15 senior-level female faculty members. In the next two years, Levitte hopes to make each department about 20 percent female.

“It has to do with the proportion of women in departments,” says Levitte. “If a department hasn’t had to deal with it in a very long time, it’s not even in their awareness.” The center only works with about half of the university’s departments those in humanities are completely out of reach.

Most notably, women on campus have been expressing in the surveys concern over being able to keep a work/life balance, Warhaft adds. One of the biggest work/life issues Levitte sees in recruiting and retaining female faculty members is that Cornell University is situated in a thin labor market for spouses. A faculty survey last fall showed that about 72 percent of female faculty said they had a spouse who was a paid employee, while about 50 percent of the male faculty said their significant other was a paid worker. The school has a dual career office that helps place spouses, but the dual career issue still came up quite a bit in exit interviews at the center, notes Levitte.

When it comes to dealing with child care issues, one thing many departments have done to help women is schedule meetings earlier in the day, and not at 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. The problems are more anecdotal, says Levitte. “It’s a department-by-department issue — some departments are extremely understanding,” she says. “It’s a climate environment. It’s individuals feeling that they are supported by their institution, and I think we are moving in the right direction.”

Lynette Chappell-Williams, associate vice president for inclusion and workforce diversity at Cornell, says the school is listening. The administration recently hired a dependent care consultant who helps employees with caring for children and aging parents. The university also allows for a flexible work schedule, she says.

“A number of the colleges have established mentoring programs, so that helps,” says Chappell-Williams. There are about 100 underrepresented minority faculty members at Cornell, making up about 6 to 7 percent of the total. It can be isolating, says Warhaft. Better mentoring, better work/life policies and better diversity training for department heads are just some of the main issues faculty members are highlighting in the report, according to Warhaft.

Controversial Move

Earlier this year when Provost Kent Fuchs decided to move the Africana Studies Center into the College of Arts & Sciences, many Black faculty members were outraged at how the administration handled the decision-making process, concerned that the center will be subjugated to a dean and will have its budget shifted to other departments in the college. Fuchs told Diverse in the spring that his office no longer had the administrative budget to manage the center and that it would be better served under the leadership of a dean. This dispute and controversy have not affected the study, Warhaft says.

“There is a rather nuanced view across the Black faculty of the circumstances [surrounding the controversy with the Africana Studies Center],” he adds. One of the ways to address the distaste among the faculty over such an abrupt move is by getting the information out there as to why it is being made, says Chappell-Williams.

“Change is always difficult to deal with,” she says.

Discontent over the Africana Studies Center move has not tainted assistant professor Richard Robinson’s view of Cornell’s commitment to diversity. “I know people in the Africana Studies Center said it was handled poorly because they weren’t told on their end,” he says.

But as a Black faculty member in the department of materials science Robinson feels at home because he has joined a diversity networking group in the College of Engineering. “It could just be a working lunch, but we have an audience with the people that matter,” says Robinson.

He was impressed with the university’s diversity efforts from the beginning.

“Everybody at this point says they are doing something about diversity, but you know that’s not true. Who writes you back, who doesn’t write you back, who wants to meet with you while you’re on campus, those are really the subtle clues,” says Robinson — who has been on the Cornell faculty for three years — of his recruitment experience. “You can’t just fluff it off. That’s what I felt when I came to Cornell to visit, and that’s what I still feel today,” he says.

The College of Engineering is unique because it has a Black dean, and “you have to go through the diversity dean to get tenure in your department,” says Robinson. This, perhaps, explains the range of opinions about the Africana Studies Center in the survey, says Warhaft.

Fuchs is credited with increasing diversity in the engineering school when he was dean of the school, and Robinson thinks that is what the provost is trying to do now. Still, some positions have not been filled and some have even been eliminated.

“We had a vice provost for faculty diversity in 2007, but after he retired, nothing was really put in place after that,” says Warhaft.

The university also will be training minority faculty members on recruiting so that when they attend conferences in their respective fields they can bolster the school’s recruitment efforts. “Our goal is to reflect the diversity of our students. It provides a richer experience,” says Chappell-Williams.

Warhaft says Cornell has a way to go in recruiting and retaining a diverse staff, but the fact that the provost decided it was time to assess the situation with a report shows that diversity is a priority.

“I think it’s an issue, and people talk about it,” says Levitte, “but I think the fact that we exist and got the continuation is a good thing.”

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