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Paxson aims to double underrepresented minorities on faculty

Faculty discusses efforts to boost proportion of underrepresented minorities above current 8.5 percent

President Christina Paxson announced at a faculty meeting Tuesday that she aims to double the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty members within the next decade.

Faculty members and administrators discussed faculty diversity  at length during the meeting while also touching briefly upon employee benefits and honorary degrees. Last month’s discussion of freedom of speech on campus and this month’s focus on diversity involve two large issues that Brown faces this year, Paxson said.

The percent of underrepresented minority faculty members and the percent of women faculty members in the physical sciences and engineering are the two areas most in need of greater diversity, Paxson said.

A diverse faculty is important for two reasons, Paxson said. About three quarters of Americans identify as only white, she said, citing national census data. Yet children, Brown’s “future customers,” are only 53 percent white, she added. “The demography of the (United States) is changing dramatically … we need to change, too.”

The second reason is the “idea that diversity is a requirement for academic excellence,” Paxson said, adding that diversity in experience brings diversity in scholarship.

The University’s current progress on racial diversity is a mixed issue: In the past decade, there have been more underrepresented minority hiring, but there has also been an increase in total faculty hiring. The effect has resulted in “a modest increase despite a really strong effort,” Paxson said.

Compared to other Ivy League institutions, Brown’s 8.5 percent of faculty who are underrepresented minorities stands close to the top of the pack, second to Dartmouth’s 9 percent. But due to the low percentages within Brown’s peer group, this is “not much comfort,” Paxson said.

Provost Vicki Colvin presented data on the faculty and goals for the University to boost diversity in the coming years.

The gender distribution of the faculty is “holding steady,” with women accounting for 30 percent of all faculty and 15 percent of physical science and engineering faculty, Colvin said. The national average for physical sciences and engineering faculty is around 20 percent, she said, though the definition of minority demographics and departmental breakdowns varies between institutions.

The percent of underrepresented minority faculty members has essentially remained the same over the past few years, Colvin said, and with the University’s effort to hire more junior faculty members, there have been more diverse hires brought to campus earlier on in their careers. With less than 10 percent of senior faculty members identifying as underrepresented minorities, “it is harder to mentor the younger scholars and bring them through the ranks,” she added.

But the goal of doubling the percent of underrepresented minorities within the faculty will be hard to achieve because of “fewer opportunities to diversify,” Paxson said. In the last decade, the faculty increased by over 100 members, an expansion that will not occur again in the next decade, though the faculty will grow somewhat. In her strategic plan, Paxson outlined a goal to increase the faculty and student populations by roughly 1 percent each year for the next decade.

Another hardship the University faces in achieving its goal are the “challenging pipelines” in certain fields, Paxson said.

“Not that many underrepresented minorities are getting PhDs in fields we want to hire,” Paxson said. But Brown is an “attractive” place to work — hiring and retaining these faculty members “shouldn’t be as hard” as what peer institutions face, she added.

Brown currently runs the Target of Opportunity program, which maintains funding for 25 fluid faculty positions — the funding is lent to departments when they come across exceptional minority candidates whom the department does not have the money to hire at the time. Paxson said she hopes to see the addition of more Target of Opportunity positions and increased funding for the program, as well as a “multi-pronged” effort from top administrators and faculty members to establish an “institutional commitment” to diversification.

Paxson also spoke of a possible expansion of diversity programs for postdoctoral associates — the President’s Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Currently, resources are available to fund six of these postdoctoral positions for minority candidates next year.

Colvin presented new ideas for additional efforts: a possible one-year visiting scholars program that could lead to hiring opportunities, young scholar mentoring conferences that would “allow departments to get to know candidates earlier in their academic careers” and continued investments in postdoctoral fellowships and programs that will “expand the pipeline” for minority doctoral candidates.

Robert Self, professor of history, cited punishment, incentives and “moral suasions” as the most influential methods to promote diversity, with incentives being the least limited method. “Put money on the table,” he said, noting the signal of importance doing so would send to departments to increase diversity in their hires.

William Simmons ’60 PhD’67, professor of anthropology, also questioned the culture at Brown. “There’s something within the institution that needs to be understood,” which may point to why it has been hard to retain underrepresented minority faculty members, he said.

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 said, “Providence is not a great ally” in retaining faculty who are underrepresented minorities, adding that he has heard from a few previous faculty members who said they had felt isolated in the city.

Diane Lipscombe, professor of neuroscience, brought up the idea of compromise. To increase diversity, departments may have to let go of some of their expectations for the wide breadth of scholarship potential hires have pursued when evaluating candidates, she said.

Paxson said she wants to have “very concrete goals,” deparmental dedication and faculty input before eventually composing a formal “Diversity Action Plan.”

At the meeting, Director of Benefits Drew Murphy also gave a brief presentation on employee benefits. Faculty members must enroll online to receive their 2015 benefits, Murphy said. This is the first year that faculty members will have to actively enroll in benefits, as as opposed to having them renewed automatically. Health benefits for 2015 will also expand from three to four levels of health care coverage for faculty members and their beneficiaries, he added.

The Committee on Honorary Degrees has decided its recommendations for honorary degree recipients at this year’s Commencement, Paxson said. Eight final candidates were presented to the Corporation’s Board of Fellows at their October meeting, though their identities will remain confidential until the spring, she added.

Memorial minutes were also read for Associate Dean of Biology Marjorie Thompson ’74 PhD’79 P’02 P’07 P’09 P’12 P’14 P’16 and Associate Professor Emerita of English Dorothy Denniston at the meeting.


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