Verbum Ultimum: Recruit and Retain

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 4/17/14 6:58pm

From casual conversations during office hours to funded lunch dates in town, from the Presidential Scholars program to other undergraduate research partnerships, a robust culture of student-professor interaction thrives at Dartmouth. At a college that has ranked number one in undergraduate teaching for the past five years, our faculty play a significant role as mentors to many undergraduates. We hope this never changes.

But the dual role that faculty play, as both scholars and teachers, requires vigorous and constant support. Though Dartmouth is already an extraordinary research institution, we urge the College to continue to do its best to support professors in both positions.

The recent $100 million donation and cluster initiative provide an exciting opportunity for the College to increase the diversity of its faculty, not only in terms of discipline but also in terms of background. Doing so would improve both the College’s social and intellectual climate. Efforts to increase inclusivity at Dartmouth should be made at all levels, including among faculty.

At a recent “Moving Dartmouth Forward” session held earlier this week, community members discussed ways to recruit and retain faculty from minority groups. Dartmouth has a notably poor retention rate for minority faculty members and is the least diverse school in the Ivy League, with the percentage of white faculty, including graduate schools, at 82 percent.

Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno mentioned the “playmate problem” as a factor influencing many minority faculty members’ decisions to leave the College. In order to meet all faculty members’ intellectual needs, the College must provide them with more opportunities to connect and collaborate with their fellow professors. At a school as small as Dartmouth, it is sometimes more difficult than it should be for professors to find an intellectual “playmate.” Professors with very specific areas of expertise or those in smaller departments may choose to go elsewhere to better satisfy their intellectual needs.

The recent clustering initiative will create interdisciplinary partnerships to foster collaboration and research across departments. In doing so, the College will encourage professors from different fields to engage with one another intellectually. If these clusters are successful, professors will embark on creative, innovative and exciting projects, putting Dartmouth at the forefront of research, in addition to undergraduate teaching.

At the discussion, many faculty members agreed that Dartmouth needs a “critical mass” of minority faculty members in various departments if it hopes to improve the retention rate. While a critical mass of minority faculty members would certainly contribute to an overall welcoming atmosphere, the connections that these academic clusters will forge may increase the overall sense of belonging for all faculty members.

English professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina noted at the event that some junior faculty members, especially those from minority groups, may feel overburdened with the mentor relationships they take on for students from similar backgrounds, and we would hope that reaching a “critical mass” could ease this burden.

Yet as African and African-American studies professor Reena Goldthree said, Dartmouth should not simply rely on anecdotes. The College should conduct thorough research on faculty quality of life, particularly for minority faculty members, and offer exit interviews with faculty who choose to leave the institution. The key to solving our faculty retention problem is to understand why these faculty members decide to leave in the first place. If paired with the proper research, the clustering initiative is a step in the right direction. We must demonstrate our commitment to minority faculty retention and overall faculty happiness, showing that these tenets are among Dartmouth’s top priorities.