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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Community members reflect on failures and successes of faculty diversity initiatives

Alumni, faculty and students consider how changes in leadership will affect the future of faculty diversity on campus.

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This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue.

In fall 2022, the College announced a three-year institutional diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan called “Toward Equity: Aligning Action and Accountability.” The following April — months after the plan’s official public launch in January 2023 — Dartmouth’s Committee Advisory to the President denied tenure to professor Patricia Lopez, the only woman of color in the geography department. This decision led members of the Dartmouth community to write letters of support for Lopez, critiquing a lack of faculty diversity at the College.

This is not the first time the community has criticized tenure denial at the College. In 2016, students and professors alike came together on social media under the hashtag #fight4facultyofcolor after the English department denied tenure to Aimee Bahng.  

According to the Office of the Provost, Dartmouth has made progress in diversifying tenure-track faculty over the past decade, with the percentage of tenured underrepresented minority faculty in the Arts and Sciences increasing by 22%, and the percentage of pre-tenure URM faculty increasing to more than 42%.

According to Sadie Alexander Association co-chair Francina Kolluri ’25, having a diverse faculty is integral to a student’s learning experience because more students can see their backgrounds represented among professors. SAA is a student organization dedicated to making the economics department more welcoming to underrepresented students, according to the group’s website. Additionally, Kolluri said that the differing perspectives of these professors can lead to diverse areas of expertise — and a wider breadth of subjects taught.

As a woman of color, Kolluri said that it is important to her that economics professors use their identities to present new concepts to the field. Kolluri cited ECON 37, “Gender and Family Issues in Modern Economies,” taught by economics professor Claudia Olivetti, a co-advisor for SAA, as an example. According to the website of the economics department, Olivetti specializes in research on the role of women in the labor market. 

“Identity definitely has a really large impact on the kinds of topics professors teach, the things that they talk about and the dialogue that is acceptable in the classroom,” Kolluri said. “Since economics is a social science, it’s up for a lot of subjectivity and can be shaped by your identity.”

Kai Zhou ’24 is a leader for the Dartmouth Asian/American Studies Collective, which aims to establish a department or program that focuses on the Asian American experience. Zhou said that professors with diverse backgrounds are responsible for more than solely their role as an educator. 

“When you have faculty that reflect your own background, they become more than just professors,” Zhou said. “For a lot of [students], they become mentors and guides especially for students that want to pursue academia, and seeing somebody that is also a person of color or of an underprivileged background that is similar to them is empowering.”

Kially Ruiz ’98, president of the Dartmouth Latino Alumni Association, said that prioritizing a diverse faculty allows Dartmouth to maintain its leadership internationally and among other elite institutions. Ruiz explained that a lack of institutional support and high expectations for professors led to frustration in the Dartmouth community.

“These professors are expected to be scholars but also counselors, incredible teachers … and this seems to fall disproportionately on younger faculty, faculty of color and women,” Ruiz said. 

Economics professor and co-advisor for SAA, Andrew Levin explained that the process of granting academic freedom and financial compensation through a tenured position is “complicated.” 

According to Levin, a tenured position opens when an existing tenured professor leaves; however, the department, the Dean’s office and the administration can decide to reallocate resources elsewhere rather than refill the position. The hire candidate may be someone with prior association to Dartmouth, including an assistant professor on the tenure-track, or they may be recruited from outside of Dartmouth. When deciding whether to offer a tenured position, the department and administration look to the candidate’s academic record, including outside letters of recommendation, Levin said. 

Geography department chair and professor Xun Shi said he believes that the process of tenure is “transparent” and “improving” from past practices. Shi explained that in the geography department, the identities and backgrounds of candidates for open faculty positions are kept confidential from the search committee, so their potential to contribute to the inclusive culture of the department is based on their contributions to the field. In addition, Shi said that this protocol has been designed to be mindful of the potential unconscious bias of the department. 

“I think the most important benefit brought about by all those protocols, training sessions, programs, is that now — no matter at the management level or at the just individual level — we all have built up this mindset to really be aware and to try to avoid unconscious bias,” Shi said. 

Levin said coordination between the administration and the department is necessary for making the tenure process as productive as possible. Levin also said that through cooperating, the department and administration have the opportunity to foster a more diverse faculty.

College-wide initiatives for increasing faculty diversity are not unprecedented. In 2016, the Dartmouth Action Plan for Inclusive Excellence made recommendations for creating a more diverse and inclusive campus environment. 

“Dartmouth has made progress in diversifying tenure-track faculty over the past decade, but we must and will do more,” the Office of the Provost wrote in a statement to The Dartmouth. “Accelerating the pace of this work remains a major priority.”

Zhou said that not only should the administration diversify faculty by recruiting external candidates, but they also need to support current URM faculty members.

“[Faculty of color] are important to us as more than just educators,” Zhou said. “Although we should be focused on bringing some new [professors] in, there’s more that needs to be done to support [existing faculty of color] to ensure they don’t feel isolated or burnt out.”

According to Zhou, a lack of diversity at Dartmouth is further exacerbated when existing faculty of color see fellow BIPOC professors not get tenure because they may get discouraged and go elsewhere.

“If faculty of color … [see] people they respect and care about not get tenure, they’re going to leave, and we’re back at square one,” Zhou said. 

Levin said that having an overall more diverse faculty avoids the counterproductive dangers of tokenism, in which only one faculty member of a diverse background is hired. 

“When someone realizes they are just a token, they may well decide to leave,” Levin said. “If we’re truly devoted to expanding the diversity of our faculty, we need to avoid the dangers of tokenism. It means a sustained effort to expand the diversity of our departments, and continue to support faculty once they’re here.”

Ruiz said that the College must not backslide on its commitments to diversity, especially after the Supreme Court ruled that the use of affirmative action in college admissions was unconstitutional.

“We have to really focus on positive steps, where not even one step back is acceptable,” Ruiz said. 

Shi said that student perspectives are valuable within current and future conversations surrounding increasing the diversity of Dartmouth faculty.

“We are a community, and students together can have a big impact,” Shi said. “I appreciate the thoughts, ideas and the contribution from the students, as they have a good understanding and energy to improve the situations they disagree with.”

Levin said that he believes student-led organizations that meet with the administration, such as SAA and DAASC, can challenge the College to do more and have a great impact on Dartmouth’s legacy and leadership. 

“You have to be optimistic, but you kind of have to be a little bit cynical as well,” Zhou said. “Progress can be slow, but it is progress … it is sometimes embarrassing that students are the ones that seem to care about the faculty without initiation from the administration, but that is why students have to be so vocal about college bureaucracy, because we’re a part of it, [too].”