February 5, 2016

Provost Talks Lagging Faculty Diversity, More Representative Core

The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) hosted an event with Provost Eric Isaacs on Tuesday called “Navigating the Academy for Students of Color: Student Experiences inside the Classroom.” The provost said the University has made progress to diversify its student body, but has struggled to create a more diverse faculty.

Isaacs said that the University has struggled to increase faculty diversity due to comparatively infrequent turnover and a high demand for minority faculty members at peer institutions.

“Retention of faculty in general is like an everyday struggle, and in particular faculty of color. … It’s hard because we have top faculty members and there’s Harvard, there’s Yale, there’s Princeton,” he said.

The demand for minority faculty members at other institutions makes every case of retaining a diverse faculty member an uphill battle for the University, he said.

“I will say, we are treading water. I’ll be honest, the only place where we have actually grown dramatically in faculty of color, it turns out, is in biological sciences. We’ve had some amazing recruiting, amazing retention in the biological sciences. Pretty much everywhere else we’ve stayed flat, so we are treading water,” he said. 

The provost emphasized the University’s growing “pipeline” programs, or channels that bring minority and low-income students to the University. He cited the success of the financial aid initiative No Barriers, the University’s partnership with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), and Summer Bridge for CPS, a collegiate preparatory program run by the Office of Civic Engagement for Chicago Public School students.

“Look at our undergraduate class right now. It’s as diverse as it has ever been. We are above 20 percent in underrepresented minority students, and so we’ve grown dramatically,” he said.

The provost said that the growing population of minority students combined with a stagnant minority faculty population has made some faculty members feel overburdened by the task of supporting minority students.

“The faculty say that they feel burdened sometimes because a lot of our students of color will go to them as mentors, and they’re feeling that they’re in some ways overburdened. So when I talk to the deans, from our point of view, the key is actually to think about how to increase the diversity of the faculty. Certainly, we are doing it on the undergraduate side, but I would argue that we are not doing a good enough job yet to bring the faculty up to higher numbers,” he said.

Students also raised concerns that the Sosc and Civ curriculums ignore non-European cultures. The provost turned to Associate Provost and Chief of Staff Matthew Christian in the audience, who said that the University is considering adding a new core class on racial studies and is reexamining existing core classes like Readings in World Literature.

“It’s an active topic and I think we are going to see some changes in the next year,” Christian said.

The University will launch its second campus climate survey in the spring, focusing on race and diversity, which will help the University understand how to move forward on matters of diversity, Isaacs said.

“That should help us address some of these issues, but we are very much interested in that public image which is ‘We are the University of Chicago, we are freedom of expression, but we are also welcoming to scholarship and new ideas and diversity.’ … I think the climate survey will help us with some of the questions about classrooms and about what is really going on throughout the University, and that may help us address some of these issues,” Isaacs said.

Isaacs defended the University’s free speech policy in response to student concerns that it allows abusive language. The provost and President Zimmer appointed the Committee on Freedom of Expression to draft a statement on the University’s commitment to free speech in July 2014.

“Our values are not about abusive language. That’s not our values. Freedom of expression and respect are mutually beneficial. You can have freedom of expression and also be a respectful person. That’s the intent of the University of Chicago,” he said.

A student shared an experience of what she referred to as “verbal violence” from tenured faculty after she brought up questions of race in politics in her graduate classes. In response, the provost encouraged students to report their experiences to the Dean of Students.

“Part of being on this campus is that you have the right to have your opinion and your own ideas, but you have to back them up with a good argument, which is something really important. And if it has gone over the line, then I would only say that you have to say something to the Dean of Students,” Isaacs said.

The provost told another student that these reports of racial prejudice to the Dean of Students are taken seriously.

“I can’t promise you everything will work perfectly, but we are doing the best we can to take these things very seriously,” he said.

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