By Christian Medina Beltz
Over the past 15 years the University of Wisconsin-Madison has made a commitment to improving the diversity of the institution’s faculty through a number of different programs to much success, despite this there is still some uncertainty as to the future and effectiveness of these initiatives.
One of the biggest efforts to improve faculty diversity is the Faculty Strategic Hiring Initiative, an 11-million-dollar fund to stimulate hiring and retention of minorities and women in the sciences and engineering. According to the University’s 2011 Diversity Update, 30 percent of new faculty hires last year were underrepresented minorities, a ten percent increase since the initiative began in 1998.
The Diversity Update also reports that as of 2010, approximately 18 percent of UW-Madison faculties are racial minorities, an eight percent increase since 1996.
“The initiative is what you would consider a bridging fund,” said Steve Stern, the Vice Provost for Faculty and Staff. “If there is something or someone that may benefit the university in the long term but the short term funds aren’t there we provide money to make the new diversity hire or fly-out candidates of marginalized social status to interview for staff positions.”
According to Stern, in order to retain the recent influx of minority staff members and create a comfortable social environment, the College of Letters and Science (CLS) organizes faculty-networking lunches and has also established a cluster of fellowships known as REI’s (Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity Fellowships), which are given to faculty members in related research fields.
The hope was that these programs would establish networks of intellectual engagement and community. However, the decentralized nature of the UW-Madison campus has made it difficult for minority professors to connect with one another.
“I don’t know many professors of color here,” said Shawnika Hull, an African-American professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication. “I’ve been here for two years and still have not developed a large network, especially amongst people of color.” (To hear more of this conversation with Hull, click here)
Hull arrived in Madison through the Anna Julia Cooper Post-Doctoral Fellowship. As part of the Faculty Strategic Hiring Initiative, the fellowship available to underrepresented minorities seeking assistant professorship positions.
After becoming better acquainted with UW-Madison, Hull believes that while the administration has maintained its commitment toward creating a more culturally diverse faculty, there are still many challenges minority professors still have to face.
“In my experience, professors of color have to do certain things others might not have to,” said Hull. “I know I’m young. I know I’m a woman, and I know I’m a black woman. I think I have to do a little extra to be treated as the authority in the classroom. Students will challenge me in ways I know they wouldn’t challenge others.”
Other minority professors echo Hull’s beliefs, witnessing discrimination and resistance not only in the classroom but also in more institutionalized levels as well.
“I’ve known a number of people of color that teach, who’ve left, because in their minds this is a hostile work environment,” said Patrick Sims an African-American professor in the Department of Theater & Drama. “There was one case in particular where an African-American professor who had brought in multi-million dollar research grants was denied tenure, I was shocked.”
Sims is only the second African-American professor to receive tenure at the UW-Madison Theater & Drama Department and while he admits his own rise to success had not been stymied by racial blockades, he is quite aware of the tense campus climate.
“On one hand I recognize that it’s an incredible accomplishment personally,” said Sims. “One the other hand that’s a sad reality, a very sad reality.”
This reality exists not only for faculty members but also for minorities pursuing graduate and post-graduate degrees at
UW-Madison. Naomi Campbell is a currently working on her Ph.D in History and as an African American, she has faced challenges both at the classroom and administrative levels.
“I’ve had a couple of students write papers that were incredibly insensitive and resistant towards me,” said Campbell. “There was one particular case where a student actually wrote in a paper that African-Americans were better off as slaves.”
Despite having her share of racially insensitive encounters, Campbell is impressed by the overall diversity at UW-Madison.
“Coming from a graduate program at the University of South Florida where I was one of two minorities in the whole department to Madison was refreshing,” said Campbell. “I know number of different people in the History department from many different cultural backgrounds.”
Campbell has also found acceptance within the Radical Teachers Collective, an organization consisting of graduate students from different academic departments working toward furthering cultural understanding and acceptance. Recently the organization took on the task of re-structuring the History Department’s diversity training to much success.
“The History Department was really open to feedback, it made the transition much easier,” said Campbell. “I think working on a department to department basis helps when communicating about issues of diversity.”
Communication Arts graduate student Sreya Mitra has found her own department to be incredibly welcoming since arriving from Calcutta, India eight years ago.
“We have a very supportive faculty here,” said Mitra. “From a graduate student point of view I’ve always felt my advisors and other members of the Communications Department have always had my best interests at heart.”
Having been met with open arms from her department Mitra has settled in nicely to the graduate student lifestyle despite the fact she had never set foot in the United States until she came to Madison. Even when confronted with difficulties in the classroom, Mitra saw the issues to be more of cultural difference then of ignorance or insensitivity.
“The academic culture here is very different then other parts of the world; in Asia you address your professor as ‘sir’ or ‘mam’ there’s not that aspect of informality,” Mitra said. “Even when I’ve had students complain about my accent or teaching I see it more as individual issue than a societal one. I find the people of the Midwest to be very kind and welcoming.”
Even Hull, whose had her own difficulties with discrimination and marginalization has found her experience as a UW faculty member to be both positive and encouraging.
“I feel respected by the faculty here and I get the sense that they recognize that who I am has implications for the dynamics I deal in the day-to-day,” said Hull. “Having your perspective validated and acknowledged by your peers is really valuable. I’ve had really good experience with the faculty here.”
Part of the growing improvement in faculty inclusion and development comes from the work being done at the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which compiles data from climate studies to compile equity scorecards that analyze where and how improvements in diversity inclusion can be made and applied. The information is then presented to various departments throughout campus where staff members coach other faculty members in areas where the improvements need to be made.
“We use measured and demonstrated results through internal assessment and identification for greater composition of diversity,” said Vick Washington Associated Vice President of the Department. “Our job is to present the different offices on campus with the tools for improvement through trainings and presentations, what they do with that information is up to them.”
While the inclusion and retention of minority faculty has made great strides over the years, the future for many of these initiatives remains uncertain. The Provost’s office has provided funding for many faculty diversity initiatives for the past two years as part of an experimental grant provided by the university. Funds will run out next year and it remains to be seen if central campus will approve of these initiatives and thus provide more funding or dissolve them altogether.
This program, entitled the Strategic Pipeline and Recruitment Fund is a three-year endowment that began last year, with central campus providing a $750,000 budget per-year. The goal of the program was to enhance the University’s capacity for pipeline development and competitive recruitment that strengthen faculty diversity through a series of development grants and competitive supplements.
Despite the cloud of doubt surrounding these program’s futures, Stern remains hopeful that campus administration will see the improvements and value these programs provide.
“I’ve seen a huge success in the number of underrepresented minorities in faculty positions,” Stern said. “Creativity and progress come from ideas bumping up against another, you want people who aren’t committed to the paradigms that already exist, and the inclusion of diversity is key in this progress.”