“Changes are Incremental.” How are Liberal Arts Funders Working to Boost Faculty Diversity?

Chadarat Saibhut/shutterstock

Chadarat Saibhut/shutterstock

The Charlotte-based Duke Endowment recently awarded $4 million to Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences to hire up to six junior- to senior-level faculty scholars with expertise in African, Asian-American and Latinx studies.

University officials say that these new faculty hires will bring additional global perspectives to the college, strengthen academic departments, and create a new network of faculty working across disciplines. “The Duke Endowment was eager to support this effort to cultivate diverse perspectives on campus and enhance the academic experience for students,” said Minor Shaw, chair of the Duke Endowment board.

This gift comes at a moment when equity-focused donors are pushing their alma maters to recruit and admit more students from economically diverse backgrounds. Yet we haven’t seen a comparably extensive level of support for boosting faculty diversity in the liberal arts, especially from alumni donors, even as American colleges and universities raised a record $46.7 billion in 2018. In that sense, the Duke Endowment gift is something of an outlier.

This lack of support is vexing for a few reasons. First, as we noted in a piece on funders’ efforts to bolster diversity in STEM education, students from underrepresented groups frequently report a sense they don’t belong on campus, leading to negative performance outcomes. More diverse faculties can blunt this effect.

Second, the Duke Endowment gift suggests that there is substantial demand for more diverse faculties in the liberal arts. Departments are increasingly spotlighting previously underrepresented African, Asian-American and Latinx writers, poets and artists. What’s more, university student bodies are becoming more diverse, and with many students coming from immigrant households, more globally oriented.

Indeed, the impetus behind the Duke Endowment gift was Trinity College’s students, not its administrators. Students “observed that while there is much opportunity for the study of culture at Duke, some perspectives are largely absent or not presented in terms of their deep interconnectedness with other parts of the world,” said Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

Last but not least is the fundamental fact that people of color remain woefully underrepresented on the faculties of many American universities.

Earlier this year, dozens of Rutgers University professors signed a petition criticizing president Robert L. Barchi’s lack of financial support for diversity and inclusion efforts. The petition noted that the number of tenure-track African American faculty at Rutgers in 1976 was 175, whereas the number of tenure-track African American faculty in 2017 was 89.

A month later, Barchi pledged $20 million in additional funding for the system-wide Faculty Diversity Hiring Initiative. The initiative “underscores the ongoing commitment of university leadership to assist our schools and departments in attracting and retaining a world-class faculty that embodies our dedication to diversity and inclusion,” he said.

Before exploring some theories as to why funder and alumni support for this issue remains relatively tepid, let’s take a closer look at the most active institutional player in the space, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Building a “Pipeline”

Mellon’s diversity program officer Armando Bengochea laid out the foundation’s thinking around the issue of faculty diversity last year in a piece titled “The Demands for Diversity Hiring Require a ‘Pipeline.’”

Bengochea argues that one-off grants won’t effectively generate a deep bench of diverse liberal arts professors and scholars. Rather, funders must methodically cultivate students in a way that eases them toward a path of post-graduate employment. This pipeline includes encouraging students to conduct independent research under the guidance of experienced teachers and scholars, demystifying the “more intimidating rituals of postgraduate education,” and providing support networks that can provide “sustaining counterweights in a context of fierce academic competition.” This approach mirrors Mellon’s work to create such a pipeline for diverse museum professionals.

There are many real-world examples of Mellon putting its theories into practice. Last year, the foundation bankrolled the four-year Pathways to a Diverse Faculty project at UC Merced, which primarily focuses on the humanities and humanistic social sciences. It awarded an $800,000 grant to Gettysburg College to support diversity on campus, including making enhancements to the curriculum and improving the hiring and retention of diverse faculty in the humanities. And it has funded a three-year faculty diversity project at Queens College.

Yet despite support from the Duke Foundation and Mellon, we haven’t seen a critical mass of interest in boosting faculty diversity across the larger funding community, and with alumni donors in particular. Meanwhile, tensions over this issue have been brewing for years at various institutions.

In 2015, for example, Yale University announced a five-year, $50 million initiative to increase faculty diversity. Roughly two years later, Yale provided an update on its efforts in “enhancing the pipeline.” The results were encouraging. The university hired 50 new tenured full professors and tenure-track professorial faculty, as well as 11 Presidential Visiting Fellows.

Yet in early April, all 13 professors who serve Yale’s ethnicity, race and migrations studies (ER&M) major abruptly announced they would withdraw their labor from the program, saying the administration failed to provide promised autonomy and resources. “We are not meeting the needs of majors because our faculty are overtaxed and performing labor across the university, principally because there is a shortage of people with our expertise and faculty of color,” said Alicia Schmidt Camacho, program chair and professor of American studies. 

President Peter Salovey said in a statement that the university greatly values the work of faculty colleagues in the program, and regrets “their decision to withdraw from it, and in this manner.” Yale “will make sure that affected students are given the resources and support they need, and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached that works well for everyone,” he said.

Obstacles to Progress

Meanwhile, Columbia University has allocated $185 million toward efforts to diversify its faculty since 2005, including a $100-million commitment in 2017. But according to the Columbia Spectator, minority professors comprised 21 percent of the total faculty with the school of Arts and Sciences, a number that has increased by only 1 percent since 2011.

Add it all up, and developments at Yale and Columbia may give outcome-focused funders and alumni donors pause. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to boost faculty diversity at these elite and affluent universities, yet the needle hasn’t moved all that much. Why?

Writing in Inside Higher Education, Colleen Flaherty noted that a good portion of the funds in these programs are reserved for recruiting underrepresented minorities already working in academe, or new Ph.D.s. As a result, skeptics worry that the net effect of these initiatives across academia will be zero, as universities are simply poaching qualified candidates from other institutions.

Then there’s the fact that there aren’t many job openings in the humanities in the first place. Nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, English departments have lost some 20 percent of their majors over the last 10 years. Nor are tenured faculty leaving the workforce in droves. According to Harvard’s annual report of the Office of Faculty Development and Diversity, 60 percent of tenure-track and 41 percent of tenured faculty are now women and/or minorities. According to the 2010 census, 37 percent of Americans identify as something other than “non-Hispanic-whites.” While Harvard’s numbers seem solid, the school was nonetheless quick to note that “changes are incremental because turnover in the senior faculty at Harvard is low.”

As a result, some commentators have questioned this throw-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, especially when there are other compelling models out there.

For instance, Flaherty highlighted the work on the Ph.D. Project. Funded by the KPMG Foundation, the American Express Foundation, LinkedIn, and other corporate funders and universities, the initiative aims to improve diversity among business professors. The project’s budget is a paltry $2.4 million and it does not provide direct support to students. Rather, it relies heavily on marketing and cultivating networking opportunities across the country. According to Flaherty, the project graduates about 50 students per year, and says 97 percent of alumni are teaching in colleges or universities.

“When I heard about Yale committing $50 million to faculty diversity, I thought about our program and how over 22 years, we’ve spent $49 million,” the Ph.D. Project’s Executive Director Bernard Milano told Flaherty. “If you just carved out a little from what Brown and Yale and Harvard have committed to a national program, that could be very effective.”

A Lack of Direct Alumni Experience

Also consider the fact that alumni donors may perceive this issue from a different vantage point than their alma mater’s administrators.

Alumni tend to give gifts that hew to their personal experiences and interests. David Booth gave millions to revamp his alma mater’s football stadium because he enjoyed going to games as a child. Bill Miller made a huge gift to Johns Hopkins’ philosophy department because the field helped him to become one of the most successful investors of his generation. And P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos gave the University of Pennsylvania $50 million for its energy sciences program because Roy, a pharmaceutical executive who published over 100 scientific white papers, is keenly interested in energy research.

Conversely, we see a dismal amount of support for community colleges, historically black universities, and female-led efforts to close the STEM gender gap, because there is a dearth of mega-donors who can directly draw from those experiences. And so one reason why we haven’t seen significant alumni support for faculty diversity is because there are comparatively few African-American or Latinx donors out there to give the cause a needed shot in the arm.

This isn’t to say we don’t see the occasional gift to boost faculty diversity. Last year, the University of Delaware Board of Trustees Chairman John R. Cochran III and his wife Patricia gave the school $3 million to establish the John and Patricia Cochran Scholars Fund to recruit, develop, retain and promote a diverse faculty.

More recently, Marilyn Hawrys Simons, co-founder and president of the Simons Foundation, gave $25 million to her alma mater Stony Brook University to recruit and retain female and minority senior and mid-career economics faculty. According to the school, women and/or members of racial and ethnic minorities are awarded only about a third of economics doctorates in the U.S. annually, with African Americans and Latinos particularly underrepresented.

Not coincidentally, Simons, once listed by Inside Philanthropy as the fourth most powerful woman in philanthropy, gives from experience. She was the first woman in her family to attend college and received her BA and Ph.D. in economics from Stony Brook in 1974 and 1984, respectively. She is founder and chair of the Stony Brook Women’s Leadership Council, a mentoring program that pairs female undergraduates with accomplished alumnae and friends of the university.

A Real-Time Campus Equity Case Study

Brown University provides an instructive case study of a school and its fundraising team attempting to integrate faculty diversity within the larger issue of equity.

In 2015, Brown announced “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University,” a 10-year, $100 million initiative aimed at creating a more diverse and inclusive community, and addressing issues of “structural racism, power, privilege, inequity, and injustice on campus.”

According to Reuters, the university's announcement followed the alleged assault by a security officer of a student who was visiting Brown for a Latino Ivy League conference. The incident came against the backdrop of race-related protests at a number of U.S. colleges and universities, including Yale, Princeton and the University of Missouri. And in 2006, Brown officials acknowledged that the university benefited in its early years from funds derived from the slave trade.

The initiative was bold from an operational and thematic standpoint. Operationally, Brown pledged to double the number of faculty members from “historically underrepresented” groups, such as minorities, women and LBGT groups by adding as many as 60 new faculty members by 2025.

But also consider the hard-hitting language employed by the school. “Structural racism.” “Privilege.” “Injustice on campus.” Do loyal alumni want to be told their beloved alma mater is guilty of such offenses? Was Brown implying that alumni, through their financial support, have had a hand in propagating such inequity and injustice?

These aren’t theoretical questions. A few years back, I reported that some alumni stopped donating to their alma maters to protest administrators’ inability or unwillingness to stand up to what they considered political correctness run amok. The findings underscored a psychographic reality about a certain kind of baby boomer alumni donor. They are an inherently conservative bunch. In fact, when administrators do stand up to student activists, some donors reward them for doing so, as was the case with Kenneth Griffin’s big gift to the University of Chicago.

This isn’t to say that Brown alumni aren’t concerned with greater equity, or that some silently agreed with the plan’s contentions. But when viewed through the lens of fundraising, Brown administrators took a calculated risk by employing such fiery verbiage, given the fact that most alumni are reluctant to wade into politically charged waters.

An Integrated Approach

In March of 2017, Brown reported some preliminary findings. For example, the university cited an increase in hiring of faculty from historically underrepresented groups—of the 37 regular faculty hired in 2015-16, 11 were faculty from such groups, representing nearly 30 percent of hires. 

However, in December, a group called the Coalition of Concerned Graduate Students of Color and those in Solidarity at Brown University issued a statement arguing that Brown’s plan had fallen short. “The anticipated 10-year, $100 million investment in diversity and inclusion sounds impressive,” the statement read, “but note that this is a mere 3 percent” of Brown President Christina Paxson’s “$3 billion Brown Together capital campaign.”

The coalition listed its demands and what it perceived as the “specific failures” of Brown’s plan, including a more rigorous boost in faculty hires, a better quality of life for graduate students of color, and “anti-oppression trainings with an intersectional framework.” 

In 2018, the school added its Diversity and Inclusion Action plan (DIAP), which seeks to recruit and retain faculty from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences, as a priority in its BrownTogether fundraising campaign.

In March of this year, Brown announced that the campaign, which is set to expire in 2022, had eclipsed $2 billion. A closer look at the numbers revealed that the school raised $537 million toward the campaign’s $1.05 billion Investing in People goal. “This includes support for endowed chairs to advance faculty research and teaching,” the press release read. Brown also raised $45.5 million to support goals outlined in its DIAP.

The takeaway from the Brown case study suggests that while alumni rarely write massive checks earmarked for boosting faculty diversity, they’re amenable to the concept when it’s bundled into a massive fundraising campaign or linked to a larger effort to support diversity and inclusion on campus.

It also probably doesn’t hurt to dial back the fiery rhetoric. Brunonia, the online home for Brown alumni giving, lays out the goals of the school’s Diversity and Inclusion Action here. “By recruiting and retaining faculty from a multitude of backgrounds and experiences—and by increasing resources that enable them to study issues related to equity and the impacts of marginalization—we deepen and broaden the impact and reach of our scholarship,” the page reads.

Terms like “structural racism,” “privilege” and “injustice on campus” were curiously absent.