Twenty-five years ago this week, a group of 50 students blocked the entrances to the College’s administration building for four hours in protest of the lack of faculty diversity at Bowdoin. At the time, Bowdoin had just nine faculty members of color.
Since then, the College has emphasized the need to improve the racial diversity of its faculty, embarking on several initiatives toward that end. Results have been mixed: the number of professors of color on campus has increased, but that growth has been slow and uneven, and lagged behind many of Bowdoin’s peers.
Last year, there were a total of 32 minority members of the entire 235-person faculty, good for 13.6 percent of Bowdoin’s faculty, according to the College’s Common Data Set.
Many of the same obstacles that Bowdoin faced in creating a diverse faculty in 1990 still challenge the College today.
Randy Stakeman, associate professor of history and Africana studies emeritus, was the associate dean of academic affairs from 1991-1994 and at times in the 1980s and 1990s the only African-American professor at Bowdoin. He listed four challenges to creating a diverse faculty: the departmental hiring process, conscious and unconscious biases, the demography of specific fields and the unattractiveness of Bowdoin’s location.
“None of these is an excuse not to pursue faculty diversity, nor to throw up your hands at the impossibility,” Stakeman said in a phone interview with the Orient. “They are simply obstacles to be overcome.”
“Those all remain challenges, but we have worked towards mitigating some of the effects of those challenges,” said Interim Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Scanlon.
Scanlon said that the biggest challenge for Bowdoin now is addressing people’s implicit biases.
“That is inherent in our culture, people of color exhibit unconscious bias, white people exhibit unconscious bias, it is part of the water that we swim in, the air that we breathe. But that doesn’t excuse it in any way. So we have to make sure that we employ principles but also talk honestly and openly about these things," Scanlon said.
Today, the College’s efforts to create a racially diverse faculty are a part of each faculty search. The Faculty Diversity Committee has five members, one of whom sits on the search committee for every faculty opening.
The representative from the Faculty Diversity Committee is involved in a search from the time a position opens up until after the new faculty member is on campus. He or she is tasked with providing an outside perspective on the search committee and ensuring that candidates from a range of backgrounds, subfields and graduate programs are considered.
“It’s not just about the pool of candidates,” said Scanlon. “It’s also about our ability to fairly read applications and CVs and think long term and clearly about what fit means, what excellence means, what success means in a broader way.”
The College has also hired Romney Associates, a consulting firm, to help search committees think about how they can be conscious of diversity during every step of a search process.
The Maine Problem
While Bowdoin has changed its hiring process to include a member of the Faculty Diversity Committee in every search to recruit more broadly and to educate the committee about potential biases, it cannot do anything to change its location.
Bates, Bowdoin and Colby had three of the four lowest percentages of minority faculty in the NESCAC in 2014.
“Maine is overwhelmingly white. Maine is overwhelmingly rural. We are in a small town,” said Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell. “If you are black, or you are Hispanic, or from another country—if you are used to a vibrant, bustling metropolis, this world will be small, it will have limited options for you to pursue yourself, and it is quiet.”
Marilyn Reizbaum, the Harrison King McCann professor of English, was part of a 1992 Subcommittee on Diversity and the ad hoc committee in 2008 that issued a report on increasing faculty diversity. She cautioned against seeing location as an impenetrable problem.
“I think [Bowdoin’s location] can be a concern, but sometimes it is an excuse— a self-fulfilling prophecy and productive of circular reasoning,” Reizbaum wrote in an email to the Orient. “Bowdoin is a desirable place to work and can be very attractive. There can be a directed address by the college to the diverse needs of a diverse community, which will be welcoming to faculty who are being recruited.”
Indeed, Purnell emphasized that despite Maine’s relatively homogenous nature, his personal experience as an African-American professor at Bowdoin has been largely positive.
“I feel supported in my work, I feel like I’m able to raise a happy healthy family, I’m able to teach my children about race and class in America, and difference, so I flow well here. That might not be the norm for everybody, but it is for me,” Purnell said.
“It’s a slow process, but I don’t know, this is the question I would have: what are the other schools doing differently to get there faster?” said Staci Williams Seeley ’90, who was president of the African-American Society during her senior year and President of the Alumni Council from 2010 to 2012. “And the answer can’t be ‘Maine is a white state.’ Vermont is a white state, Connecticut, there are places where there are NESCAC schools where there is far more progress. For a good opportunity, for the right opportunity, the right scholar is going to come along.”
Bowdoin has a program for Target of Opportunity Hires, which allow departments to hire outside of the normal openings if talented minority candidates come along.
“I would still maintain that we should have a target of opportunity process, but the hardest work should take place on the part of the faculty and that is hiring a diverse faculty pool through the regular search process,” Scanlon said.
The College is also part of the Consortium for Faculty Diversity (CFD), which sends post-doctoral fellows to schools around the country. Bowdoin currently has five CFD fellows, but according the Scanlon, the goal of the program is bigger than increasing Bowdoin’s faculty diversity.
“My thought about the CFD program is that it is a larger institutional commitment—that there are many people of diverse backgrounds who are not that familiar with the small liberal arts college,” Scanlon said.
Bowdoin usually does not have openings to offer CFD fellows full-time offers, but hopes that they will end up in a small liberal arts college.
“The CFD program is not as narrow as diversifying the faculty at Bowdoin, it is also about diversifying the professoriate,” Scanlon said. “It’s a commitment that Bowdoin makes that applies to Bowdoin, but it’s also larger than Bowdoin.”
Yale announced earlier this week that they would invest $50 million in an initiative to fund new minority faculty hires in all of the University’s schools. It joins other large universities that have made high-profile financial commitments to faculty diversity in recent years, including Columbia in 2012.
“We’re not Yale,” Scanlon said. “We don’t have $50 million, so we have to find our own ways, our own Bowdoin ways, to keep this alive and to educate people about the importance of diversity among the faculty, and have people feel like it’s a community effort.”
“I think we should always be on the lookout for new approaches and keep an eye on how other institutions are doing their searching and trying to retain faculty,” said William D. Shipman Professor of Economics John Fitzgerald, who has been at the College since 1983 and was the chair of the ad hoc group on increasing faculty diversity in 2008. “It’s an ongoing process. I don’t think there’s an end goal and I don’t think there is a silver bullet. It’s a matter of trying to continually improve how we operate.”
According to Bowdoin’s Office of Institutional Research, 14 out of 119 tenured faculty in 2014 were minorities. The percentage of tenured faculty who are minorities has increased gradually over the past 10 years, but has been consistently below the overall percentage of minority faculty.
Part of the reason for this may be that while diversity is considered in the hiring process, it is not part of the tenure process.
“Tenure is based on excellence in teaching, distinction in scholarship and service to the College. So those are the sole criteria,” said Scanlon.
The fluctuations in faculty diversity are likely due to professors who are not brought to Bowdoin for the long term.
“The big concern is getting people who are tenured at the College. You can always have full time faculty and staff that come in for a year, maybe two, but if you’re not tenured, they’re not going to really have any vested interest in staying at the college for an extended period and that’s what it seems that Bowdoin still needs to work on,” said Karen Hinds ’93.
Faculty Diversity Matters
Minority faculty members have been an important part of the student experience at the College.
“People bring a lot more when they’re trying to learn than just going from tabula rasa to informed individual,” said Purnell. “Some people have to work through more stuff than just mastering the material. It helps to have a mentor for some people… I think that’s a role that some minority students want, or need.”
“I certainly felt very cared for and nurtured and attended to by faculty of color, that they considered mentoring students of color, black students in particular to be part of the deal, part of their job. And they did it with a lot of skill and care and attention and time,” said Seeley.
In addition to personal mentoring, minority faculty serve as role models for students.
“I think it’s the same with when you see a woman in front of the classroom. It really encourages you—especially if you’re interested in academia, but really interested in any position of power, I think it’s so important to just have representation at the head of the classroom,” said Elina Zhang ’16.
Michelle Kruk ’16 agreed about the importance of the perspective that minority faculty can bring to students of color.
“They’ve been able to speak to me in a way that others haven’t,” Kruk said. “I’ve had faculty of color—not just at Bowdoin, but even in high school—who have seen that I’m not getting something, and then they’ll use an example from their life experiences, or from the experience they know will resonate with me, and then I’ll be like, ‘oh shoot, I got it, this is what this means.’”
The diversity of the faculty also impacts what kinds of courses the College can offer.
“Having faculty who are diverse in certain departments, it definitely encourages a diversity of students to pursue those disciplines, and that was really really important to me. I also think that it creates a more diverse course load—for example, when you bring in these new faculty members, they will teach courses that aren’t in the typical canon,” said Zhang.
Faculty also feel that diversity is also important for the College as a whole.
“It makes the college be part of the evolving diversification of the US. In part, to teach students an enhanced perspective is one of the objectives of the college, and a diverse faculty allows us to do that,” Fitzgerald said.
“People bring different things to the table, people bring different questions to what it means to learn and how to learn and what it is we need to learn. And so the richest intellectual environment will be one that is more diverse,” added Scanlon.
While some argue that a focus on diversity leads to lower standards, Rose doesn’t see it that way.
“This issue is not one of surrendering any of those standards. This issue is of doing the work to find the really great teachers and scholars of color and then to consider them in a real and robust way in the process,” Rose said.
Here Having Been There
The protest on November 2, 1990 was organized by the Coalition of Concerned Students, a collection of students from different groups which included the African American Society, the Latin American Students Organization, the Bowdoin Women’s Association, the Bowdoin Jewish Organization and Bowdoin Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. They demanded action by recently-inaugurated President Bob Edwards and wanted a more diverse student body, a more diverse faculty and a gay and lesbian studies program.
The Coalition wanted a response to their demands by November 2, but after Edwards released a memorandum on October 31 that the students from the Coalition deemed “unacceptable,” they decided to protest. The demonstration was the culmination of discussions that started between the various groups earlier that year and were also catalyzed by the departure of one of Bowdoin’s two African-American professors, Gayle Pemberton, that summer.
Edwards met with five student representatives that day and released a statement with a plan that satisfied the students enough for them to stop the blockade.
Hinds (then Karen Edwards) was one of the students who met with Edwards that day, and said that faculty diversity important for the same reasons today that it was in 1990.
“Bowdoin needs to represent what’s going on around the globe,” Hinds said in a phone interview with the Orient. “And yes, Bowdoin is located in Maine and yes, it’s a difficult place to attract people to because of location and the weather and everything else that goes along, but if you’re a higher education environment you need to represent what’s going on in the world.”
In the fall of 1992, “The Report of the Subcommittee on Diversity” was released, which provided recommendations about recruiting more diverse students, improving the minority student experience and creating a more diverse faculty. The report listed Bowdoin as having the lowest percentage of minority faculty members amongst 16 other peer schools.
In 2014, Bowdoin had ninth highest percentage of minority faculty members in the NESCAC out of 11 schools, according to their respective Common Data Sets.
The report also set goals for gender diversity among the faculty and for the racial diversity of the student body. Last year, the faculty was 50.2 percent women; 15 years earlier, 37.4 percent of the faculty were women, according to the Office of Institutional Research. This year, 31.5 percent of students are minorities; 15 years earlier, 13.3 percent of students were minorities.
“We’ve definitely been slower [to diversify the faculty than the student body]. There’s a whole admissions office; there are mechanisms in place that have been in place for some time to increase student diversity,” said Scanlon.
One of the goals stated in “The Report of the Subcommittee on Diversity” in 1992 was that “The percentage of faculty members of color should equal that of minority holders of Ph.D.’s.”
In 2013, 22 percent of doctorate recipients in the life sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and humanities were minorities according to the National Science Foundation.
“Pinning it to the number of PhDs, that’s arbitrary,” said Stakeman. “You have to take advantage to get every possible diverse faculty member you can.”
What Does Success Look Like?
While “The Report of the Subcommittee on Diversity” in 1992 set specific goals, the College no longer uses numbers as benchmarks.
Zhang said that faculty diversity should reflect the diversity of Bowdoin students.
“The faculty demographic should be matching the student demographic, and it’s definitely not,” she said.
Others emphasized more intangible benchmarks of success.
“In a sense, you never achieve success. There is no number that you can get to or point to that is the kind of break even mark that you can say, ah, we have 10 faculty of color, it just doesn’t work like that. What you’re trying to do is create a campus and a faculty in which there are many many diverse viewpoints. How many diverse viewpoints should there be on the faculty? You can’t answer that question,” said Stakeman.
“We’re doing our work. That doesn’t mean we’re satisfied, that doesn’t mean we’re resting on our laurels— we’re in fact doubling down on the work that we have to do. Whatever the numbers say or don’t say, we’re doing the work we’re doing, not in response necessarily to a set of numbers, but in response to what we clearly know we need to do,” said Scanlon.
Scanlon suggested that no one measure will indicate when Bowdoin has achieved the level of faculty diversity it desires.
“We’ll just have a richer community, and we’ll know that we'll have a richer community, and we’ll find it less hard to do the work that we’re doing, and it will become a natural part of who we are and what we do,” Scanlon said.