Professors call for increased faculty diversity

Of the 180 tenure and tenure-track faculty positions at the college, 45 percent are occupied by women and 36 percent are occupied by individuals who identify as members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Of the 75 female tenure and tenure-track faculty members at the college, 14 are professors in the natural sciences or engineering and 10 identify themselves as women of color. While these statistics are on par with national trends in higher education and represent considerable improvement from previous years, many faculty members at the college believe that significant advancements still need to made for there to be congruence between the college’s theoretical and practical commitments to faculty diversity.

In 2011, the college released the “Strategic Directions” report, which established the institution’s plans for handling the changing world of higher education over the coming years. One of the key features of “Strategic Directions” was a commitment to increasing faculty diversity. In former president Rebecca Chopp’s letter to the community, which begins the “Strategic Directions” report, she states, “Our ways of attracting and retaining a diverse faculty will need to keep pace with the changes both in academics and in our student body.”

Across higher education, changes at the institutional level have led to more progressive hiring practices for tenure and tenure-track positions. While such changes are far easier to undertake at large research universities, smaller, comparable institutions, such as Bowdoin College and Pomona College, have also made strides in promoting faculty diversity in recent years.

In 2008, Bowdoin introduced a “Proposal to Increase Faculty Diversity,” which led to the implementation of “Special Opportunity Hiring” practices that specifically target female and minority candidates for tenure-track faculty positions. Such practices provide for the appointment of new faculty members, prioritizing each candidate’s ability to fill certain diversity criteria without having to go through a national search where smaller colleges typically struggle to find a significant number of candidates from diverse backgrounds.

In 2004, Pomona College instituted diversity recruitment procedures requiring each department to report to the Dean, the Diversity Committee, and the Diversity Officer each time they plan to fill a tenure-track position in order to maximize the diversity of the candidate pool.

The “Strategic Directions” report outlines the need for the installment of similar procedures at Swarthmore.

In the report, the committee states, “With the support of the College’s equal opportunity office, we must increase the diversity of applicant pools and develop strategies to persuade highly sought-after candidates to choose Swarthmore, including funding postdoctoral fellowships for underrepresented groups.”

Despite the rhetoric of diversification emphasized in the “Strategic Directions” report, however, some professors feel that the college still is not doing enough to ensure race and gender diversity amongst tenured and tenure-track faculty, particularly in the natural sciences.

“I think more could be done,” said Professor of Spanish Maria Luisa Guardiola. “They are trying to get people to be more flexible about who they are going to hire, to think more openly about the candidate, but that’s not enough…I just find that if they’re going to diversify they have to really commit to this diversity.”

Guardiola worried that there is some disparity between the college’s stated dedication to faculty diversity and the way in which this dedication has manifested itself in practice.

“There is what they are telling people they are doing and then there is what they are actually doing,” she explained. “It seems like the college wants to impose certain things because they look good.”

Professor of History Marjorie Murphy expressed similar concerns, particularly in regards to the gender gap amongst tenured and tenure-track faculty.

“I think it’s time for the college to hold up the mirror and take a good look at what it’s doing for the faculty,” Murphy explained. “There is no point in recruiting all of these wonderful women here and bringing them halfway through their career here, or their tenure here, and then not tenuring them. This speaks to a lack of communication.”

Murphy noted that this problem is particularly pronounced in the natural sciences where, in past years, controversial tenure decisions have denied various female tenure-track faculty members from becoming fully tenured professors. Five of twenty female tenure candidates in the natural sciences and engineering have been denied tenure by their departments after the termination of their contracts at the college. Murphy believes this 15 percent differential has played a significant role in shaping the gender makeup of the natural sciences faculty at the college today.

Professor of Engineering Lynn Molter agreed.

“I think in the sciences at the college, you do face more challenges in getting tenure as a woman,” Molter said. “I’ve known [tenure-track] women who have not continued on to even be considered for tenure, and I’m trying to think of men … and I can’t really think of any, so I’m going to say it’s a smaller number of men – if any – who have been in that circumstance.”

Molter, who is the sole female professor in the engineering department, explained that during her more than 27 years of teaching at the college, she has only had two other female colleagues within the engineering department. However, neither of them work at the college today. Molter believes that the college could and should have done more to retain them. While one left after one year after having been offered a tenure-track position at another institution, the other was denied tenure in the sixth year of her contract despite what Molter considered to have been sufficient qualifications.

“I do think that being a woman was a very significant factor,” she said. “I am also convinced that there were other very serious issues that should not have been a factor in the decision.”

Molter believes that the irregularities in the tenure evaluation of this candidate represent a serious loss for the department.

“We could have made an opportunistic hire, however, there was legitimate disagreement about whether the department should have done an opportunistic hire or a full search,” Molter explained, referring to the process of filling tenured faculty positions without conducting a national search. “Now knowing, since that time, about the remarkable success and contributions of the individual who could have been hired, I am resolved to improve the circumstances for women in Engineering as well as in other sciences and mathematics at Swarthmore .”

According to data released by the Provost’s Office, in the last 20 years, in the natural sciences, 90 percent of male tenure candidates have received tenure, while only 75 percent of female tenure candidates have received tenure.

Sunka Simon, professor of German studies and associate provost for faculty development, explained that over the past 20 years, male tenure candidates have receive tenure at a rate 7 percent higher than female tenure candidates across all disciplines.

“It doesn’t look so great,” Simon said. “In the case of engineering, I know of a woman and a person of international ethnicity who were denied tenure, and I know in biology a while back there was a tenure denial of a double minority candidate.”

Murphy explained that the denial of tenure for qualified women in the sciences raises questions about the nature of the tenure process in general.

“All I can say is that it was surprising to me given how difficult it is to recruit good women in science and have them come to the campus and then not have them achieve tenure,” Murphy said. “The arguments against their tenure were perfectly legitimate within their fields, but it caused you to wonder. If they were acceptable when they were hired, what caused them to be so unacceptable seven years later?”

Nevertheless, given the efforts of the college to diversify in recent years, Simon is hesitant to point to gender and racial bias as playing a dominant role in the seven-year tenure process. Simon explained that the tenure process is incredibly comprehensive and involves a number of factors, including a candidate’s teaching, scholarship, and service.

Most tenure-track faculty are appointed on four year contracts as Assistant Professors, and in their third year, they apply for reappointment. For the reappointment process, a candidate must amass all of their scholarly research and publications, choose colleagues from other disciplines as well as former students to write letters on their behalf, and select three external reviewers in their field to assess their application for reappointment. At the same time, the department reviewing the reappointment application is also responsible for choosing a selection of former students and external reviewers to evaluate the applicant.

If the department decides to reappoint a candidate and make them an Associate Professor, they must submit that decision to the Committee for Promotion and Tenure – comprised of five senior faculty, the provost, and the president of the college – which, based on the department’s recommendation, will also make a decision on the candidate’s tenure future. That decision is then submitted to the Board of Managers who will either confirm or deny the reappointment. According to Provost and Professor of Chemistry Tom Stephenson, the third year review is usually successful, but provides a very useful opportunity for feedback and mentoring.

In the candidate’s sixth year, the College repeats this process on a more scrutinizing level, at which point, if their application for tenure is accepted, they become tenured professors.

Despite the multiple checks and balances of the tenure appointment process, however, some believe that there is still room for biases to affect the final tenure decision.

“There is a culture here where there is still a popularity contest,” said Guardiola. “Sometimes I’ve noticed that the standards are not the same for different people… When they don’t want someone to get through, they claim it’s a collegiality issue, and to me, that collegiality issue is very arbitrary.”

Guardiola expressed concern that collegiality, which is an assessment of how well a tenure candidate relates to their colleagues, has the potential to be used as a rationale for denying tenure to more outspoken or less socially popular candidates.

Murphy agreed, explaining that issues of collegiality can lead to inappropriate assumptions about the personal lives of tenure candidates that may add scrutiny to the applications of female and minority candidates.

“This generation of men, knowing that they can’t ask about marital status and children still speculate as to what the family life of female candidates is as opposed to men,” Murphy said. “Sometimes they’re just curious…They’ll say ‘I wish I knew, but I can’t ask her.’ … It used to be that you had to be suspicious of a comment like that thinking she won’t be able to devote as much work time as men would.”

Murphy explained that sometimes women who have families and children to raise may appear less collegial than their colleagues simply because they have responsibilities that take them out of the workplace.

“Sometimes when faculty members aren’t here very much – and this happens sometimes with women faculty members. At five o’clock they turn into pumpkins and go home and take care of their kids, regularly, and that could be interpreted as not collegial,” Murphy explained. “I go to my friend’s lectures as much as I can, but I’m a single woman, and I don’t have as heavy family claims on my time.”

In the past, these issues were far more pronounced.

Guardiola explained that when she came up for tenure, it was very difficult as a female tenure candidate to both raise a family and go through the tenure process because there was no maternity leave granted to female faculty members.

“In the late 1980s, I was a visiting professor, and my youngest child was born in 1989,” Guardiola said. “I had no maternity leave, so I came back to my class two weeks later.”

“I think this was a sexist campus when I came up,” agreed Murphy, who received tenure in 1987. “Some of the comments when I first got here were outrageous.”

Guardiola agreed, expressing that she experienced significant antagonism from male colleagues during her tenure process given her outspoken nature on departmental issues.

“There were a lot of male professors, so it was important that you kind of followed their ideas and that you did what they wanted,” said Guardiola, who received tenure in 2000. “I always felt a little bit uncomfortable because I didn’t agree with their vision of the direction that the Spanish program should go, but because of my circumstances I had to compromise a little.”

Professor of Physics Amy Graves felt that when she received tenure in 1994, some faculty outside of her department were surprised.

“They were pretty sure I wouldn’t get tenure just because of my vibe,” Graves explained. “On the day tenure decisions were announced, I had been invited to the tenure party of a wonderful colleague … and there was a sense that my case was much more tenuous than theirs, and when I walked in the door, people’s eyebrows shot up, and when I said ‘Hey, I got tenure,’ there was that shock … and it was just much less expected that I would [get tenure] for reasons I do not want to project a simplistic interpretation upon.”

Professors Graves, Guardiola, and Murphy all explained that today, the culture regarding gender and tenure has improved significantly.

Guardiola believes that the college is much more accommodating to the needs of its female tenure track faculty than it was in the past. For example, women on maternity leave are now given extra time to complete their tenure track, which Guardiola believes is indicative of some culture of change at the college.

“There definitely are a lot more women with tenure than when I started here for sure,” Guardiola said. “It definitely has changed. It’s a lot more balanced.”

Murphy echoed these sentiments.

“When I first came to Swarthmore, the Political Science Department didn’t have any women,” Murphy said. “I think some of it was clearly attitude and those attitudes began to break down… It’s a much more diverse campus than when I came.”

Simon agreed, explaining that in the humanities and social sciences at the college, women now receive tenure at a higher rate than men. According to data released by the Provost’s Office, in the last 20 years, female tenure applicants in the social sciences have received tenure at a rate of 88 percent, while their male colleagues have received tenure at a rate of 86 percent. In the humanities, over the same time period, 91 percent of female tenure candidates have received tenure, while 90 percent of male tenure candidates have received tenure.

Still, Professors Simon, Guardiola, and Murphy all explained that much work remains to be done in order to achieve the type of faculty diversity that the college has expressed a desire for. They felt that though norms might be changing in regards to gender, especially in the humanities and social sciences, there remains an immense lack of racial and ethnic diversity amongst tenure and tenure-track faculty at the college.

“There are more women professors than racial or ethnic minorities,” Simon said. “Race is really pitiful. It’s not good. It should be much better.”

Starting in the 1980s, the college began to engage in diversity hiring programs to bring racial and ethnic minorities to campus. These efforts were part of a broader initiative to better fulfill Quaker ideals of tolerance and community. Still, despite their good intentions, these reforms have left something to be desired.

“Its great that every few years, Swarthmore makes a concerted effort to recruit more women or recruit more faculty of color,” Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Professor of Sociology at the college, explained. “We succeed at that, and then comes the frustrating part, we take a vacation.”

Willie-LeBreton explained that while the college has made significant gains in diversity over the years, these gains have occurred in fits and starts. A consistent effort to recruit and maintain diverse tenure track faculty has been lacking.

Willie-LeBreton expressed concern that the college sometimes relies too heavily on its prestigious reputation to attract applicants for tenure positions instead of actively recruiting diverse candidates.

“I wish we would take a page out of the admissions handbook,” Willie-LeBreton said. “Admissions sends recruiters to the Southwest, to the Pacific Northwest, to the Midwest. We participate in QuestBridge to recruit low-income students that otherwise wouldn’t know about Swarthmore… we need to be doing a version of that. There are superlative PhDs coming out of the University of California system, the SUNY system, and the large universities in the South; people who would be a wonderful fit here and be a great contribution, but you need to scratch below the surface.”

Simon also felt that the college does not do enough to recruit candidates who do not have a certain academic pedigree.

“Swarthmore, because it considers itself an elite institution, has a bias against, for example, historically black institutions, or degrees that don’t come from the top five or the top ten,” Simon said. Simon worried that over the years, this bias has unfairly impacted the way in which the college has recruited for tenure-track positions.

“The challenge is surmounting the institutional inertia of bygone decades,” Willie-LeBreton agreed.

Still, according to Willie-LeBreton, the college has recently been making steps in the right direction.

“There has been a pretty serious change just in the last three or four years,” Willie-LeBreton explained, emphasizing the importance of the Diversity Task Force that operated during the 2013-2014 year. The task force conducted a review of faculty hiring for the year and distributed this report to all faculty members at the college in an effort to raise awareness regarding diversity hiring tactics. Additionally, the position description for Associate Provost was rewritten to mandate that the Associate Provost focus on increasing faculty diversity.

In her role as Associate Provost, Simon has helped to highlight the college’s role as a founding member of the Consortium of Faculty Diversity. In October of 2015, the college will host the CFD’s conference on campus. The consortium recruits faculty who identify themselves to be of diverse backgrounds to participate in two-year teaching fellowships at the college where they gain experience in the classroom, while working on their dissertations. According to Simon, this provides valuable teaching skills to professors and exposes students to a more diverse swath of instructors. Presently there are three CFD fellows teaching on campus.

Willie-LeBreton explained that such diversity initiatives are crucial to maintaining the competitiveness of the college on a national level.

“If we don’t keep diversity as one of our goals for faculty, staff, and student recruitment but also for the curriculum we offer, we will not remain one of the nation’s preeminent liberal arts colleges,” Willie-LeBreton said. “You could get away with that in 1957. You can’t get away with that anymore.”

Provost Stephenson agreed that faculty diversity is incredibly important to the future of the college, alluding to the college’s aim for continual improvement in this field.

“We’re always interested in diversifying the faculty,” Stephenson explained. “We have a high priority in making sure that we have as diverse a pool of applicants as possible… We definitely have aspirations to increase the diversity of our faculty. We’re not satisfied. I know I’m not satisfied.”

Willie-LeBreton explained that simply announcing these aspirations for diversity in conversations around campus has the potential to genuinely change the culture around faculty diversity at the college. In particular, she emphasized the power that students hold within these conversations – as evidenced by the student-driven development of more recent diversity initiatives around ethnic studies and mutual respect – to incite meaningful reform.

Murphy agreed.

“I’ll say this about Swarthmore,” Murphy said. “That lip service – at least we have that. In other words, at least they’re willing to entertain the idea that this is a possibility and thats always the first step. If somebody’s willing to do that or say that, then you can have a conversation.”


  1. The focus should be on recruiting, hiring, and promoting the best qualified individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex. Discrimination is wrong, whether it’s the old-fashioned politically incorrect kind, or the new-fashioned politically correct kind done in the name of diversity. Not only is it divisive, unfair to applicants and students, and bad for the university’s research mission — it’s also illegal. See this link: http://www.nas.org/articles/A_Half-Dozen_Push-Backs_for_Faculty_Hiring_Committee_Meetings

  2. Of the tenure-track positions, “36 percent are occupied by individuals who identify as members of racial and ethnic minority groups.”

    That leaves 64% of tenure-track positions being held by non-Hispanic whites. According to Wikipedia, 64% of Americans are non-Hispanic white. So it would seem that Swarthmore has it exactly right as-is, no?

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