Taking Stock: Cornell University Marks Progress, Setbacks in Efforts to Recruit and Retain Minority Faculty

By Miranda, Maria Eugenia | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, October 13, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Taking Stock: Cornell University Marks Progress, Setbacks in Efforts to Recruit and Retain Minority Faculty


Miranda, Maria Eugenia, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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During the past 10 years, Cornell University has made significant strides in recruiting underrepresented minorities and women in its faculty ranks, but a new internal study at the university is revealing that its success is a mixed bag.

The number of minority faculty has grown about 52 percent, and the number of female faculty members has increased more than 38 percent in the last decade, according to a 2008 report by Dr. Robert Harris Jr., the former vice provost for diversity and faculty development. "Things have not changed dramatically," says Dr. Zellman Warhaft, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who was commissioned last fall by the university's provost to conduct a follow-up study on Cornell's diversity recruitment and retention.

Warhaft is in the process of finishing the report, which includes interviews with faculty, findings from work/life surveys and previous faculty studies and recruitment and retention information from other schools. So far, Warhaft concludes that women and minorities still think that the campus climate is less favorable to them, based on initial feedback from e-mail surveys and in-person interviews.

However, overall, women perceive the environment at Cornell to be more favorable to them than do underrepresented minorities, says Warhaft, and that could be because they went from being 22 percent of the faculty in 2005 to 27 percent of the faculty in 2010. An initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to recruit more female STEM faculty members, the CU-ADVANCE Center, also seems to have struck a chord with female faculty on campus, he says.

The center works with 53 departments in STEM to avoid unconscious bias in recruiting, train search committees where to look for female faculty and teach people about how gender factors into interviews. There also is a service called "coffee with the candidate" wherein a female faculty member is paired with a recruit who has a similar background or has had similar life experiences. "It's kind of raising awareness [in the departments] of the pitfalls," says the center's executive director Yael Levitte.

Now in its fifth year, the center has met two goals: it has recruited 75 women and, among those, 15 senior-level female faculty members. In the next two years, Levitte hopes to make each department about 20 percent female.

"It has to do with the proportion of women in departments," says Levitte. "If a department hasn't had to deal with it in a very long time, it's not even in their awareness." The center only works with about half of the university's departments; those in humanities are completely out of reach.

Most notably, women on campus have been expressing in the surveys concern over being able to keep a work/life balance, Warhaft adds. One of the biggest work/ life issues Levitte sees in recruiting and retaining female faculty members is that Cornell University is situated in a thin labor market for spouses. A faculty survey last fall showed that about 72 percent of female faculty said they had a spouse who was a paid employee, while about 50 percent of the male faculty said their significant other was a paid worker. The school has a dual career office that helps place spouses, but the dual career issue still came up quite a bit in exit interviews at the center, notes Levitte.

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When it comes to dealing with child care issues, one thing many departments have done to help women is schedule meetings earlier in the day, and not at 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. The problems are more anecdotal, says Levitte. "It's a department-by-department issue--some departments are extremely understanding," she says. "It's a climate environment. It's individuals feeling that they are supported by their institution, and I think we are moving in the right direction."

Lynette Chappell-Williams, associate vice president for inclusion and workforce diversity at Cornell, says the school is listening.

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