Strengthening faculty diversity, strengthening communities

April 14, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I basically wrote my honors thesis without an advisor. That’s not much fun, but par for the course when you consider the abject state of faculty diversity hereabouts.

My original advisor was Stephen Hong Sohn, whose tenure denial prompted the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee to begin the “Who’s Teaching Us?” (WTU) campaign back in 2014. After his departure, I approached half a dozen other professors before I could find anyone who felt comfortable supervising my thesis.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the one professor who finally agreed to take me on would also be denied tenure within the year.

At present, there is no professor in Stanford’s nationally ranked English department who specialises in the global field of Asian Anglophone/Commonwealth literature.

My predicament is not unique at Stanford because this university, like many others, has a faculty diversity problem. It is not merely that Stanford has very few U.S. American faculty of color; it is that those numbers are disproportionately low compared to the demographics of the undergraduate body. This disproportionality is a symptom of structural problems of equitable access.

With the recent development of the Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) and the Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence (DARE) doctoral fellowships, Stanford has made credible efforts toward fixing the leaky graduate-student pipeline that dissuades promising undergraduate students from continuing in academia, but it can do much better in sustaining diversity in its faculty body.

Interdisciplinary programs (IDPs) like comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE), which houses five undergraduate major/minor tracks, and its fellow IDP in African and African-American studies (AAAS), are particularly hard-hit because they cannot directly hire any faculty and are dependent upon the hiring decisions of university departments that may not be prioritizing the recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty. Courses become offered infrequently, students cannot commit to an unstructured major and, with a lack of declared majors, programs end up on the chopping block.

This is not a hypothetical. Ever since I was a freshman, there has been talk of axing Asian American Studies — whose cornerstone faculty have soldiered on since 1982 and 1990 respectively — due to a lack of declared majors.

Underrepresentation puts unnecessary burdens on existing faculty, who have responsibilities in both the IDP and their home departments. Unable to hire, IDPs end up relying on graduate students or contingent lecturers, who are often paid much less than tenure-track and tenured peers.

Meanwhile, without new blood to pick up the slack, the same tenured faculty cycle endlessly through service as CSRE program chairs. Dedicated to doing what they can for their many students, they gamely take on roles that may not even be directly applicable to their areas of expertise. I remember incredulously discovering that a professor of Mexican-American history was advising a thesis on adolescent Latina body image partly because of the dearth of faculty in [email protected]/[email protected] Studies.

None of this makes sense, but, happily, all of this is fixable. Two years after its inception, WTU has put forth sound and concrete suggestions to improve the situation. Of course, WTU’s demands are only some of the options on the table. For example, while the WTU coalition calls for the departmentalization of CSRE, others who hold the same goal of faculty diversity embrace a stronger IDP instead. Nonetheless, the fact remains that urgent positive action is needed on the part of the administration.

As philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff puts it, identity is an interpretive horizon that informs our psychological frameworks. I’ve learned over my four years at Stanford that scholars are given to studying issues that pertain to and affect their own lives, which is a natural human response. Without a representative faculty body, Stanford students will struggle to find the mentorship needed to support their own undergraduate scholarship and personal wellbeing. Similarly, society at large is short-changed if academic institutions that should be attentive to improving contemporary society overlook pressing issues because there weren’t enough faculty voices to advocate pursuing relevant research.

Stanford undergraduates have always been resilient in carving out a space on a campus never meant for all students. John Milton Oskison graduated in 1894, Ernest Johnson in 1895, Walter Fong in 1896, Helen Dominguez in 1920. The same courage and willingness to bring the fight to campus led to AAAS in 1969, ethnic theme dorms in 1970, feminist studies in 1981 and CSRE in 1996. To become better and to do better is a constant and ongoing process; this call to mend the undergraduate-graduate-faculty pipeline for the sake of equitable access, supportive communities and socially relevant scholarship is the latest, but not the last, iteration.

– Annabeth Leow

Contact Annabeth Leow at annaleow ‘at’

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