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Minority faculty at University of Pennsylvania question president's commitment to diversity

With Regrets
January 31, 2013

Senior faculty from the University of Pennsylvania’s Africana studies department RSVPed early – and publicly – to President Amy Gutmann’s annual diversity dinner in an op-ed published in Wednesday’s student newspaper.

“As senior faculty of color at Penn, we will not attend any ‘faculty of color’ dinner this year,” reads The Daily Pennsylvanian piece, signed by six members of the department. “In the afterglow of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and the second inauguration of our country’s first African-American president, we can no longer mask our disappointment, stifle our outrage or pretend not to notice the incongruity between internal actions and public words of commitment to diversity at the institution that we serve.”

In addition to contributing to a dearth of minority administrators across campus, department faculty allege that Gutmann squandered a prime opportunity to act on recent initiatives to diversify the institution’s leadership in naming Steven J. Fluharty, a white man who currently serves as senior vice provost for research and professor of pharmacology, psychology and neuroscience at Penn, as the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Camille Z. Charles, chair of Africana studies (which became a department last year) and director of the Center for Africana Studies at Penn, said the news of the appointment earlier this month was a kind of last straw for her and her co-writers, who were jarred by comments Gutmann allegedly made during last spring’s annual diversity dinner at her home. After being questioned about never having named a person of color as dean since assuming the presidency of Penn in 2004, Gutmann said she could not bring in “someone who is not qualified,” according to the op-ed and other guest accounts.

“We were all really offended, and said that, certainly without something really meaningful suggested for change and improvement, we’re not going to this dinner anymore,” said Charles. “It’s not a way to spend an evening.”

Mary Frances Berry, a Penn professor who was among those who drafted the letter and who has served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, assistant secretary of education, and a university chancellor and provost, said in an e-mail that she had no interest in the deanship personally. But “I am aware of many qualified people [of color] for academic administration posts…. It is disappointing for me to have the president of the university repeat the tired ‘can’t find anybody qualified’ mantra.”

Through a spokesman, Gutmann said statements attributed to her in the op-ed “very much mischaracterize” her position. In an e-mail, the spokesman said: “Her point during that conversation was entirely about the need for the university to achieve greater diversity within the academic administration. That is a deeply held personal conviction of hers. Penn has made extraordinary strides with respect to diversity. But we have areas where we need to work harder.  And we will.”

Gutmann published an open letter in today's Daily Pennsylvanian in which she pledged support for diversity. The letter noted progress in many areas, but also said: "There are areas, such as academic administration, where progress has been slow and where we need to work even harder. We are unequivocally committed to doing just that."

Because Gutmann followed up her comments at the dinner by saying “a show beats a tell,” department faculty held out some hope that the new School of Arts and Sciences dean would be a person of color, Charles said. Following Fluharty’s appointment, she and her colleagues decided to take the issue public to forcibly inject transparency into the appointment process.

“None of us is arguing that she’s an active bigot,” said Charles. “But there’s no accountability or transparency to the process. We have no idea how she came to that conclusion or who the other people were who were being considered.” (A consultative committee including faculty, students and alumni was formed for the search, and an outside firm was hired to assist. A firm executive referred questions to the university; Penn's search committee chairman did not return a request for comment. An ad for the deanship, including a desired “commitment to diversity in all its forms,” appeared in this publication.)

The writers have gained support from other faculty.

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies specializing in African-American religion and graduate chair in the religious studies department, said that although the institution’s undergraduate population has become more diverse during Gutmann’s tenure (underrepresented minority enrollment has increased from 12 to 20 percent spanning the last eight years, according to information from the university), diversity in faculty hiring and administrative appointments has lagged behind. That’s despite a  $100 million action plan for faculty diversity and excellence laid out in June 2011; such initiatives in the past have served as “targets of opportunity” for minority hiring, she added.

“If you’re not diversifying the faculty that that student body sees, then what’s the point?” Butler said. “If you’re not diversifying the deans’ and provosts’ offices, then what’s the point?”

Concerns about racial diversity among administrators aren’t unique to black faculty. Grace Kao, professor of sociology, education, and Asian American studies at Penn and former director of the Asian American Studies Program, said she first asked Gutmann if candidates of color would be seriously considered for the deanship at the dinner last year.

“I think we (the authors of the [op-ed], me, and many other senior faculty members at Penn) are frustrated by the disconnect between Penn’s stated commitment to diversity and what we actually see on the ground,” she said in an e-mail.

According to information from the university, 87 of Penn's top administrators are white. Twelve are black, seven are Asian and one is Hispanic; one is identified as “international,” and one as being of “two or more races.” (Comparative national averages were not immediately available from the American Council on Education).

Berry didn’t know how Penn’s administrative diversity compared to other institutions, but said that leadership there was more diverse when she first arrived in 1987.

In its most recent Progress Report on Minority Equity, Penn shows a 1.4 percentage point increase in minority faculty from 2006-9, from 16.1 to 17.5 percent. (In 2011, 26 percent of full-time faculty were minorities across higher education, according to ACE.)

Karen Beckman, a professor of art history at Penn who serves as one of two search advisers working in the School of Arts and Sciences (but who did not assist in the search for the new dean), said in an e-mail that the op-ed “highlights important ways in which even well-intentioned higher education institutions and leaders are implicated in failing to live up to the kind of rhetoric we find in diversity initiatives anywhere.”

Although diversity ideals haven’t yet been realized at Penn, Beckman said, “conversation about failure is underrated; it can be a useful catalyst for action, and that’s what I hope we’ll see now.”

Susan S. Margulies, a bioengineering professor who serves as president of Penn’s Faculty Senate, said initiatives already are under way in the senate and subcommittees to support the five-year faculty diversity initiative with accountability mechanisms that will result in meaningful progress for Penn.

“This is an issue that’s important to faculty, and it’s not a new issue,” she said. “It’s one we’re making active strides to address, but we’re not there yet.”

 

 

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