Losing Critical Mass at Stanford?

After two political scientists who study race and ethnicity left in the last year, alumni and students fight to keep a third from bolting.
December 7, 2006

He is described by former students as a provocative mentor, a professor whose office hours are packed and whose seminars have long waiting lists. Luis Fraga has won several awards for teaching and scholarship in his 15 years at Stanford University.

Taken alone, news that the associate professor of political science might leave the university would create rumblings. But coupled with the recent departures of two other professors who, like Fraga, study race and ethnic studies, Fraga's potential move is spurring organized protests.

Hundreds of people -- including Stanford faculty members -- have signed an  online petition urging Stanford to do what it can to keep Fraga from going to the University of Washington, which has offered him a position that involves recruiting and promoting minority faculty. Three recent alumni sent letters asking graduates and current students to write administrators voicing their concerns that "Stanford is not providing competitive offers to Professor Fraga that show a commitment to his value as one of our best professors at Stanford.”

Fraga is in the midst of negotiations with Stanford, and those involved in the campaign to keep him want the university to do more than just match Washington's offer. (Neither Fraga nor the political science department chair would mention terms of the negotiation.) Fraga's supporters say the university has already allowed two valuable members of the department leave without a fight.

“I think we see a trend here that is shocking and unacceptable – an administration and academic climate that fails to retain scholars who are producing some of the most pressing and relevant research on minority politics in the U.S.,” wrote Helen Kim, one of the Stanford graduates who started the letter and petition campaign.

This summer, Claudine Gay, whose work focused on African American politics and on how race informs political behavior, accepted a faculty position at Harvard University. Carolyn Wong, a scholar of Asian American politics, ethnicity and immigration in the United States, left for Carleton College.  

Fraga, who is Hispanic, studies the politics of race and ethnicity, voting rights policy and urban politics, among other subjects. Brought in with tenure when he was hired in 1991, he also teaches in Stanford's School of Education.

Fraga said he has been following the petition movement from a distance. "The information is there, and I appreciate what many of my students have written," he said.  

Terry Moe, chair of the political science department and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said he has not seen the petition but is aware of the group of unhappy alumni and students.

“Some see that certain faculty members have left and the alarm goes off,” he said. “They don’t understand what has gone on behind the scenes and why they left."

Neither Gay nor Wong responded to repeated messages for comment. Moe said that Gay, who came in as an untenured professor and who had received tenure at Stanford, was "very sought after," and that Stanford made her "a very attractive counter-offer." Wong was up for tenure but decided to take herself out of consideration, according to Moe.

He said the notion that the department is looking to rid itself of faculty in specific areas of study is misguided, and that "race and ethnicity is an important subfield" to the university.

“In general, Stanford is concerned about diversity," Moe said. "The political science department is concerned about seeing to it that important subfields are represented. But that doesn’t happen overnight.

"It’s perfectly fine for people to express their views," he added. "These aren’t popularity contests. We hire people on academic merit.

Sarah Ihn, a 2004 Stanford graduate who helped spearhead the petition, said she is skeptical of the department's motives. “Why would all of the political science department’s race and ethnic scholars leave or think of leaving if there was strong institutional support for their research and teaching?” she said in an e-mail. "If Professor Fraga leaves the university, it leaves Stanford with a stunted political science department and an unacceptable chasm between Stanford's rhetoric and reality."

Lizet Ocampo, a graduate of the political science department, said she wants to make sure the university hears from the full range of Fraga's supporters.

“We don’t want to find out that it’s too late," she said. "They would be showing a commitment to him and expressing to students and alumni that they care about undergraduate education and producing great research in race and ethnicity and do care about faculty diversity.”


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