Especially since the passage of Proposal 2 in November, campus diversity has been at the top of the University’s agenda – and rightfully so. In this context, the denial of tenure to three minority professors is troubling. While the decision may not be as sinister as some critics contend, now is a crucial time in the University’s quest to maintain a diverse student body. It needs to recognize the importance of faculty diversity as a complement to student diversity and make the necessary changes to achieve it.
On the surface, the February decision to deny tenure to three professors is easy to wonder about. The three professors in question, Phillip Akutsu, Jacqueline Francis and Sussan Babaie, are longtime assistant professors and also underrepresented minorities. Francis had already been approved by both her departments – the Center for Afro-American and African Studies and art history – but she was still denied tenure at the final step. After so much emphasis on diversity by administrators, the decision seems counterproductive.
To be fair, most professors are denied tenure on their first try. This can happen for a variety of reasons: Their departments may have been too small to accommodate another tenured professor or maybe their research was simply not up to par. It’s not fair to question the University’s decision based on speculation alone, as some critics have done.
However, the University should realize that its battle to maintain diversity is not just a fight to increase minority enrollment. Faculty diversity is important for the same reasons that student diversity is important. It creates an environment in which different cultures, ideas and experiences can foster collective learning and understanding. Professors are like professional students who should be encouraged in the same way as the student body to challenge ideas and conventions.
But the importance of faculty diversity goes beyond just a healthy learning environment. If the University is serious about improving its student diversity, professors are valuable tools in achieving this goal. For minority students – especially students who come from underprivileged school districts – professors can serve as influential mentors. The ability to relate to professors in experience and background is pivotal in attracting and retaining diverse students.
For the University to achieve a diverse faculty and to lock in its quality professors, the tenure system needs to be revamped. Tenure provides professors with increased benefits, job security and research freedom, all of which many at the University have earned but are yet to attain. Often, the research of professors is given greater consideration than classroom teaching in tenure decisions because it brings in money and prestige.
Although faculty research is important, some professors have a clear popularity with the student body – a talent worth rewarding. If the University gives equal credence to both popular professors and research professors, professors that are inspirational to minority students will inevitably be encouraged to stay. And as an added bonus, students are getting more engaging (and therefore better) professors.
The University should remember that diversity means more than maintaining a certain number of minority students. The tenure system is one way the University can expand faculty diversity, and it is to its benefit to use this tool wisely.