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Despite report, departments say diversity was already of importance

Though a report released this past September by the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity found that white males dominated in faculty, administrator, graduate student and postgraduate populations, representatives from several departments on campus said that they had paid attention to the diversity among their populations before the report was released.

The Committee’s report reviewed statistics of the racial and gender demographic trends in undergraduate, graduate, postdocs, faculty and staff populations. While it found near gender equality among undergraduate students, 73 percent of postdocs and 78 percent of full professors were male. Similarly, the representation of white Americans increased 75 percent from undergraduate demographics to faculty demographics.

The report then offered population-specific recommendations for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, calling on departments to construct a ‘multi-year strategic diversity plan’ in collaboration with the Dean of the Faculty, the Provost and the Graduate School.

“For each population you need a department-based approach so that you can really ask people who work in that discipline or in that administrative unit to think specifically about what talent they’re looking for and what their unique challenges are,” Michele Minter, the vice provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, said in an interview.

Minter said that the University has made many advances on the diversity front, but added that there is certainly much room for improvement. While the proportion of women among associate and full faculty has increased significantly from 3% in 1980, it remained at 22% in 2010, according to the committee’s report.

“There is a sense that the demographics of our country are continuing to evolve. Princeton has changed a lot on the undergraduate front. It has changed much more slowly in terms of its other populations,” Minter said.

This evolution is crucial to maintaining Princeton’s leadership in academics, Minter explained.

“We really don’t want to miss out on talented people,” she said. ”We don’t want there to be any reason why we’re not finding them [because we haven’t built the good networks], because we’re not recruiting in the right way.”

The advantages of a diverse faculty and student body are especially relevant for science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, chemistry professor Susan VanderKam explained. VanderKam was chosen by the chemistry department to head their efforts in improving diversity.

“If you have 15 people in a room that are coming from five different backgrounds, problem solving becomes much more creative. Instead of looking at a problem in one way you are looking at it in five different ways,” VanderKam said.

However, Minter also noted that although this report is the first time the University has worked comprehensively across campus populations, “there’s always been a pattern of working on diversity” at Princeton.

For example, Chair of the Department of Psychology Michael Smith explained that the philosophy department has historically had a low proportion of women among graduate students and faculty and has been sensitive to these issues for many years.

“I really do think it’s a zero-sum game across the profession for women, until we make it more attractive for them,” Smith explained. “That’s really a matter of trying to attract [women] to become majors.”

In response to this conclusion, the department recently redesigned its website to “make it more salient to undergraduates,” Smith said. He explained that the philosophy department’s updated webpage included profiles of alumni, including many women and people of color.

Smith also described the philosophy department’s efforts to find ways to improve its graduate program by conducting a questionnaire among graduate students. The results of this questionnaire showed that women were much more vocal about how they were underserved by the program’s “loose structure,” Smith said.

“That structure did not serve well people who were feeling alienated by the program,” Smith explained. He added that in response, the graduate program has downsized and put in place more monitoring procedures to ensure that students don’t fall behind, such as keeping track of where people are in the process of completing their work and asking for more short-term goals.

Dean of the Wilson School Cecilia Rouse also identified the importance of targeting undergraduates of underrepresented minorities, but added that a direct benefit to the department from such actions would be unlikely. Rouse explained that the Woodrow Wilson School has launched a Junior Summer Institute in order to increase undergraduates’ interest in applying to their graduate program and ensuring that they have the skills they need to be successful.

“Many schools that run these programs have had to shut them down because there’s no guarantee that [the attendees] are going to come to Princeton,” Rouse said.

While these initiatives have seen some success in the philosophy department and the Wilson School, other departments have seen improvements in diversity by choosing the best candidates and being sure to avoid inherent bias, rather than by implementing initiatives specifically designed to increase diversity.

The music department has taken such an approach and has seen an improvement in the proportion of female composers in the graduate program. Steven Mackey, chair of the department, compared the previous gender disparity among composers to that in STEM fields.

“Twenty, 30 years ago I’d have to really struggle to think of hot, up-and-coming composers who are female. Now, that’s who I think of first,” Mackey explained.

While Mackey said that the numbers have improved, he did not think it was the result of affirmative action, but rather because of “progressive forces” and a larger presence of women at all levels.

“It’s affirmative action in the best sense of the word. You take actions to make sure you are not replicating a pattern,” Chair of the Department of Sociology Miguel Centeno explained. “There is no memo you can write about that, it’s more a question of awareness.”

Centeno added that maintaining a diverse population is particularly difficult in a small department, where the departure of two women could dramatically shift the ratio.

The Department of Art and Archaeology has taken an approach similar to that of the music department, resulting in an increase in the number of women faculty from three to six over the past 13 years, acting chair Jerome Silbergeld said.

“We really got to a better proportion in terms of gender not really by controlling for gender. We just got there. Those were the best people available for us to hire,” department chair Jerome Silbergeld said.

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