Letter to the Editor of Student Life

Letter to the Editor of Student Life

September 9, 2008

We are seeing something unprecedented on the national stage: women and people of color in real positions of leadership. Whether we agree more with the politics of the right or the left, it is clear that a transformation in the American polity is at hand. Not only are the two national parties touting gender and racial and ethnic diversity as a political ideal, they are both utilizing the real diversity of their respective tickets as a political asset, a key means to
indispensable dollars and winning votes.

The secluded, pastoral quadrangles of the American Academy often preview civic change before it gains wide acceptance on Main Street. This is largely the case for the “diversity issue.” The candid and open exchange of ideas that is a vaunted principal of university life has for some time been seen to hinge on the diversity of the participants engaged in that exchange. Today, more women and traditionally under-represented ethnic and racial minorities hold tenure-line professorships and departmental chairs. Indeed, 51 percent of college graduates are female. Yet, this new majority is often without representation among the upper echelons of university administrations.

Here at Washington University, students might rightfully ask, “Where are the women administrative leaders? Where are the women deans of the university’s schools? Where is the consistent and transparent process with authoritative faculty input to select qualified women and under-represented minority candidates for key posts in the university administration? Where is the senior academic administrator to advance the recruitment, retention and leadership roles for women and ethnic and racial minorities?”

Washington University must make the diversity of the university’s leadership as well as the diversity of the faculty ranks and the student body a chief institutional priority in deed as well as in word. It is not enough to rearrange the furniture. It is time to undertake a total rehab of the university culture, beginning, I would suggest, with our campus “White House,” Brookings North and South.

The benefits of this transformation go well beyond the satisfaction of an ethical ideal, laudable as that may be. As the current presidential campaign makes plain, more tangible benefits are involved. The real commitment to expanding diversity at every level and rank, but particularly at the highest administrative levels, is crucial for the recruitment and retention of the best faculty and graduate and undergraduate students (male as well as female, white as well as ethnic and racial minorities), whomever more frequently appraises an institution on the basis of this commitment. It is indispensable to being and being seen as a world-class institution. It is, quite simply, not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

Although it is late for Washington University to lead on this issue, it is not too late for us to follow the best examples of our peers: Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas, to name a select few. These institutions have established well-funded offices for faculty development and diversity, which are uniformly headed by a vice provost from the academic ranks. Each of these institutions has recognized the necessity of appointing of a vice provost, as opposed to a staff administrator, to carry out their university’s diversity mission because only a member of the faculty is fully acquainted with and best able to effect change within academic culture.

It is not necessary to impanel another blue ribbon committee on the “gender/diversity” issue to offer advice and recommendations on what should be done. Numerous other institutions have mapped the way and shown that the establishment of an Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity to increase the number, the visibility and the work satisfaction of women and underrepresented minority faculty is effective in attracting and retaining the fullest range of faculty and student talent.

There are many leaders at Washington University of good will who have expressed a commitment to taking action on this issue. I have been particularly gratified by the willingness of the Interim Dean’s Office, the new Provost’s Office and the special assistant to the Chancellor for diversity initiatives Leah Merrifield to work directly with the Association of Women Faculty to realize authentic progress on the specific question of gender diversity. I believe sincerely that effective change can come and come quickly with the appointment of a Vice Provost for Diversity to the benefit not merely of women and minorities but of our entire university community and the national standing of our institution. I would encourage all those who support this ideal to write to the Office of the Chancellor.

Rebecca Messbarger, President
Association of Women Faculty