Abbas Benmamoun, currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was named vice provost for faculty advancement last week. The new position was announced at a community forum in November 2015 following several racist and homophobic incidents on campus, and the position was conceived as promoting "diversity and inclusion" among faculty. The Chronicle’s Adam Beyer sent Benmamoun a few questions about his plans for the new role.

The Chronicle: What experiences do you have that prepare you for your new role as vice provost for faculty advancement?

Abbas Benmamoun: In my current role as vice provost of faculty affairs and academic policies at the University of Illinois, I oversee faculty hiring and retention, promotion and tenure, faculty development at different stages of faculty careers, dual career and diversity initiatives and leadership development programs for unit leaders at the department and school levels, among other programs and initiatives related to faculty advancement.

I have also served as department head, school director and associate provost for faculty development. In all those roles, I have come to deeply appreciate the role that different university programs and units play in promoting faculty advancement, diversity and inclusion. Being both a faculty member and administrator, I try to understand things from both a faculty perspective and also from a campus-level perspective in order to ensure that both perspectives inform the programs and initiatives we put in place. I am excited about this role because it fully embraces the vision of [Provost Sally Kornbluth] that faculty diversity and inclusion are part and parcel of faculty advancement and excellence. That means that a culture of inclusive excellence should permeate every aspect of faculty affairs. That is great for students and the research and engagement mission of the university. I completely subscribe to that vision.

TC: Can you describe your academic and research interests?

AB: I am a linguist, and I am passionate about my work on this incredible ability that is human language. I started by working on formal aspects of natural language, using Arabic and its many dialects as empirical base. I gradually expanded my research to other areas and started collaborations with colleagues in other fields, particularly computer science and cognitive science. In the last few years, a former student of mine and I launched a project on heritage languages, which are basically the languages—such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish—spoken by descendants of immigrants.

Because heritage languages are learned early, but mostly in community contexts and in competition with the dominant language, we find that heritage speakers do well in some areas of the heritage language but not as well in others. From cognitive and social perspectives, the speech of heritage speakers is fascinating because it raises questions about the role of input in acquisition, effect of contact with other languages and how language is maintained and/or lost and what that says about its cognitive and social underpinnings.

More recently, I have started another collaboration on an endangered Arabic dialect spoken in Turkey. The dialect is not well described or analyzed, but the data that we have collected so far is very interesting. It shows influences from the neighboring languages, which is not surprising, but also changes in structure that have surprised us. Like all scholars, we embrace findings like those because they challenge our assumptions and push us to explore other perspectives and ideas.

TC: The position was created in part to respond to concerns about diversity and inclusion on campus in the wake of several racist incidents. How do you plan to address these issues and work with student leaders?

AB: Many universities and organizations are exploring ways to respond to the demographic changes that we are seeing in the student populations, and in the country at large. Research has shown that inclusive excellence is a net plus for institutions. It allows them to tap into the diversity of talent that is available and explore different perspectives informed by different backgrounds and views. Faculty have been engaged over the last two years in an in-depth discussion about the steps that can be taken to enhance faculty advancement, diversity and inclusion. 

This position is one of the outcomes of that discussion and multiple goals and action plans have been outlined in the implementation report from the Diversity Task Force as well as in the developing strategic plan. Some of those steps will include support for faculty hiring and faculty development, with the University’s diversity and inclusion goals as essential components.

Students and their leaders are essential partners in these efforts. They help us see things from the students' perspectives, based on their experiences in the classrooms and other learning spaces and on their aspirations. I would definitely welcome the opportunity to work with them and include them as partners in our efforts.

TC: What is your biggest worry about the job?

AB: I am not sure I would call it a worry, but as someone coming from outside there is certainly a learning curve. I will need to make sure that I reach out to all the relevant constituencies, groups and individuals to learn about their expectations, hear their ideas and suggestions and build a relationship with them. I am service-oriented, and my role and that of my colleagues is to help the provost realize her vision for faculty advancement, diversity and inclusion. Our success will be measured by how effective our entire team is in helping foster a culture of inclusive excellence and facilitate the success of the faculty and the academic programs that depend on them.

TC: Do you plan to teach courses in addition to your other responsibilities?

AB: I would definitely welcome the opportunity to continue to work with students and teach and mentor whenever I get a chance. The top priority is my service to the Office of the Provost and to the faculty, but I consider service to students very important. I continue to work with students at the University of Illinois and guest lecture when the opportunity presents itself. I have always enjoyed working with students on research, and some of that work has turned into life-long collaborations.

TC: Are you looking forward to living in Durham?

AB: Definitely. My family and I are looking forward to being members of the Duke and Durham communities. We have lived in California, Wisconsin, the United Kingdom and Illinois, and we have family roots in Morocco and Taiwan. This will be another chapter in our lives, and we are looking forward to immersing ourselves in the University and community life in the area and doing our part as new members.