Although Duke’s Office for Faculty Advancement just opened its doors in June, newly-hired Vice Provost Abbas Benmamoun is confident that the office can rejuvenate diversity amongst both faculty and students.

On the heels of national controversies involving racial and ethnic diversity, Benmamoun said he aims to create a more enriching academic platform for Duke affiliates. 

“We do believe that a diverse faculty enhances the excellence of the institution and enriches the students’ experience,” he said. “We serve all the faculty with diversity as an essential component.”

Duke announced the launch of the Office for Faculty Advancement at a community forum in 2015 following several racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Amongst the duties of the office is to work with provosts, deans and faculty across the University to ensure that high standards and fair practices are employed in faculty recruitment and hiring. 

Benmamoun said he has devoted his first months on campus to engaging with faculty on the current state of Duke’s hiring and training processes and ways they can be improved. He noted that developing staff who reflect the needs of Duke’s students will require a certain degree of thought and restructuring in the way Duke’s departments think about their candidates. 

“Research has shown that when you have, for example, diversity of faculty or mentors, students do well,” Benmamoun said. “We are telling them, make sure you have inclusive searches…consider a wide pool of candidates and ensure that when you are looking for candidates, you look in different places.”

In practice, Benmamoun’s new take on the University hiring techniques involves using broader and more extensive databases, training and resources for various departments’ search committees. Although the Office for Faculty Advancement will never directly determine which candidates are selected for work at Duke, it does encourage departments to search for these candidates in ways they ordinarily might not.

In recent years, institutions like Duke have seen an enormous push to develop ever more inclusive faculty hiring practices. Top-tier universities are currently working together to compile comprehensive databases of potential candidates from different backgrounds and perspectives.

“I firmly believe that the best institutions of the coming decades will be those that tap into the full range of human talent," wrote Provost Sally Kornbluth in an email. "We want to recruit the very best faculty and that means a diverse faculty.”

However, although such enthusiasm for enhanced racial and gender diversity may be almost universally promoted by administrative heads at institutions like Duke, progressive-style social agendas like these have definitely garnered their share of detractors. In May, then-Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths resigned after a series of disputes with other faculty members about racial equity training and academic freedom at Duke.

In a recent phone interview with The Chronicle, Griffith said that recent trends in the American intelligentsia have created a focus on promoting diversity “utterly disproportionate to its importance.” 

“Duke, like most other [high research activity] universities, is over-invested in the advancement of ‘diversity’ and correspondingly under-invested in…the proper mission of a university, which is intellectual and political," Griffiths said. He added that offices like the one on faculty advancement can become extremely hostile when any sort of critique is aimed at their intentions or overall function. 

When asked about these lingering concerns, however, Benmamoun emphasized his support of free speech and differing perspectives—regardless of the issue at hand. 

“I welcome input from everyone,” he said. “We are an academic institution, so we should be comfortable debating and hearing different perspectives.”

And although it remains to be seen what success Benmamoun will find implementing his aims at Duke as a whole, he is determined that this focus will remain unchanged. 

“I am here,” he stated. “I am available. I am here to serve the faculty.”