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Progress on diversity

Next week, a new task force appointed by Provost Peter Lange will begin the daunting challenge of shaping a vision for faculty diversity after the Black Faculty Strategic Initiative expires in fall 2003. Increasing the representation of female and minority professors within the academy remains as much a priority as it did when the BFSI began nine years ago, and so it is refreshing that the administration is planning with strong direction in advance. Likewise, it is encouraging that the University is moving beyond a black-white outlook to diversify its faculty; black scholars are not the only individuals whom the University would do well to recruit in greater numbers; as a campus with a diverse student population, a similarly diverse faculty with a variety of cultural and intellectual backgrounds can more fully enrich Duke's educational experience.

The University can look back with much satisfaction at its recruitment record under the BFSI. The initiative is set to reach and may even surpass its goal of doubling the number of black faculty members by next year. Unlike its immediate predecessor--which required recruiting a black professor in every department--the BFSI set realistic goals that understood the lack of black scholars in many fields. It has succeeded in creating a critical mass of black professors who have become integral contributors to Duke's intellectual vibrancy. Consequently, the cultural climate on campus is improving, and this week's study by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which labels Duke the most diverse and integrated among elite universities, provides validation of that trend.

The next step must address those issues that the BFSI failed to correct, notably the climate for retaining minorities and the diversity within specific departments. The most important work of the new task force should be to examine the racial and intellectual environment at Duke and help address lingering insensitivity or even discrimination. Some minority professors clearly feel that Duke and higher education in general remain unwelcoming institutions, and these sentiments are a major obstacle to more fully integrating the campus' intellectual community. Ideally, the University would accomplish this by creating a greater sense of ownership among individual departments and professors about the need for greater diversity. More discourse among administrators and departments is perhaps the best way to increase that sense. More representation of minority and female senior-level administrators has been, and should continue to be, a top priority as well.

One valid concern about any new initiatives that the task force outlines to increase representation of all minorities is that the University could fall into a strictly numbers-based mentality. Of course Duke needs to become more diverse statistically, but that alone should not be the vision. Duke needs to create an environment in which all scholars, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, can feel free to live and express their thoughts in a welcoming environment. Statistical targets are just the beginning of making that vision a reality.

For the next initiative to duplicate the BFSI's success, Duke will need to devote more resources to female and minority faculty recruitment than it does currently. As with recruitment and retention of faculty members in general, administrators will need significant financial backing in order to compete with other elite universities. If the University is committed to transcending new boundaries and to becoming a more fully engaged center of academic inquiry, it will meet those needs.

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