Professors who look like us

Recently, The Harvard Crimson provided a lens into the experiences of underrepresented minorities in Harvard faculty positions, framing the narratives with that of their first female tenured faculty member in the physics department, Melissa E. B. Franklin. In the 24 years since the appointment of Franklin, Harvard’s exclusively white, male professorial past has been seemingly forgotten. While Harvard has made great strides in their recruitment of diverse faculty members, the persisting imbalance of representation in their faculty demonstrates that there is more work left to be done. Our own University shares these concerns. Though we are comparable to the other universities in the Association of American Universities in terms of our faculty diversity, we still struggle with the recruitment and retention of faculty from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. As an institution founded on a “deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential,” we should push ourselves to recruit and retain diverse faculty.

The influence of faculty members often extends well beyond the academic realm of the University. As symbols of the University and of academia for their students, professors can provide a seemingly-subliminal form of mentorship to students that can help them adjust to and thrive at Duke. Societal perceptions of success for certain identities can unintentionally limit students’ barometers for their own success. For example, many undergraduates may be dissuaded from certain disciplines if they fail to interact with mentors who share their backgrounds. Similarly, graduate students in teaching positions may struggle in front of classrooms having not had teachers who look like them. We should recognize that professors succeed as mentors in ways that cannot be reflected through an academic or research record. Given our aspirations to cultivate an exceedingly diverse student body, our professors ought to be able to speak to some of the diverse narratives of this student body.

Our recruitment of diverse faculty members, however, should be genuine and not stem from our desire to fulfill some sort of quota. When faculty positions are made available, we should be open to looking at not only a candidate’s academic record but also other aspects of their identity and personality that may contribute to their qualifications. Just as we view students holistically during admissions, recognizing that their identity and experiences can augment the value they bring to the University, we should do the same for our professorial candidates. This is not to say, however, that all experiences are only skin deep. But recognizing the structural societal barriers that do shape common experiences among minority groups is imperative. Having professorial candidates articulate how their identities contribute to their worldview and life experiences can provide a clear image of how these professors can serve as mentors to students with shared lived experiences. Our University should prioritize a search for candidates with strong mentorship abilities and cultivate a faculty that reflects the rapidly diversifying undergraduate population.

A benefit of a rich, diverse environment like that of Duke is the ability to learn and absorb knowledge through all types of interactions with peers and faculty. A diverse faculty will enrich academic conversations, lessen the burden on minority professors to represent their entire minority population and express a more profound commitment to the success of all members of our diverse student body. Pride in our institutional commitment to diversity should not only just apply to the general student body, but it should also be reflected through a faculty that can speak to many of the same experiences of their students.


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