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From Morocco to Duke: Inside the journey of Duke’s faculty advancement chief

Abbas Benmamoun grew up in a small Moroccan town in the Rif Mountains, dotted by olive groves and abutting the ruins of a Roman colonial town. He was one in a family of eight who enjoyed playing soccer with his friends. 

Benmamoun went to elementary school and middle school there, but since the semi-rural area did not have a high school, he headed to boarding school. He studied in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, before traveling to London for a master’s program. There, a professor suggested he pursue a doctorate in the United States. 

“I remember I didn’t have enough money to apply to schools, so I applied to one—University of Southern California at Los Angeles—because there was someone there I wanted to work with,” Benmamoun said. “I applied there and got admitted—that’s how I ended up coming to the United States.”

After a 20-year stint at the University of Illinois, Benmamoun came to Duke in 2017 as a professor and the University’s first vice provost for faculty advancement.

“It was kind of a long journey,” he said with a laugh in his Allen Building office—4,000 miles away from his Moroccan hometown.

Now, Benmamoun is entering his third year at the helm of the Office of Faculty Advancement, where he and his team provide leadership development for department chairs, assist with hiring to ensure inclusivity and help bring in diverse faculty and offer skill development programs for faculty, among a variety of other initiatives. 

The goal? To help faculty succeed and be productive, and to create a more inclusive Duke community. 

“I feel that education really is a gift that we need to treasure and make sure we share with others,” Benmamoun said. 

‘We should be willing to embrace those challenges’

In November 2015, Provost Sally Kornbluth announced at a community forum that the University was searching for a vice provost for faculty advancement. 

The announcement came after a series of racist and homophobic incidents on campus and a few months following the release of a lengthy report that noted the percentage of black faculty on campus was 4.4% and Hispanic faculty was 2.6%. The 2015 report suggested more diversity in faculty searches and increased attention on creating an inclusive community to aid retention.

In July 2019, Kornbluth said that the office came about as part of the follow-up from the report.  

“The idea was that as part of the follow-up that we needed an office dedicated essentially to faculty advancement writ large, to creating a more diverse and inclusive faculty environment, empowering faculty with leadership skills, with career development opportunities, etc.,” she said.

At the time, Benmamoun was the vice provost for faculty affairs and academic policies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—a “similar role, somewhat overlapping but not entirely,” as Kornbluth described it. 

“So I wanted somebody who was a good listener, who was thoughtful, but who had a pretty good grasp of what the important issues were,” Kornbluth said. “In other words, understanding trends nationally in diversity and inclusion, understanding best practices.”

And in Illinois, Benmamoun’s youngest child was about to leave home, meaning a change wouldn’t be disruptive to his family. 

“What I found really interesting about this opportunity at Duke is that it’s about faculty advancement—which in my view, is a really good way these kinds of positions should be framed,” he said. “It is about supporting all the faculty, with diversity being an essential component of faculty excellence, and I found that very appealing. I could also tell the leadership was very interested in that area of faculty advancement.”

Benmamoun was announced as the hire in February 2017, and his first day on the job was June 1 of that year. 

Sitting in his office in September 2018, about 15 months after he started in Durham, Benmamoun said that the first year was a learning period in which he focused on talking with people and assembling a team to work with in the new office.

“For the first few months it was mostly about learning about the place and what is being done so that we don’t duplicate the efforts,” he said. “What are the top priorities for us in the space of faculty advancement?”

The good news, he said, was that Duke has been thinking about those types of things for a while, so there were numbers to work with and plans in place.  

“Faculty advancement” may seem like a pretty broad term. The office’s work largely falls into “three big buckets,” Benmamoun explained. 

The first is recruiting qualified, diverse faculty. They help with the recruitment process for faculty positions to ensure that the “net is cast wide,” such as considering how the job ad is drafted and ensuring the applicants are treated equally when they come to campus. The office can also provide “some financial support” to a unit if it’s trying to bring in a diverse faculty member.

“We are not telling people ‘We want you to hire this particular person from this particular background,’” Benmamoun said. “What we are telling them is ‘Try to have a broad, inclusive, fair process—and then hire the best fit for your program.’”

“What I like about this position at Duke is the value of diversity is not seen as something separate from other faculty development efforts,” Benmamoun said. “Things like excellence, diversity, inclusion are weaved into every aspect of faculty development. I think that is the right way to go about it.”

The second of the metaphorical buckets is developing faculty and providing support for the people who work with faculty, such as department chairs and deans. This includes holding workshops to help faculty prepare for promotion and tenure and to develop their mentorship skills.

The third is working to make Duke’s overall climate more welcoming for all parties and building a sense of community for faculty members.

“The challenges that come when you are diversifying a place is that you are bringing people with different backgrounds and experiences, so you need to find a way to create space for everyone,” he said.

Making everyone feel more included improves the University’s talented faculty pool and allows students to reap the benefits. 

“We should be willing to embrace those challenges,” Benmamoun said. 

To help build community, his office offered seed grants for faculty to develop affinity groups this past academic year. He said one group started having weekly meetings and did a weekend retreat together. 

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, assistant professor of the practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, was supported by Benmamoun’s office to host a series of eight workshops last year, as part of an Inclusion and Power Dynamics series. She said that they plan to host six more this year. 

A survey was given to the participants after the workshops to see how effective they were.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but the response was in the right direction,” Schramm-Sapyta said. 

The issues they are trying to tackle through these workshops don’t go away magically, she noted, but people are more aware of them and willing to talk about problems that previously floated under the surface.

Schramm-Sapyta said she was glad that Benmamoun’s office was there to help.

“They’re taking on the tough topics,” she said.

Kornbluth noted that Benmamoun has, “in some ways, a difficult role.”

“It’s not a command and control kind of role, it’s really a collaborative kind of role. You can’t legislate people being more inclusive, for instance,” Kornbluth said. “You have to educate people, you have to establish best practices. You have to interact with all parties. It has to be somebody who has the intelligence, social skills and good relationships with people all around the campus to really make progress.”

Duke is not the only university in its peer group to tackle these issues, both Benmamoun and Kornbluth said, but it combines this suite of roles under one office that is broadly focused on faculty advancement, without being legally focused or a compliance-based office.

“We try to support the whole person, the whole faculty,” Benmamoun said. 

‘How language works’

Along with being Duke’s vice provost for faculty affairs, Benmamoun is also a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and linguistics.

A visiting speaker sparked his interest in the field when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in Morocco, and he went to London to get a master’s degree on the subject. He earned his Ph.D. from USC in 1992. 

“My research is comparative in nature. I look at, for example, different varieties of Arabic. It’s a vast area, so you are going to get huge diversity in language,” Benmamoun said. “We try to find what is in common, what is different. Why some properties are different, how those differences came about. Are they due to some internal change or due to some pressure through contact with other languages?”

He wrote “The Feature Structure of Functional Categories,” which was published by Oxford University Press in 2000, and “The Syntax of Arabic,” which Cambridge University Press published in 2010. 

“Linguistics is about how language works, and there are so many questions that are so intriguing about how human language works,” Benmamoun said. 

His academic background was useful in the Spring 2019 semester when his office responded to an incident in the biostatistics and bioinformatics department when the then-director of graduate studies—Megan Neely, assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics—sent an email to students warning them to not speak Chinese in the hallways. She stepped down from her role as director of graduate studies but remains on the faculty as an assistant professor. 

The controversy drew international attention. In its wake, Benmamoun’s office stepped in to hold a community forum about the issue and brought in speakers who could address language, culture and the international student experience, Kornbluth said. 

Benmamoun also noted they organized a workshop for chairs and faculty on how to support students from a variety of backgrounds.

“That particular situation was interesting because Abbas is a linguist,” Kornbluth said. “He’s very, very deeply interested in how language affects perspective and how it affects culture.” 

The ‘academic bottom line’

Although Benmamoun’s position is aimed at supporting faculty members, recruiting and retaining good professors is a benefit for students too. 

It can also help Duke compete with its peers to attract and keep top-notch academics.

“I hope so,” Kornbluth said. “I hope people feel that is part of the environment, that they are working hard to improve faculty life here, to make it a more diverse and inclusive environment. That’s part of the thinking.”

Sitting in his office after wrapping up his second year on the job in May, Benmamoun talked about his goals for the coming academic year.

He wants to continue the programs that have been successful—like the leadership development programs—and said his office is thinking about launching a leadership development pipeline to help faculty develop academic leadership skills. 

The office is also working to address the issues outlined in a survey released by President Vincent Price in November 2018. The survey reported that 17% of faculty, staff and graduate students at Duke said they had been harassed or felt uncomfortable within their academic unit in the last five years. 

So far, Benmamoun’s office has held a community forum regarding these issues and has been talking with leadership within schools and departments to share the results of the survey and discuss the next steps. 

“This effort is going to continue,” he said.

Benmamoun said that the efforts to make campus more diverse and inclusive are ultimately good for the “academic bottom line,” since research has shown that diverse teams do better in the private sector and the military. Students deserve that diversity of perspectives and experiences to help them better prepare for the future, he added. 

Kornbluth explained that offices are typically evaluated after five years, so no formal evaluations have been conducted yet. However, she’s heard positive anecdotal responses from people with whom the office has worked.

As to whether the faculty is becoming more diverse, the provost said she will need to see hard data to know for sure.

“My impression is yes, but I really need to see the hard data to know where we are being successful and where we are falling down, and put strategic thinking and resources in places where we have not been as successful as we’d like,” she said. 

‘How transformative education can be’

When asked what drives him in the role, Benmamoun said that he enjoys supporting his fellow faculty members. 

“I believe this is really critical work for us,” he said. “I really enjoy working with faculty.”

As a teacher, he loves enabling students to thrive, and this position lets him play a similar role for faculty members. 

“When you play a small role in ensuring that somebody can excel and do great, and that you have a hand in that, I find that a fulfilling thing,” he said. 

When he’s not on campus, Benmamoun said that he and his wife like to walk and hike, and he likes to read. They love Durham, he said, and try to take advantage of the close proximity to the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Benmamoun’s passion for education, tempered by his background and journey, drives him to try to make Duke a more diverse and inclusive place for all who call the community home. 

“My generation in the family is the first that was able to get a formal education. I know how transformative education can be,” he said. “I really love to see talent nurtured and everyone given the opportunity to thrive regardless of their means.”

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