Reclaiming a Legacy of Diversity

After a critical assessment of its diversity efforts, CAS is taking steps to be more inclusive

In the nineteenth century, Boston University graduated the nation’s first woman PhD, the first black female doctor, and the first black psychiatrist. Today, BU’s graduate programs are made up of 80 percent white students, and only 11 percent of the Arts & Sciences masters or doctoral candidates identify as black or Hispanic.

After a year-long—often critical—assessment of its diversity efforts, CAS is promising to do more to reclaim its historic legacy, with leadership and faculty committing to shift the focus from past firsts to present-day equity and representation.

The nation’s first female PhD, Helen Magill White, graduated from CAS with a degree in Greek in 1877.
Courtesy of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College

In February 2017, former CAS Dean Ann Cudd convened a strategic planning committee, charging 18 faculty from across the college’s sciences and humanities divisions to examine BU’s current demographics, compare CAS with its peers, and set ambitious targets for recruiting and supporting a more diverse group of faculty, staff, and students. Chaired by Nancy Ammerman, former associate dean of the faculty for the social sciences, the committee submitted a report to CAS leadership noting that while international and cultural diversity have grown consistently at both the college and the wider University over several decades, racial diversity remains imbalanced; in CAS that was particularly true at the faculty and graduate student levels.

The committee’s recommendations to address this are broad and long-ranging, calling upon CAS staff and faculty to create new growth and retention opportunities for underrepresented populations, and take a critical look at recruitment and funding for young people of color. Every department will be asked to develop its own plan for creating and maintaining an inclusive, supportive environment.

“At CAS, we are committed to fostering and sustaining a diverse community,” says Stan Sclaroff, the college’s interim dean. “This will require self-examination and hard work.”

Reexamining the faculty experience

Only five percent of CAS’ 700 faculty members self-identify as a member of an underrepresented minority group, and only nine self-identify as African American. The result is a learning environment that suffers from a lack of range.

“We lose out because we lack the diversity of perspective that is important to excellence and to creating new knowledge,” says Lucy Russell, associate dean for strategic initiatives. “Our students also miss out because many of them do not see themselves represented by the people who are teaching them. This matters.”

Award-winning poet Crystal Williams, a CAS professor of English, is BU’s first associate provost for diversity and inclusion.
Courtesy of Brian Fitzgerald

The committee’s recommendations to build faculty diversity start with a shift in search processes and extend all the way through salary negotiations, growth opportunities, and distribution of academic labor. A key component is for faculty to take on diversity as a shared responsibility across Arts & Sciences, to ensure that the process of making the college more inclusive doesn’t become the responsibility of currently underrepresented faculty.

“One of the first things you learn if you spend time with underrepresented faculty is how many extra, often hidden, responsibilities they have,” Ammerman says. “The last thing they need is a committee assignment because the committee ‘needs some diversity.’ There’s an equity issue here. But just as important, faculty who are in the majority need to recognize the degree to which our scholarship and teaching are less than excellent when we stay within our narrow traditional worlds. Diversity really is central to our mission.”

Some priorities have also already emerged throughout BU, thanks to the University-wide listening sessions led last year by Crystal Williams, a CAS professor of English and BU’s first associate provost for diversity and inclusion. In addition to hiring more faculty of color, attendees also suggested confronting unconscious bias and the ways it can affect underrepresented groups such as faculty who are women, faculty who are LGBTQ, and faculty of color throughout their careers.

“I’m fundamentally an educator,” Williams told Bostonia. “I believe the knowledge that universities create, steward, and advance is better, bigger, and more interesting when there is a diverse set of people asking questions and investigating it.”

To that end, the report calls for more cross-disciplinary and intra-faculty networking opportunities across departments.

Setting Students Up for Gains

The student population has experienced similar progress and setbacks when it comes to building a diverse, inclusive student body; while CAS continues to boast impressive international diversity, the low percentage of students who identify as African American or Hispanic has not shifted significantly in recent years. The report puts it bluntly: “We are not currently succeeding at attracting many talented, diverse students to our graduate programs, compounding already existing disparities in faculty recruitment.”

Student admissions to BU should not be an endpoint for diversity efforts; it should be the beginning.

— Report on Faculty Diversity and Inclusion —

In response, BU has already increased its proportion of low-income students by offering scholarships, instead of loans, to Pell-Grant eligible students, and committed to 100 years of matched payouts for Century Challenge donations, where donors give $100,000 or more to endow an undergraduate scholarship.

CAS will also commit to increasing student diversity and ensuring inclusion on campus with particular attention to mitigating the financial obstacles to participating in internships, study-abroad opportunities, and research programs for underrepresented students. As the report states, “Student admissions to BU should not be an endpoint for diversity efforts; it should be the beginning.”

In playing a long game when it comes to shifting its parity outcomes, the college is following a strategy advocated by the members of the diversity committee, who warned that “changes will not happen quickly, and their effects may not be fully felt for many years.”