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Guest Editorial: On Faculty Retention and Speaking Truth to Power

Nora Howe’s recent article on faculty diversity and retention raised some important issues and has started a useful dialogue. She is to be commended for shining light on a degree of dissatisfaction among past and present Haverford faculty of color. However, this article presents an incomplete account of the factors that must be considered when discussing faculty retention. For this reason, I felt called to share first in a short comment and now in a longer format some information that provides greater nuance so this important conversation can proceed in a meaningful direction towards solutions to the range of problems that clearly exist.

Haverford College has a rich history of “speaking truth to power” in the Quaker tradition. Howe’s article and the emotional response to it default to the form that tradition often takes: calling the administration to account even where its power is limited to effect the change we all desire. There is another Haverford tradition worthy of revival, the eminently practical money-sense of the Orthodox Quakers who founded the institution. Accordingly, I speak plain truth from hard data to the student power that would insist on easy explanations for complex challenges. One (regrettably) anonymous poster dismissed my comment as that of a shill for the administration. How a graduate of seven years ago who has had no real contact with the present leadership could be such boggles the mind, but let’s set that aside. I speak, instead, as someone concerned with the future of an intentional community in which I believe deeply, as a PhD student of a large research university where some of my colleagues consider taking a small liberal arts college job a failure, and as a (reluctant) student of the academic job market who has access to faculty salary data that this diligent student-journalist might not have been able to view.

I was frankly surprised and pleased to learn from the American Association of University Professors salary survey that Haverford’s average associate professor compensation is so competitive amongst its true peers, (that is, academically similar liberal arts colleges rather than wealthy research universities like Columbia that are misleadingly called “peers” by the title of Howe’s article,) coming ahead of Williams, Middlebury, Wesleyan, and almost $10,000 ahead of Bryn Mawr, despite our sister school’s greater endowment resources per student. However, competing with institutions like those named – Columbia, NYU, and Dartmouth – will always be a serious financial challenge and a psychological one to boot because so many promising young academics are eager to work with graduate students and to gain the wider scholarly influence and lighter teaching loads that such institutions can offer. When Haverford starts losing associate professors of color to true peers, that will be a subject worthy of reporting in and of itself. When tenured faculty leave little Haverford for a big payday at major research universities, that’s par for the course until proven otherwise.

A similarly wrenching process of soul-searching over faculty retention took place during my Haverford years when the distinguished historian of Islam Michael Sells was recruited away by the University of Chicago. He happens to be white but in his research and teaching gave great service to the richness of Haverford for over two decades and his loss was keenly felt. This problem is as old as the liberal arts college and is only heating up in recent years as colleges and universities battle with increasing ferocity over “star” faculty members, even as non-tenure-track faculty languish in a kind of purgatory, (as a previous Clerk report has documented). While the faculty perspectives included here are significant and, as Stephen Handlon rightly says, not to be discounted, this article could have been strengthened by seeking different views and inquiring whether other explanations for these departures and frustrations are possible or even likely. This is all the more necessary because numbers cited within the article itself show that Haverford seems to have more faculty of color than many true peer institutions just as one survey within the past decade showed that Haverford had the largest percentage of black faculty of all liberal arts colleges. Of course the faculty could and should be more diverse. My comments are not to claim that there is no work to be done but rather that the analysis we have seen is incomplete.

While I do not know the details of each case to which the disappointingly anonymous commenter requested detailed response, it is significant that Cristina Beltran has moved to a department not of Political Science, the field that seems to have declined to tenure her, but of “Social and Cultural Analysis.” I’m astonished that the skilled young journalist Nora Howe got her on record asserting that “Every faculty search is an opportunity, or missed opportunity, to diversify the faculty.” Would she consider the search that hired Kim Benston decades ago a failure because of his appearance? After all his tireless, humble service to Haverford students and faculty of color and to the study of African-American culture, the narrow world view that would reject him on such a basis does not suggest the rigor one expects of a tenured faculty member. One hopes that she has found a more congenial home in a program that is a little more “political,” a little less “science.” Indradeep Ghosh’s concern, too, frustrating as it must be, sounds to an outsider well-acquainted with academic politics as though it could be an issue of departmental structures that are too sluggish in evolving to meet the contemporary climate of interdisciplinarity. Such resistance to change is easy to perceive as discrimination but is much more likely to be evidence of a need to shake up Haverford’s way of compartmentalizing knowledge.

These issues are complex and it’s understandable when they produce emotion. Nora Howe and The Clerk have done us a great service by initiating a conversation that ranges in many more directions than one article could include.

 

Will Coleman ’07 is a PhD candidate in history of art at the University of California, Berkeley.

Editor’s Note: Cristina Beltran was granted tenure by the College.