Panel discusses concerns about lack of faculty diversity at U.Va.
‘Evening of Dialogue on Race’ shows faculty, graduate student perspectives
The Days of Dialogue planning committee within the University’s Dean of Students office presented an Evening of Dialogue on Race last night, allowing a panel of professors and a doctoral candidate to speak about the role of diversity in the University community and across the United States.
The panelists included Hanadi Al-Samman, assistant professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Culture, Assoc. Politics Prof. Lynn Sanders, Environmental Science Prof. Jose Fuentes and music doctoral candidate Wendy Hsu — all of whom agreed that the level of diversity among University faculty is very low.
“In terms of faculty diversity in this university, we haven’t made any progress in the last 15 years,” Fuentes said.
University spokesperson Carol Wood said the issue has remained a frequently discussed one at the University, noting that the University has sought to improve its diversity.
“This discussion tonight is just a part of a history of conversation that has been at the University for eight or nine or years or even longer,” she said.
But even if the University has been talking about wanting to make changes, the faculty’s lack of diversity is still an issue that must be addressed, Fuentes said. Many times students look for a faculty member they can identify with because of ethnicity or gender, he said, adding that this fact sometimes poses problems for minority students. Citing his own educational experience, Fuentes recalled that there was great diversity among his professors and fellow students, leading to “the best experience [he has ever had].”
Creating a more diverse environment at the University would be conducive to such experiences, however “many of the things we would do [have] a questionable legal status,” Sanders said. The politics of diversity have changed and therefore old methods of increasing diversity such as affirmative action are now considered illegitimate, she explained.
Sanders suggested an alternative tactic.
“One source of legitimate political pressure are students and alumni,” Sanders said, adding that she encourages students interested in increasing faculty diversity to donate funds to the University once they graduate, in the hope that these funds will translate into increased representation.
Hiring diverse faculty members, though, is just one piece of the puzzle. The University must also seek to retain minority faculty members at the University, Al-Samman said.
“If you are the only minority member in a faculty, and you find people look up to you,” that increased pressure could be the reason many people end up leaving, Al-Samman said.
Hsu attributed such attention to ethnicity or gender to ‘tokenism’ — the feeling of “sitting in these meeting rooms where people are interested in your perspective only to the extent of hearing something different”.
Second-year College student Alyssa Paredes said she sees tokenism as an issue at the University because she only sees diversity at “staged” or organized events.
But Fuentes said there is still hope that the University’s faculty diversity could increase in the future.
“I think there is a general interest in seeing a diverse faculty, so that we can really explore the intelligence from all backgrounds and for me, I think that is essential,” Fuentes said.
Fourth-year College student Melissa Warnke, head of the Evening of Dialogue on Race event, said this year’s discussion seemed to draw a larger crowd than in previous years. This is the first time the dialogue on race was in the evening. Previously, the event was scheduled as a Day of Dialogue, during which the panel and discussion lasted for about six hours.
“The Day of Dialogue was like preaching to the choir,” Warnke said, adding that those who attended the day-long event already invested time and interest into the subject of diversity at the University. For this reason, the event had less of an effect than the committee would have liked.
Warnke said she believed the Evening of Dialogue on Race, however, “worked out really well.”
Wood observed that discussions about race at the University like the one last night have been ongoing and can lead to changes.
“It’s not a quick change but it is change that has a strong commitment,” she said.