Vassar Today

Vassar Hosts Faculty Diversity Conference

By Micah Buis ’02

In November Vassar welcomed some of the brightest up-and-coming scholars of color to campus for the annual Consortium for Faculty Diversity Conference. Founded as an association of 38 liberal arts colleges committed to strengthening the diversity of both students and faculty at those colleges, the consortium each year provides both dissertation and post-doctoral fellowships for scholars of color and helps place the scholars in a one- to two-year teaching assignment.

One of Vassar's 2006-07 fellows Christine Balance at this fall's conference
One of Vassar's 2006-07 fellows Christine Balance at this fall's conference

One of Vassar's 2006-07 fellows Christine
Balance at this fall's conference

Member colleges review applications, interview potential fellows, and choose a scholar—or in Vassar’s case this year, two—whose research interests match a curricular or departmental need at the college.

“This is a win-win situation for both the scholar and the host institution because through the fellowship Vassar has a chance to develop areas of the curriculum that may be new or in need of attention, and the fellows have the opportunity to have a go at teaching, with a relatively light teaching load, at a liberal arts college,” said Associate Dean of the Faculty Jill Schneiderman.

The three-day conference brought 33 fellows and included practice job interviews, research roundtables, and panels on teaching and pursuing a career at a liberal arts college as well as discussions about how to attract and retain faculty of color. Among the Vassar faculty hosting the conference were two who had been consortium fellows themselves, and President Hill welcomed the attendees to campus at the Friday night dinner.

“There is great energy at this conference, where scholars of color can connect with one another and be in the majority,” said Schneiderman. “It can be an empowering experience. By hosting this conference we hope to solidify Vassar’s place as a good place to work for faculty of color. Scholars talk to other scholars, and word spreads fast.” She added, “We have a lot to be proud of here in terms of the caliber of our scholars in general and the relatively high number of scholars of color we have.”

Professor Harriford at Vassar Faculty Diversity Conference
Professor Harriford at Vassar Faculty Diversity Conference
Associate Professor of Sociology
Diane Harrriford

Indeed, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education recognized Vassar as one of the top schools at which African-American faculty work. And Vassar has proven its commitment to faculty diversity by making 4 out of 10 tenure-track faculty hires in the 2005–06 academic year faculty-of-color hires. In fact, more than half of the 25 tenure-track hires in the last three years have been faculty of color. “Vassar is deeply committed to diversifying its faculty,” said Dean of the Faculty Ron Sharp. “Our aggressive recruiting efforts have brought an extraordinary group of young teacher-scholars here. And this year, with 19 tenure-track searches, we have another opportunity to increase [that number] and [further] improve the quality of an already distinguished faculty.”

Having a strong faculty of color also helps attract students of color to campus. “Students need role models,” said Schneiderman. “For students of color who might want to go into academia, it’s hard for them to see themselves as a future faculty member if there are no faculty of color for them to identify with during their time at college. And it is equally important for white students to see that a diverse array of individuals constitutes the academy.” Schneiderman continued, “We hope to communicate to all of our faculty and students how seriously we take the issue of trying to attract new scholars of color to Vassar. We want to make clear that this is essential to having an intellectually vibrant experience on campus.”

President Hill at Vassar's Diversity Conference welcome dinner
President Hill at Vassar's Diversity Conference welcome dinner
President Hill at the
conference's welcome

Hosting the conference is only one part of a larger initiative, spearheaded by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, to maintain a diverse faculty and strengthen and enhance curricular offerings in cultural and ethnic studies at Vassar. Last year a committee of students and faculty performed a review of the curriculum, looking for gaps where courses that focus on multicultural issues could be added. As a result, the dean of the faculty’s office has committed to hiring new faculty members over the next years to fill the gaps. (A similar curricular review is planned for the future to address lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.)

Vassar’s faculty and administration have also participated in retreats focusing on such topics as stereotype threat, and have heard from key legal experts and scholars on affirmative action in a series of talks designed to reinvigorate Vassar’s commitment to affirmative action in its hiring practices.

"I'm absolutely convinced," said Sharp, "of the importance of Vassar's renewed commitment to diversity and affirmative action, both of which are making our first-rate college even better."