Diversity and Excellence in STEM


Kathryn Lofton

Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, History, and Religious Studies—ethnographer

Thomas Easley

Assistant Dean of Community and Inclusion at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Richard Bribiescas

Deputy Provost for Faculty Development & Diversity, Professor of Anthropology; Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

I am writing this blog post from the back of my sister’s precept classroom at Princeton (she’s teaching the class!). A woman of color, she was a Computer Science major at Yale, has worked as a programmer at the most important companies in the industry and in government, and now she’s completing her Master’s in Computer Science at Princeton. I may be a professional performer and actor, but I know first-hand the value of representation in any field, and I’m unabashedly proud of what my sister has accomplished. Still, our alma mater has plenty of work to do to increase diversity to remain competitive.

Thursday afternoon’s uncompromisingly blunt “Diversity & Excellence in STEM” panel stood in stark contrast to the morning’s glossy presentations of Yale’s newest ventures and initiatives. Three outstanding faculty took our small audience headlong into the real and present diversity challenges facing Yale today—challenges which will profoundly shape Yale’s future.

The talk focused mostly on diversity among faculty and in research topics, and for good reason. As anthropologist and endocrinologist Richard Bribiescas explained, the problem doesn’t lie in the “pipeline” of students reaching the highest echelons of STEM; rather, even those who make it through the pipeline will turn down positions at Yale. In fact, I was surprised to learn, the STEM pipeline is quite healthy from a gender and race perspective. Something is keeping faculty from coming to Yale.

Kathryn Lofton, a self-described ethnographer, explained that “citations are a kinship structure” that help build community among humanists. However, since Yale is a research university that prizes archival, the method of investigation is the core question here, rather than the bleeding edge of scholarship; therefore, Yale is more academically conservative. Many of the top scientists aren’t coming here to do cutting edge research; they’re going to flagship state schools.

What does Yale need to do to be more attractive to diverse faculty? The panel’s suggestions fell into three distinct aspects of faculty hiring.

First, the pre-search process. Often, labs and departments end up hiring faculty who are similar to the prior make-up of the department. It takes minimal effort to open a conversation that leads to a more diverse search. Bribiescas asked, “What’s the cost? Thirty minutes and a glass of wine. Just talk to people nobody else is talking to.” He was able to increase faculty diversity at Yale by reaching out to people that his colleagues thought wouldn’t be interested.

Next, the interview/hiring process. Lofton argues, “we can’t underpay people. We must recognize the extra work that women & faculty of color do—they’re differently used by colleagues and students.” Everyone on the panel nodded their heads vigorously on this point—“diverse” faculty are disproportionately leaned upon to sit on panels, speak publicly, mentor populations of diverse students, represent the university, etc., but do not get paid for this extra professional, personal, and emotional labor.

Finally, Lofton says, Yale must “change the outward metrics” of success for faculty, in order to improve retention of diverse faculty. Right now, the metric is number of scholarly citations. How do we reward best-selling authors? Or more public-facing academia? These must be re-examined. Thomas Easley asks an important guiding question: “historically black schools are tied to the community. How do we take this to science and Yale?” Yale must investigate ways to allow and reward its faculty for academic work that engages with the community.

How does this apply to my work in the arts and our work as Yalies throughout the globe? A fellow alum in the audience spoke from his experience as a black undergrad at Yale in the ‘60s. “I didn’t find any faculty that acknowledged me,” he said. “Different populations have different questions that they want answered when they come to this place.” I believe the arts are where we first pose questions in their most visceral forms. The arts are also how we communicate answers and create community.

Diversity means staying competitive, and staying competitive is the key to excellence. Lofton explained that “lack of diversity contributes to weakness in innovation” and a poorly diverse institution becomes inbred. These principles apply globally. In the arts, how can we possibly hope to innovate, compete, and remain relevant without diversifying?

Easley put it best: “Sometimes you have to say, ‘put down the damn book and talk to me. My community is your scholarship.’ ” If we want to access the full breadth of scholarship, we must access the full breadth of community, and that means diversity.

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