Leaks in the Pipeline

Published on April 30, 2015

Angelica Patterson is a fourth-year student in a doctoral program in the department of earth and environmental sciences. She has an interest in climate change, and has yet to commit herself to a career in academia.

She’s also the only black woman in her program.

“Some students might feel isolated, and it just makes it that much harder to continue if you don’t see another face that looks like yours, or if you don’t have a professor who looks like you,” Patterson says. “This is just one part of the pipeline that’s important, because not many students of color pursue grad school. … The numbers drastically get lower from step to step.”

It’s a trend that pervades higher education. Minorities and women still lag behind when it comes to taking faculty positions. And at Columbia, the numbers are low when it comes to faculty diversity.

Editor's note: The data on minority faculty for total University faculty includes 89 undisclosed faculty members and 222 non-resident not counted among minorities. For tenured faculty, 4 faculty members are counted as undisclosed and 13 are counted as non-resident.

Fall 2014 numbers, which are the most recent figures available, show that out of the University’s 3,806 total faculty members, only 921 are minorities, and 1,572 are women. These numbers continue to tick downward on the tenure track. Columbia has 1,096 tenured faculty members, but only 199 are minorities, and only 282 are women.

[Related content: Examining faculty diversity at Columbia in four interactive graphics]

But Columbia has made a number of public commitments to increasing the diversity of its faculty. In 2004, the University established an initiative—then led by English professor Jean Howard, the first vice provost for diversity initiatives—to boost the number of female and minority hires in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The central administration allocated $15 million in 2005 and $30 million in 2012 to re-energize these efforts. The initiatives have since expanded to Columbia’s professional and medical schools, and there’s been a concerted effort to add more programs to support junior faculty members and provide mentoring to new hires from minority backgrounds.

Associate Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Dennis Mitchell says that the program has been largely successful. In the past year alone, he says that contracts have been signed with 16 new tenured and tenure-track faculty members from the areas targeted by the initiative, and negotiations are under way for 12 more potential faculty members.

And on Tuesday, the University unveiled a new $33 million commitment to improve faculty diversity.

Like the two large-scale allocations that came before it, the money will go toward hiring, funding grants to support the research of junior faculty, and a slew of programs to provide mentoring and support to new faculty members and Ph.D. students. This initiative will also focus on expanding the number of LGBTQ faculty members, and strengthening its commitment to searching for female faculty beyond STEM fields.

“The resources and structure are now in place to move into the next phase of enhancing the diversity of our faculty, supporting junior faculty career success, and expanding the diversity of the PhD pipeline,” University President Lee Bollinger said in an email to the Columbia community announcing the renewed commitment.

So why do minorities and women remain underrepresented in Columbia’s faculty? The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of effort on Columbia’s part to recruit faculty, but rather that there’s a small pool of candidates to choose from, say a number of faculty and administrators.

“The bottom line is that in order to increase faculty diversity, we really need to improve the way we bring people through the pipeline,” Marcel Agüeros, an astronomy professor and a 1996 graduate of Columbia College, says. “Until you do that, it’s going to be really difficult to make fundamental change.”

Starting from scratch

When Spectator first interviewed Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences David Madigan in 2013 —just shortly after he took on that position in a permanent capacity—he called the Faculty of Arts and Sciences “appallingly un-diverse.”

Two years later, he agrees that the numbers still aren’t where they should be—and that it’s a problem across academia. “It’s tough. All our peer institutions have the same concern,” Madigan says. “We’re in a very competitive landscape vis-à-vis trying to diversify our faculty.”

It’s been 11 years since the diversity initiative really kicked off, and there has been some improvement. In 2000, Columbia had the distinction of having the highest number of full-time black faculty among elite institutions, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The winning percentage? A minute 7.2 percent. A 2001 report by the University Senate’s Commission on the Status of Women showed that women only comprised 17 percent of tenured faculty.

It was that University Senate report—titled “Advancement of Women Through the Academic Ranks of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Where Are the Leaks in the Pipeline?”—that was the catalyst for Columbia’s initial commitment to faculty diversity, Howard says.

That report included a number of revelations about who was entering the academia pipeline at Columbia. The report says that there was a 17 to 22 percent gap between the number of women pursuing undergraduate degrees and graduate degrees. Women dropped out of Ph.D. cohorts more frequently than men. External hires for tenured positions—at a university where about half of the new appointments came from outside—were more likely to be men.

The situation was particularly bad in the natural sciences, in which the gap between women in undergraduate and graduate programs stretched to 20 percent. And 11 out of 11 available positions in those departments in 2001 were filled by men.

“Interestingly, that report was only done for women. It wasn’t done for minorities, where things are actually much, much worse,” Howard says. “In fact, things are so bad that you couldn’t get reliable statistics on diversity—it’s so tiny a percentage.”

It was then that the University made one of its first more public commitments to changing faculty demographics, appointing Howard to become the first vice provost of diversity initiatives. In 2005, Columbia allocated the initial $15 million to help boost the diversity of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Though Howard says the problems persisted across the University’s professional schools, she chose to concentrate the funds on A&S, which is comprised of Columbia College, the School of General Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the School of International and Public Affairs, the School of the Arts, and the School of Continuing Education.

“We had to start from scratch because there was nothing—nothing,” Howard says. “We decided in the first round to focus most of the diversity money on hiring in the Arts and Sciences because that’s where the undergraduates were.”

That office worked to recruit new hires, established the Office of Work/Life to provide child support to working mothers, and allowed Columbia to join a Dual Career Service, which allowed faculty members to search for jobs for their spouses at neighboring institutions to make the move easier for new hires.

Howard also tackled symbolic appointments, including pushing for the 2007 appointment of English professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as a University professor, Columbia’s highest faculty honor. Spivak is the first—and remains the only—female University professor of color. In the past year, Columbia has notched another gain on this front: more women than men are at the helm of Columbia’s schools as deans.

Howard says that she sees her time as vice provost as largely successful, though she admits that faculty diversity remains uneven across departments.

“There are some departments that have made enormous strides, and they have really become very diverse,” she says, pointing to the English and philosophy departments. “There are others that are doing very little, so a lot of the gains you see are in pockets. And surprisingly, many Arts and Sciences departments don’t have the number of the women they should have—just plain old white women.”

Following the money

Under Howard’s and her successor Geraldine Downey’s tenures, which spanned from 2004 to 2009 in total, over 30 new faculty members were hired from underrepresented minorities.

“Would it be nice to go faster?” Howard says. “The answer is absolutely yes. But there’s a limit to a number of searches the University can conduct, so you can’t move too fast.”

Hiring under the diversity initiatives focuses on two spheres: the standard search process, in which departments hire candidates from a pool, and targeted opportunities, in which the University pinpoints one specific candidate to recruit.

“We can’t be an excellent university unless we recruit from the largest possible pool of talent. The diversity initiative is there to make sure that we don’t miss anybody,” Provost John Coatsworth says. “What it helps us to do is … get a march on all of our competition to make sure that we don’t miss people that other people might.”

What’s key to the recruitment process, according to Howard, is to look beyond the typical pool of candidates. One way to do this is to change up outreach techniques. Howard says departments might advertise jobs in DiversityInc magazine as well as the Journal of Anthropology. Then, you might make targeted attempts to reach out to historically black colleges or colleges with large minority populations, such as the University of California, Los Angeles or the University of Texas system.

“You are still in that pool going to pick the best candidate. It’s not like we’re just picking minority people over other more qualified people—that’s never true,” Howard says. “But you try to get all the minorities and women you can into the pool so you can see what talent lies there.”

A large part of the initiative is also to train departments how to search without bias. Howard says that there’s often prejudice against candidates coming from non-Ivy League institutions.

And when departments find a diverse hire that meets their qualifications, the $33 million, as with previous allocations, is there as an incentive for departments to make more attractive salary offers. The $33 million is matched by other schools to help subsidize the salaries of new hires.

“We want to help that department to sweeten the pot,” Mitchell says.

But even with a refined search process, a wider pool, and financial incentives, these searches may not always yield a new hire.

“We’ve made a large number of offers to faculty members from underrepresented groups that have not succeeded. There’s no magic bullet here,” Madigan says.

The key problem, according to a number of faculty, is that the market for diverse faculty—particularly among Ivy League institutions—is competitive, and the pipeline is running dry.

“We hire a senior faculty member from an underrepresented group from one of our peers, and it’s a zero-sum game,” Madigan says. “They lose one and we get one, and/or vice versa.”

[Related content: Examining faculty diversity at Columbia in four interactive graphics]

Alondra Nelson, the current dean for social sciences, was one of the hires brought in under the diversity initiative. Nelson—who has earned acclaim for her research on the intersection of inequality, science, technology, and medicine—had been at Yale since 2003, where she was the first black woman to join its sociology department. Currently, there are no other black women in the Yale department.

But after forging connections with Columbia English professors Marianne Hirsch and Saidiya Hartman, she was offered a joint appointment in the sociology department and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, where she would eventually become the director.

“It was a hard decision, frankly,” Nelson says of her decision to make the jump from New Haven to Morningside Heights. But ultimately, she says, “Intellectually, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“I speak as someone who is a beneficiary of the initiative, and who comes in a cohort of a lot of other people who are part of that initiative. We’ve brought quite a few faculty members here.”

Nelson was hired in the same period as a number of other faculty members, including history professor Christopher Brown—who, just last week, was named the vice provost for faculty affairs. But Nelson admits that while the initiative can bring great faculty members to Columbia, it comes at a cost to peer institutions.

“It can be difficult, I think, because all of our peer institutions are engaged in this, and we’re kind of poaching faculty from each other,” Nelson said. “We want to continue to do that, but we also want to look for great faculty very early in their career. Moving people when they have tenure-track jobs is always difficult—it’s certainly difficult moving people when they already have tenure.”

“It can be difficult, I think, because all of our peer institutions are engaged in this, and we’re kind of poaching faculty from each other.”

—Alondra Nelson


The competition is especially stiff as our peer institutions amp up their efforts to boost the diversity of their faculty members. The University of Pennsylvania launched an action plan to raise faculty diversity at each of its 12 schools in 2011. Last fall, Yale created a new position—deputy provost for faculty development and diversity—after a report found the university was still lacking in racial and gender diversity. In November 2014, Brown University President Christina Paxson announced that she wanted to double the percentage of minority faculty members at the institution by 2025. And earlier this month, a report from Harvard showed that the school had reached gender parity in terms of new hires, as 31 of the 62 faculty members hired in the 2014-15 academic year were women.

“Ultimately, I think that if we emphasize too much the notion that we’re going to focus all of our money and time on hiring, then what we’re probably doing is moving the same people around from institution to institution,” Agüeros, the astronomy professor, says.

Widening the pool

“Have I seen an improvement over my time? It doesn’t feel like [I have],” Agüeros says. That’s because, as Agüeros argues, real improvement can only happen when the pipeline of talent universities can recruit from is deeper. He would like to see the University’s focus and funds shifted toward development of new talent rather than hiring from other institutions.

“We lose talent at every transition you can identify, whether that’s high school to college, entering college to declaring a major, graduating and going onto a Ph.D. program, getting a Ph.D. and going onto a postdoc,” he says. “And that loss is greater for underrepresented minorities.”

Coatsworth agrees that funneling students into the pipeline as early on as possible in their academic careers is key.

“What we all noticed is that the reason we have to pay particular attention to hiring women and minorities is because there are many fields in which the pool is too small,” Coatsworth says. “And the pool is too small because they don’t get into doctoral programs, and they don’t get into doctoral programs because they’re not encouraged as undergraduates. They don’t get into academic life—especially the sciences—because they don’t have the background from their high schools.”

Columbia does have a handful of programs that set out to address pipeline issues, and departments are continuously looking for new ways to reach undergrads and grad students. One of these is Bridging the Gap to Ph.D. Programs in Natural Sciences, which launched in 2008 and is funded by the Office of the Provost and the National Science Foundation. Agüeros is the program director.

The program accepts recent college graduates from underrepresented minorities and prepares them to succeed in Ph.D. programs. Like women, minorities tend to be underrepresented in the natural sciences. Fall 2014 data shows that minorities only comprise 16 percent of the total natural sciences faculty, and only 13 percent of tenured faculty in those departments.

“Whether we’re talking about women or underrepresented minorities, the numbers are only starting to become not embarrassing—but they’re still pretty bad,” Agüeros says. “To me, what that suggests is that we still have some work to do further upstream to make sure that we’re not losing talent that we see in the classroom at the undergraduate level as they try to rise up.”

And, as Agüeros tells me, the program is intense.

“It’s a lot of almost micromanaging and being very proactive in terms of providing feedback and direction,” he says. “Participants have to be willing to work very hard and be willing to accept constructive criticism on an ongoing basis to really prepare for the transition to graduate school.”

But it seems that the program has found success: 19 of its students have gone on to master’s or Ph.D. programs, and six of them are in Ph.D. programs at Columbia.

One of those success stories is Patterson, the earth and environmental sciences Ph.D. student who was a member of the Bridging the Gap program from 2009 to 2011. Before she applied, Patterson had completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell and was working as a research assistant at Barnard, depending on grant money that she would regularly have to reapply for to make a living. But the Bridging the Gap program was the push she needed, she says, to go to graduate school.

“Every time a deadline would come up for graduate school, I would put it off,” Patterson says. “I thought applying for that program would be a great motivator to give me that extra push for me to apply to graduate school, as well as getting a lot of mentoring and advice from the experts.”

Patterson says that the program provides test preparation for the GRE and guidance on writing personal statements, as well as covering the cost of the GRE and grad school applications. She also praised the program’s mentorship component, as participants are assigned to work one-on-one in a lab with a faculty member and attend monthly dinners with guest speakers.


“If there are only two students of color to choose from Ph.D.s, it’s really hard for departments to recruit faculty,” Patterson says.

And Patterson says that she’d like to see similar support for students at the graduate level.

“Once students of color make it to graduate school, it’s critically important that the University support these students,” Patterson says. She says a large part of her support system came from an informal cohort of graduate students from across different departments and from her peers in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Students of Color Alliance.

But professors say that you also have to convince students to go into academics at the undergraduate level.

“Some of the really smart students who you’d want to consider—just consider—the academy as something they could do, don’t even feel like it’s something they could do, or should want to do, or hadn’t even thought about it,” Nelson says.

At the undergraduate level, the most prominent program is the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which has a number of participating institutions across the country. The program takes underrepresented minorities with an interest in pursuing a doctoral degree, and provides them with training, faculty mentoring, research opportunities, and stipends, while also helping with loans.

“Programs like the Mellon Mays really just help people really explore—from their sophomore year—what it might look like,” Nelson, who has mentored students through the program, says. “There’s no expectation that you’d have to do it, but you have a lot more information.”

Kelly Mariko Anoiokap Luis, a Columbia College senior and a Mellon Mays scholar, said that the program provided her with a number of beneficial resources and helped her pursue her research. It also taught her about the importance of diversity in higher education. She’s one of the only women of color in the earth and environmental sciences department.

“I entered as a native Hawaiian woman-slash-Native American woman in a department that was majority white. I had a hard time reconciling that,” she says. “It’s really, really difficult at times … I didn’t know if I wanted to be the different person in the room every time.”

“I entered as a native Hawaiian woman slash Native American woman in a department that was majority white. I had a hard time reconciling that. It’s really, really difficult at times … I didn’t know if I wanted to be the different person in the room every time.”

—Kelly Mariko Anoiokap Luis

Lorenzo Gibson, a junior in Columbia College and a Mellon Mays scholar, says it’s been a valuable program for him.

“It’s really fun, and … I have a clear sense of how important it is. We really do need to be producing knowledge,” he says. “Meaningful knowledge.”

“I hope that program will go on forever. It’s certainly a model that works,” Nelson says. “There are now scores and scores of students that get together each year in various stages of the pipeline that are beneficiaries of that program.”

Nelson also suggests that Columbia look into developing a program similar to Mellon Mays tailored specifically to Columbia students that could reach more students in Morningside Heights.

Then there are also a number of programs concentrated at the Mailman School of Public Health to attract more minorities to careers in higher education.

Ana Abraido-Lanza, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Mailman and a member of the Provost’s Advisory Council for the Enhancement of Faculty Diversity—an advisory committee of faculty members that deals with issues of hiring and campus climate for underrepresented groups—says she’s keenly aware of pipeline issues.

“I can tell you … we are very interested in pipeline issues,” Abraido-Lanza says.

She specifically points to the Biostatistics Epidemiology Summer Training Diversity Program, which launched in 2008 and is known as the BEST program, as an example of an initiative that targets students from underrepresented minorities and students with disabilities. Thanks to a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, students can attend the program free of cost.

“It’s geared toward undergraduates—more juniors and seniors—who have never been exposed to the field to public health,” Abraido-Lanza says. “It’s aimed at getting them excited about public health and to encourage them to apply to the master’s—and more importantly—our doctoral programs.”

The program includes a GRE prep course, courses in biostatistics and statistical computing, lessons on research ethics, and teaching skills to enable these students to succeed in graduate programs.

Deborah Ayeni was one of the students who participated in the first year of the BEST program. She’s now a second-year Ph.D. student at Yale in the department of pathology. She says that summer programs are important to pushing undergraduates toward graduate schools.

“My cohort was small, but it was really diverse. But even more importantly, the sessions were tailored to a career in academia,” Ayeni says. “I took really good notes on what to do, how to apply, and how to get letters of recommendation. It was really helpful information that I was exposed to early on.”

She adds that for many students who come from backgrounds where they aren’t exposed to Ph.D. programs, the guidance of the summer program can be transformative.

“What the summer programs do is bring together students from so many different backgrounds, and hopefully helps them answer questions about [Ph.D. programs],” Ayeni says. “It certainly answered my questions.”

At the doctoral level, there’s the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development—a program led by Abraido-Lanza that’s intended to increase the number of minorities who pursue doctoral degrees in public health—which teaches skills on scientific writing, provides mentorship opportunities with senior faculty, and pays for students to attend academic conferences. All students in the program receive a research assistant salary and funding toward their tuition.

“We provide them with enrichment activities, professional development training, and we give them funding to work one-on-one intensely with a research mentor to help students develop dissertation ideas and write dissertations,” Abraido-Lanza says. “The Mailman School is very dedicated to these programs.”

And, starting this summer, Mailman will aim to provide support to junior scientists through its PRIDE program: a monetary grant that will provide mentoring and research training to underrepresented graduate students in a two-year program.

These are the types of programs Columbia—and other institutions of higher education—need if they want to wear down the disparities in the pipeline, faculty members say. And it’s something that Columbia is weighing.

“It’s very clear to me that Provost Coatsworth and Senior Vice Provost Mitchell want this to work,” Nelson says, adding that she had a meeting with Mitchell last week to discuss strategies moving forward.

“Some of the ideas that came out of that conversation were … how can we think earlier on about people we might want to recruit?” Nelson says. “How can we be looking at our professional conferences, at our own graduate students, and at our own colleagues’ graduate students to really be keeping an eye—very early on—on how to get the very best people here?”

Moving forward

The newest iteration of the diversity initiative does have more support than ever for junior faculty, Mitchell says.

Parts of the $33 million will continue to help fund the Provost’s Grant Program for Junior Faculty Who Contribute to the Diversity Goals of the University, which provides grants of up to $25,000 to support research for which funding would otherwise be difficult to obtain. There are two requests for proposals each year from which winners are chosen.

The program has been a success, according to Coatsworth and Mitchell, who just met with the most recent round of winners.

“We’re on a little bit of a high from that,” Mitchell says.

Agüeros, who won funding through the program in the spring of 2013 for his work on celestial cinematography with large synoptic survey telescopes, says that the best part about the program is the support.

“I think the nicest part of those types of things is the opportunity to meet the kind of people who are sort of dispersed across the University,” Agüeros says.

Nelson agrees that these types of cohorts—informal or formal—can provide important support for new faculty members, especially those hired through the diversity initiative.

“I was at a lunch last week, and just having the opportunity to meet people and talk to them about their experiences is very helpful—and I’ve been here for a few years,” Nelson says.

Agüeros even suggests that hiring by cohorts might be a better approach to diversity recruitment than seeking out individual candidates.

“If you hire a group, you’re much more likely to seek diversity than if you make your hires one by one—and it generally fits in with my ideas about cohort-building as a way to nurture success in people when they are going through career transitions,” he says.

He suggests that one thing the University might want to consider is approach postdoctoral programs as pre-faculty programs—that is, choose postdoctoral students who will ultimately be funneled into Columbia’s faculty. That way, diverse talent would be cultivated in-house.

“They’re just passengers, and they’re going to get off at some point,” he says of postdoctoral students, who often leave for jobs at other institutions and other fields after their time is over. “That kind of approach would be much more fruitful if you’re trying to think about how to diversify the faculty as a whole.”

But the new iteration of the initiative does focus on cohort-building. Mitchell will be spearheading mentoring programs for new junior faculty members brought in under the initiative and institutionalizing cohort support among the new recruits, while the University will be providing a more formal and intensive onboarding process to ease the transition into Columbia.

“As a new faculty member joins Columbia, we will provide opportunities to learn about the tenure process, and we’ll teach negotiation and coaching skills,” Mitchell says.


“I think we all have work to do,” Mitchell says.

But to him and other professors, the commitment on the part of Columbia to tackling these issues is clear.

Abraido-Lanza, who joined the Mailman faculty in 1998, says that while there hasn’t been a huge demographic shift, there certainly has been growth in interest among faculty and administrators to address this issue.

“Many other institutions are grappling with this issue, in terms of figuring out what are the best approaches and practices to increasing diversity,” Abraido-Lanza says. “Absolutely, I can say that at our institution—the interest and commitment has grown.”

While faculty begin to use the $33 million to bring in new hires, it’s unclear how the funds will alter the institution’s diversity demographics.

But, ultimately, faculty members say that long-term diversity will rely on who comes down the pipeline. And at Columbia, the numbers are starting to look a bit healthier. At Columbia’s graduate and professional schools, 33 percent of the students are minorities, and 47 percent are women.

The challenge now? To get those individuals to stick with academia.

“In particular,” Madigan says, “this is something we need to pay more attention to.”


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