Every institution has traditions that celebrate diversity on campus and the University of Pennsylvania is no exception.
Penn President Amy Gutmann invites faculty of color to a dinner at her house each year. Last year’s dinner was a memorable one. With the term for the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences soon ending and the newly appointed provost on hand, President Gutmann was asked during a heated exchange why she has never appointed a person of color to the position of dean during her long tenure at Penn.
Her response was that she would not just bring in someone who is not qualified, a comment implying that none of the people in the room were qualified to serve in these positions, even though many of them serve in administrative capacities in departments and centers. In her closing remarks, President Gutmann reiterated her dedication to diversity within Penn’s administration, admitting that “a show beats a tell.”
President Gutmann’s “show” came on Jan. 17, when she announced the appointment of the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Yes, a show beats a tell every time, and once again, she has shown that her commitment to diversity does not include her own administration. When presented with yet another opportunity to increase diversity at the highest levels of the University, she failed to do so after nine years at the helm.
Not only has President Gutmann failed to show leadership in diversifying the highest levels of University administration, those individuals appointed by President Gutmann have often modeled her example and made similarly nondiverse appointments of vice provosts, associate deans and other high-ranking administrative staff.
Don’t take our word — walk into the Provost’s office or many of the deans’ offices at Penn. Like begets like, and in this instance, the absence of clear leadership and real results seems to have trickled down to those who report to her. The president’s most recent dean appointment is simply one more example of failure to act in a manner that is consistent with diversity claims and a recently enacted university-wide diversity plan.
Still, President Gutmann persists in speaking and writing about diversity, touting it on Penn’s website and elsewhere as the leading tenet of her presidency.
To her credit, there has been progress on creating a more diverse undergraduate student body. But the continuing failure of any changes in her own leadership team raises questions either about her ability to lead or about her commitment on this particular issue, or both.
Whatever the reason, the sad truth is that her stated vision for a more diverse administration and faculty at the University has yet to be matched by actions taken by her and those she has appointed.
So consider this an early RSVP. As senior faculty of color at Penn, we will not attend any “faculty of color” dinner this year. In the afterglow of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and the second inauguration of our country’s first African-American president, we can no longer mask our disappointment, stifle our outrage or pretend not to notice the incongruity between internal actions and public words of commitment to diversity at the institution that we serve.
If President Obama can be queried about the diversity of his administration, as well he should be, then certainly the same applies to the president of the University of Pennsylvania.
The annual “diversity dinner” is indicative of cosmetic — not substantive — progress on diversity that we believe President Gutmann must address. Our decision not to attend this year’s dinner — and to share that decision with the Penn community — is not a petty one, nor is it one we’ve made lightly. Rather, it is based on a long overdue decision to forgo these meaningless gestures toward progress on diversity.
Only when issues of diversity are substantively engaged at the highest levels of our administration, not simply promoted as social events, will real change occur at Penn.
It is long past time to turn rhetoric into reality, planning into action and commitment into leadership. We stand ready to actively engage in that process. Until then, dinner can wait.
Camille Charles, Barbara Savage, Mary Frances Berry, Vivian Gadsden, Kenneth Shropshire and Tukufu Zuberi are all senior faculty in Africana Studies. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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