Editorial | Small steps

Penn has work to do, but it starts with the Faculty Diversity Action Plan

· February 21, 2013, 11:53 pm

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If you’ve glanced at this page in the past few weeks, you might have noticed a recurring theme: diversity.

The recent slew of opinions stemmed from an op-ed arguing that Penn has failed to diversify its administration and its selection process for administrators should be improved.

While we agree with all that, we also think that the University is taking the correct steps to ameliorate the current dilemma.

First, it’s an issue of timing.

It is unequivocal that Penn’s administration should be more diverse. However, less than two years ago, Penn launched its Faculty Diversity Action Plan, geared at increasing the diversity of Penn’s faculty.

We see this as a prudent decision considering how far behind other schools Penn falls in faculty diversity.

It’s also a good program to follow the University’s push to diversify the student body — a push that is widely regarded as being successful.

But most importantly in this case, the plan will result in a larger pool of diverse applicants from which to select future administrators.

Some have argued that this type of bottom-up approach must be accompanied by a top-down method as well.

However, we cannot approach administrative diversity the same way as student and faculty diversity.

Affirmative action makes sense for students and faculty because it is aimed at remedying inherent disadvantages certain groups have faced. However, once one attains a senior faculty position or otherwise has the repute to vie for a high-ranking administrative position, it is harder to argue that one is sorely disadvantaged.

Of course, more than two of Penn’s administrators should come from minority backgrounds. The fact that more don’t demonstrates there is currently a problem. But it is a problem we believe Penn is taking steps to address.

While there are certainly minorities qualified to hold administrative positions, we don’t think proactive affirmative action at the highest positions is what’s needed — making sure there is a plethora of minority candidates in the faculty who can be appointed to higher level positions is what matters.

To an extent, we trust that Amy Gutmann is making her selection based on who is most qualified. But it is important to note that in appointing the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Gutmann was given a list of eight individuals — only one, an Asian, was an ethnic minority.

We believe apart from diversity, the selection process can be improved. Specifically, there should be more of a student voice.

In total, two students — one graduate, one undergraduate — were involved in the selection process. As opposed to faculty members, who are more in tune to who the nominees are, students outside the process are left in the dark until the selection is announced.

We don’t envision student input as hundreds of students debating in Claudia Cohen Hall. Instead, at the beginning of the search process, the selection committee should send out an email survey asking students what qualities they think are most important in a candidate for the position.

Perhaps the response will inform the committee that the student body doesn’t necessarily agree on what is most important in a candidate. Who knows — it’s happened before.

When the semifinalists are chosen, the committee should send a survey to the students and faculty asking who is most qualified. This survey would not enumerate the names of the candidates, simply their attributes, experience and strengths.

The selection wouldn’t depend entirely on the student response, but it would better engage the student body and give the committee additional thoughts to consider in making its decision.

Empirically, Penn has been a diverse and progressive university. Penn shouldn’t rest on its laurels, and we don’t believe it is.

It is important as always to keep this issue at the forefront of campus discussion, but we should also give the Faculty Diversity Action Plan time to come to fruition.

If we’ve learned one thing recently, it’s that change doesn’t come quickly. But sometimes, we need to evaluate not just the status quo, but what we’re doing to change it. We believe Penn is on its way to fixing the problems so many people have identified, and we hope the University succeeds.

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