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In April, Africana studies and history professor Eve Troutt Powell was named associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, becoming the first black scholar, male or female, to hold an associate deanship in SAS.

A few months later, in June, Penn announced that law and philosophy professor Anita Allen , who is also black, would be the next vice provost for faculty, a position that involves broad oversight over faculty life at the University.

The two appointments did much to calm simmering faculty tensions on campus. In January, a group of Africana Studies faculty had criticized President Amy Gutmann in a sharply worded Daily Pennsylvanian guest column, arguing that “her commitment to diversity does not include her own administration.” The selection of Powell and Allen, both of whom are nationally recognized scholars — Powell once received a prestigious MacArthur “genius grant,” and Allen sits with Gutmann on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues — showed that an institution like Penn does not need to sacrifice quality for diversity, some faculty members said.

The April and June appointments went a long way toward appeasing a vocal minority of faculty, but some professors say they are still not satisfied. The real test, they say, will come next semester, when Penn is set to announce four new school deans.

As Penn continues its searches for the deans — at the Wharton School, the School of Nursing, the Graduate School of Education and the School of Social Policy & Practice — all eyes are beginning to turn toward Gutmann. The four upcoming appointments, an unusually large number for a single semester, could be a defining moment in Gutmann’s presidential legacy, some professors say.

Related: Dean of Wharton School will not seek reappointment in 2014:

“If nothing comes of this, it’s going to be a big problem,” Africana studies and sociology professor Camille Charles, who is on leave for the 2013-14 academic year, said. Charles, a former Faculty Senate chair, was one of the main authors of the DP guest column, titled “Guess who’s (not) coming to dinner.”

How important is diversity as a factor when appointing a new dean?

In the column, which was published following the selection of former Senior Vice Provost for Research Steven Fluharty as SAS dean in January, Charles and her colleagues criticized Gutmann for never appointing a person of color to a deanship at Penn. A later DP analysis revealed that Penn has one of the least-diverse senior administrations in the Ivy League.

The concerns raised by Charles and her colleagues were amplified because a central part of Gutmann’s agenda as Penn’s president, at the student, faculty and administrative levels, has been diversity.

“Any time you make an issue like diversity part of your platform, people are going to watch what you do on those issues,” Grace Kao , a sociology professor who also spoke out last semester about the lack of diversity in Penn’s dean hires, said. “This is something that the president has direct control over, and it seems to me that if she values diversity, it’s not that hard to do.”

Four chances to ‘get one right’

With a full third of Penn’s 12 deanships turning over next semester, most agree that it would be surprising if the University did not appoint a minority candidate to at least one of the positions.

Related: Nursing Dean Afaf Meleis to step down in June 2014

“The same thing that’s a challenge — diversifying the administration — becomes an opportunity when there are four searches,” Gutmann said. “Any single dean search may or may not yield a candidate who’s considered to diversify, so just by the basic math of having four searches at once, it’s made all the more possible to diversify.”

Thomas Robertson of Wharton, Afaf Meleis of Nursing, Andrew Porter of GSE and Richard Gelles of SP2 are all stepping down at the end of June next year.

Charles said that she would ideally like to see two of the four dean appointments be of racial or ethnic minorities. Kao said she would like to see at least one of the four appointments be of a minority, although she does not believe there is a “magic number.” Tukufu Zuberi , a professor of Africana studies and sociology who also co-signed last semester’s DP guest column, said the question of how many minorities are brought on as deans next semester is not the right one to be asking.

“The right question,” he said, “is how President Gutmann is going to use these four appointments to complement her vision of making Penn a more diverse space, a more democratic space.”

Still, Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price, who together have the final say over dean appointments, will be considering candidates from academic disciplines that, compared to other areas of study, have relatively diverse faculties.

In 2009, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, 17 percent of all standing Wharton faculty were minorities (defined as African American/black, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and Native American/Alaskan Native), as were 11.1 percent of Nursing faculty, 18.4 percent of GSE faculty and 31.8 percent of SP2 faculty. Although Gutmann and Price will also look at candidates from outside the University community, the school-by-school diversity of Penn’s faculty is a snapshot of what the rest of academe looks like.

It is likely that the appointment of a minority dean at a higher-profile school — namely, Wharton — would carry more weight than a similar appointment at a smaller school like GSE or SP2, Kao said.

From a public perception standpoint, some professors said the fact that there are four dean searches underway, rather than just one, can only work to Gutmann’s advantage. If she and the provost were announcing just one dean in the spring, reactions to the appointment, at the extremes, would likely be split. Some faculty members would view the hiring of a traditionally white male candidate as Gutmann being unresponsive, while her bringing on a minority candidate would be seen as a diversity or appeasement hire.

“Whether we had written that column or not, whenever you end up with a person of color in one of these positions, there are questions about whether it was a diversity hire. It comes with the territory, but that’s no reason not to do it,” Charles said. “For me, it would be kind of sad if it took them all four of these searches to get one right.”

Unpacking the search processes

So far, faculty members say they have been pleased with the role that diversity seems to be playing in each of Penn’s four dean searches.

Gutmann said she has given specific instructions to each of the four consultative committees — administrative, faculty, student and alumni groups that work with higher-education search firms to find potential candidates for the deanships — to bring her and the provost “an excellent and diverse set of names, because I believe, and the evidence confirms, that excellence and diversity go together.”

In the past, Gutmann has been “adamant” that a diverse slate of candidates be interviewed and considered for Penn’s deanships, Ilene Nagel , who heads the higher-education practice at search firm Russell Reynolds Associates said. Nagel’s firm conducted the search that ultimately led to Fluharty’s selection as SAS dean last semester.

Several of this year’s consultative committees are relatively diverse themselves — for example, of the seven faculty members on the GSE committee, three are black. Charles, though not involved with any of the searches herself, said she has been consulted by two of the four committees. “I’ve never been called to weigh in on a dean search before, other than my own [school’s],” she said, adding that from a diversity standpoint, it is encouraging that the committees for other schools asked for her input.

When it comes time for Gutmann to consider candidates, Jamie Ferrare , managing principal of AGB Search , a higher-education consulting firm, said it is important for her to remember that she cannot please everybody with a selection. “As a president, you’re accustomed to not having unanimous consent,” he said. “During these processes, someone in her position has to build as much goodwill and consensus as she can by engaging faculty, and hope in the end that those in dissent at least understand her decision.”

Professors stressed that, while they would like to see a diverse pool of candidates considered for the deanships, they are not playing a numbers game. “We’re not saying that we’re going to hold this place hostage if we don’t get a certain number of people in these searches,” religious studies professor Anthea Butler , who was also outspoken last semester about Penn’s lack of dean diversity, said. “This is something that has to happen over time. It’s not going to be a quick fix.”

Zuberi, the Africana studies and sociology professor, said the upcoming appointments are an opportunity for Penn to start to change the tenor of conversations about diversity on campus. “It’s not just about putting a black body in a white space,” he said. “We need to change how we think about who’s even in the realm of possibility to sit in these spaces.”

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