Roundtable discussions highlight university commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion

A university discussion on diversity initiatives at Yale.
A university discussion on diversity initiatives included (left to right) Richard Bribiescas, anthropology professor and deputy provost for faculty development and diversity; Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 B.A., ’86 J.D., secretary and vice president for student life; Weili Cheng ’77 B.A., executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni; and Kathryn Lofton, chair of the religious studies department and deputy dean for diversity and faculty development. (Photo credit: Brita Belli)

Alumni were invited on each reunion weekend to a roundtable discussion on the university’s efforts to further the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) among members of the student body, faculty and administration.  

Kathryn Lofton, chair of the religious studies department and deputy dean for diversity and faculty development, discussed her views on the challenges of change, citing the evolution of social justice through history, and the hope for Yale’s continued evolution that drives her work. “Slowness is part of our modality,” Lofton said, but added, “when we make a change, we double down on it.” She noted the significant demographic shift that has taken place at Yale over the past decade — the creation of a Dean’s Office for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in 2014, the democratization of Yale College, and increasing numbers of first-generation students. She noted that Yale represents both “obedience to the past and innovation,” and is a campus where the struggles around race, identity, and belonging reflect those in society at large.

The session also  provided an opportunity for Yale leaders to respond directly to questions about the recent incident on campus, in which a white Ph.D. student called campus police on a black graduate student, prompting national outrage and discussion. As part of that discussion, assembled reunion attendees heard from Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 B.A., ’86 J.D., secretary and vice president for student life, about programs that create a welcoming and inclusive campus environment that affords every student equal opportunities. For example, she cited the numerous staff and faculty dedicated to supporting students expressing concerns about any form of discrimination and harassment.  She also described Yale’s structure for advancing DEI by embedding DEI responsibilities within each of Yale’s 12 professional schools, the graduate school and Yale College. This structure, she noted, is more effective for Yale than having a chief diversity officer in the central administration.

The cultures and needs are very different in every school,” Goff-Crews said, calling them “14 micro-communities.” She noted, for instance, that the School of Nursing is looking to attract more men, while the School of Management has a large international student population. The overall student body, meanwhile, comprises some 13,000 students, ranging in ages from 16 to 61 The recently formed President’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion will facilitate the sharing of best practices and monitoring efforts.

Richard Bribiescas, anthropology professor and deputy provost for faculty development and diversity, described the status of the $50M Initiative for Faculty Excellence and Diversity to bring DEI thought leadership to campus by inviting innovative scholars to teach for one to two semesters and by incentivizing departments and schools to recruit diverse faculty. Launched two years ago, the initiative has supported the recruitment of  50 ladder faculty from diverse backgrounds.  

The university has also provided resources for 24 Presidential Visiting Fellows, which range from senior faculty to young scholars advancing their own professional development. Meanwhile, the Emerging Scholars Initiative draws diverse scholars to Yale, expanding the pipeline for faculty excellence and diversity. “These efforts are important for us to maintain and grow Yale’s scholarly excellence,” Bribiescas told the alumni. “Diverse teams are more innovative and productive.”

Pointing to other successes, Bribiescas noted that in the past five years, the first female deans have been hired in FAS, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, School of Art, School of Architecture and the Law School. Dr. Gary V. Desir was appointed the first African-American chair of the Department of Internal Medicine in 2016. Dr. Nita Ahuja was named the first female chair of the Department of Surgery in February 2018. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Bribiescas says. “We’re turning 300 years of history around. It’s like climate change. If we all went solar, we wouldn’t see an immediate decline in temperature, but you’d see a change in micro-ecologies.”

Alumni are driving their own commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as panel member Weili Cheng ’77 B.A., executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni, told attendees. Following the campus debate on racism, diversity, and free expression two years ago, the AYA Board of Governors appointed the Yale Alumni Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) to see how alumni leaders might take a proactive role in promoting DEI learning and creating a pipeline for promising underrepresented alumni to emerge as AYA leaders. After working for two years, the task force completed its mission with the delivery of recommendations in a report.The Executive Director’s DEI Working Group is furthering this work with leadership and other events.

Cheng noted that if alumni knew all the ways that Yale was advancing DEI principles, “they would be proud.” Lofton echoed this sentiment, mentioning that she could “spend hours talking about our initiatives.” But she acknowledged that culture change requires ongoing effort. “Our culture is our problem, but it is also our answer,” she said.

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911