Two Professors Fill Associate Provost for Faculty Equity Post

Professors Barbara H. Liskov and Wesley L. Harris have been appointed to fill the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity position created a year ago, Provost L. Rafael Reif announced earlier this month. The scope of the position would include four central issues: “faculty recruitment, faculty retention, providing a supportive environment for career development and promotion, and work-family issues,” Reif said.

Liskov said she has no plans at the moment to reform the process of granting tenure, an issue that put MIT in the national spotlight last February after an MIT professor went on a hunger strike after he was denied tenure and claimed it was because of racial reasons.

“MIT has in place a process for evaluating cases like [former Associate Professor James L.] Sherley’s, and that process was followed in this case,” Liskov said. “The original decision was examined by many people; the process by which the decision came about was examined as well. I don’t have any particular ideas to do something about [the tenure process].”

Liskov added that the process “needs to be watched” to ensure that tenure candidates have the resources and time to make the best case for themselves.

Associate Professor of Linguistics Michel A. DeGraff said in an e-mail to The Tech that the process needs major reforms. DeGraff said that the tenure-related issues raised by the Sherley case have been discussed in national media, from CNN to Science Magazine, and said that he was “stunned” to find that Liskov felt it was not a problem.

“It seems as if the administration, even through its ‘Equity’-related appointments, is still in a state of denial vis-a-vis the crucial issues that were painfully illustrated in the Sherley case,” he said in an e-mail. “The main gate-keeping mechanism at MIT — the tenure process and the grievance procedures associated with it — seems riddled with structural problems.”

DeGraff said he was also dissatisfied with the way the position was filled. “One of my many concerns is that these appointments were made in a top-down fashion with apparently little consultation with the minority faculty.” DeGraff said he feels the race initiative needs to be autonomous from an administration.

Reif said that he, Harris, and Liskov would be “responsible for assessing and implementing [the] recommendations” of the race initiative committee. The committee released a preliminary report on July 16 which the new associate provosts will examine. The race initiative, which was announced in early February, will attempt to take stock of the current situation for racial minorities.

The solution to the diversity problem, DeGraff said, lies with the majority faculty at MIT, not the minority faculty. “It is the majority faculty who should be the main focus of interviews so that MIT can better understand the attitudinal and structural obstacles to increased diversity at MIT,” DeGraff said in the e-mail. “I myself doubt that the minority faculty will be forthcoming in candidly expressing their views about their experiences at MIT. It is not clear that the junior faculty, waiting and hoping to be tenured, would be well advised to do so.”

Liskov, whose appointment took effect on July 1, 2007, comes to the position from the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and from her role as co-chair of the Faculty Diversity Committee. Harris, who could not be reached for comment, will join Liskov on Feb. 16, 2008, when he will step down as head of the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department, according to an MIT press release.

Liskov said she wants to focus on the recruitment process that is used to attract and select candidates for faculty positions. “We need to advertise in the right places,” Liskov said. “Sometimes it’s important in the case of attracting women and minorities to be a little proactive so that we’re looking for people who could be encouraged to apply instead of just reading applications that come in.”

She said that she also wants to investigate the possibility of tracking MIT graduates who would improve faculty diversity, as well as candidates from past searches “who looked good but didn’t quite fit into one search” in order to bring them in for other job interviews.

All efforts at diversifying the faculty would, by necessity, come through expanding the pool of applicants rather than by employing affirmative action, Liskov said. “Hiring decisions must be made by people who are knowledgeable in the correct field.”

Both Liskov and Harris have experience working on diversity issues, according to an MIT press release. Liskov has worked with the gender equity committees of MIT’s five schools, while Harris served as director of the Office of Minority Education.

The appointment of Harris and Liskov marks a stage in the history of faculty diversification at MIT, which began in 1995 with the creation of the Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science. After a 1999 report which concluded that women felt “gender had probably caused their professional lives to differ significantly from those of their male colleagues,” President Charles M. Vest formed gender equity committees in the four other schools.

In 2000, the 12-member Council on Faculty Diversity was created, also in response to the report. The Associate Provost for Faculty Equity position is an expansion of the Council on Faculty Diversity chair position and was created in September 2006.