In last week’s Collegian, the column “AES Department should be more than a minor” quoted STEAM Collective’s description of the American Ethnic Studies program as “immensely downsized and depleted.” It also repeated STEAM’s assertion that faculty of color at Willamette are “underpaid and excluded from tenure-track positions.” Both of these claims are untrue and fail to do justice to the richness of American Ethnic Studies at Willamette, or to the University’s work on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) — both in employment and in the classroom.
First, to correct the record: no College of Liberal Arts (CLA) faculty member is paid less on the basis of race, sex, age, religion, national origin or any other constitutionally protected class. Salaries are standardized, and set according to years in rank. This egalitarian approach is unusual in higher education and is a testimony to our commitment to equity. We are working hard to diversify. To wit: 15 of our last 26 tenure-track hires are from traditionally under-represented groups.
This is not accidental — nor was it easy. Nationally, people of color are underrepresented across academe. A myriad of long-standing societal barriers still discourages far too many students of color from completing Ph.Ds. This needs to change — which is one of the reasons we’re eager to break the cycle of underrepresentation. We’ve been able to make the progress we have through careful recruiting and by working to make Willamette a more inclusive institution. Willamette is by no means perfect, but we are consciously, conscientiously and continually striving to get better.
Willamette has implemented multiple practices to improve the campus climate. Trained EDI advocates sit on every search committee to address unconscious bias. Faculty regularly attend workshops on inclusive pedagogy. To acknowledge the often invisible efforts of faculty of color to support students, we have changed annual reporting to recognize and reward informal mentoring. New standards for faculty evaluation ask our faculty to describe the work they do to advance equity, diversity and inclusion across the University. Willamette’s first Vice President for EDI is in place, finishing her second year.
So what of American Ethnic Studies? It was AES faculty themselves who requested that the major be removed from the books, which is within faculty purview to do. Interdisciplinary programs are notoriously difficult to sustain. The very thing that makes them intellectually rich — the diversity of voices from across the University — makes them unwieldy. Every AES professor committed to interdisciplinary work has an appointment in another department, and is thus subject to competing demands on their time. Universities have to be much larger than Willamette to have entire departments of faculty only teaching in an interdisciplinary area; we had a professor who was hired in AES alone, but she found it difficult to be a program of one, and asked to be reassigned. She still, though, teaches AES classes.
This is important to remember: even without a major, there are many opportunities to study in AES. This spring, there are 14 AES classes — more classes than numerous departments offer. Faculty know that, should they wish to reinstitute the major, they have my support. But several indicate they believe students are better served by the minor in combination with a more traditional disciplinary major — and current AES minors come from nine different departments. Willamette has 15 faculty affiliated with AES, more than half hired within the last eight years. It’s hard to see this as “depletion.” Rather, it bespeaks an AES presence woven throughout the DNA of our college and curriculum.