Voices for Change

The Voices for Change logo on an aerial of Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus.

Dennis Mitchell is the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Columbia University.

Our Challenges With Regard to Diversity

Unfortunately, there are many challenges with regard to diversity in higher education, and Columbia is no exception. The diversity of our faculty does not match that of the students (which, in turn, does not match that of the overall population). Even our best efforts to recruit faculty from historically underrepresented groups can fail, as the same group of elite scholars tend to be poached by peer institutions. We are guilty of this as well.

Columbia University Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Dennis Mitchell

Even after a successful recruitment, our work is not done. Underrepresented faculty may face additional challenges as the “lonely only” in their departments or units, and they bear heavy burdens of committee service and mentoring. For this reason, mentoring and support are crucial.

The place where we stand to make the largest impact as an institution is in pipeline building. We as an institution need to see the potential of scholars with nontraditional backgrounds, and to extend admissions criteria to reflect this. We must redouble our efforts to make the curriculum more inclusive. By investing in the work of centers, such as IRWGS, CSSD, CSER, and AAADS, we can support faculty who are working across disciplines to find unique solutions to real-world problems.

Broadly speaking, we must critically examine the projects that we choose to fund. In the health sciences, which is my field, projects in healthcare disparities have historically been underfunded at the national level, so scholars in this area face additional challenges in advancing their work. And the current political climate, in which the teaching of critical race theory is being called into question, and even banned in some public institutions, must shift. 

As an institution, we have a responsibility to be part of this conversation and to move public opinion toward a more nuanced understanding of our nation’s history and its impact on the academy and on society.

Don't Lose Hope When We Encounter Roadblocks

The most important thing to remember is that progress is not linear and that we should not lose hope when we encounter inevitable roadblocks. I have been doing this work for thirty years, and it is so exciting that people are really starting to engage. We cannot afford to lose the momentum of this moment.

Each of us has to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our own privilege in relation to that of others. As Ibram X. Kendi said, believing that you are not racist is not the same as being an antiracist. Being an antiracist requires ongoing, sustained action, and possibly giving up some of your power in order to allow others to step in. If you are a faculty member looking to make changes in your unit, look at the incredible work done by your colleagues across the University, including those who received Addressing Racism Seed Grant funds.

An antiracist Columbia is one in which all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) students, faculty, and staff feel safe, welcome, respected, seen, and heard, and where their contributions are valued. This requires a reckoning of an institution that was built for a time when our students, faculty, and leadership were all white men. Our work is to reimagine an institution that is inclusive in both policy and practice, and where the appropriate resources are invested to make sure that happens.

The collective efforts of Columbia’s leadership, faculty, students, and staff exhibited during this period of disruption and upheaval have made me incredibly hopeful that we are moving in the right direction.