Shifting our Trajectory, May 7, 2014
As our semester comes to a close, it’s my hope this message finds you enjoying the spring weather and the interesting mixed sense of anxiety and accomplishment that is always in the air of a university in the weeks leading up to final exams and graduation. But I’m interrupting your work today to highlight a different topic — one that has generated concern for me and one that I want all of us to spend some time thinking about and considering how we, collectively, can improve as we begin planning for the start of our next academic year in only a few short months.
I’ve been struggling with this message for a couple of weeks now — wanting to write it, but not quite feeling that various drafts were hitting the right tone. And events from last week with the Department of Education citations for many universities around the country remind me that, while I’ve toyed with my edits, time has passed and we ought to — even as a university doing well in a statistical safety and reporting sense — have a much greater sense of urgency around this topic. And so I’ve decided to stop editing and hit “send,” simply to share my thinking on what I believe is a path forward that can shift the trajectory of our progress in a more positive direction. Yes, this is another long email, but I hope you’ll bear with me.
In my last two Fall Addresses to the campus community, I’ve talked about the climate for women at Colorado State University and the need for us to focus, collectively, on change and improvement — with the goal of becoming the best university in the country for women to work and study. This isn’t a new issue for CSU. In fact, it’s something many people across the campus have been working on for decades now, and we’re a better university because of those efforts.
Still, as I continue to read about the challenges for women in higher education nationally, as I talk with members of our faculty and staff about their individual experiences, and as I review the data we have available about equity and advancement, I can’t help feeling that we’re missing an opportunity to drive real and fundamental change here at CSU. It’s that concern that inspired me to write to you today, but I’ll be honest: I’ve struggled with how to say what I want to say because two seemingly paradoxical points are true:
- We’ve made strong progress in improving our overall climate for women on campus, and we’re generally well-positioned as an employer, relative to the national marketplace.
- As an institution that reflects our society — and as an academic community that sets a high standard for achievement — few of us could argue that we’re where we want to be or that the pace of our progress in this regard has been acceptable.
First, I want to acknowledge what we’ve achieved, thanks to the leadership and involvement of women and men at CSU over the past two decades. We’ve made progress on expanding child-care resources, leave policies, spousal/partner accommodation, and family and wellness benefits. We’ve seen significant growth in the number of women in senior administrative leadership positions. Top women scholars have joined the ranks of our University Distinguished Professors and Teaching Scholars. We’ve taken a more systematic approach to assessing gender equity in salaries, hiring, and promotion, and we’ll now be disseminating this information to determine if we are using the best analytical methods available for our assessment. We most recently created The Ripple Effect as a forum for sharing ideas and capitalizing on opportunities to advance diversity and the climate and culture for women faculty, staff, and students. A lot of people have worked hard — and continue to work work hard — on all these efforts and are enthusiastic about their progress. That work is very much worth noting, and those involved deserve our thanks. I feel comfortable making the statement that the climate for women, in general, has improved at CSU, and building an equitable, supportive campus climate is clearly of great importance to many women and men on this campus.
But if we look carefully at the issue, there can be no doubt that our historic trajectory of change is inadequate to where we want, need, and ought to be as a university, particularly when it comes to women faculty. (In making this statement, I don’t intend in any way to minimize the experiences of our classified and administrative professional employees, but I want to focus here on my concerns relative to our faculty, if only to help frame the larger discussion.)
Each year we lose women from key leadership roles — women who have committed years of time and energy to this university, but who have tired of fighting the dual challenge of not only leading, but leading as women in roles defined and judged not always by outcome, but on deviation from a perceived yet unarticulated “norm.” Each year, we have some new version of the debate about parental leave and the tenure clock, or compensation and evaluation equity, despite the changes we’ve made to improve in these areas. Each year there are women on our campus who are subjected to environments that are unacceptable — and too few voices come to their aid. These ought to serve as signals to us that our pace of change has been too slow; that perhaps we are too accepting of incremental change to the status quo.
And this is exactly what we are hearing from our female faculty colleagues. I recognize that it’s simply not possible for me, or anyone who hasn’t walked in those shoes, to see the world through the eyes of people fighting for equity within a system that has too often marginalized them. But even so, I’ve been a little saddened, though not surprised, to hear in conversations with women friends and faculty colleagues these past two years how little impact they expect a focus on this issue to actually make in their daily lives at CSU. These women are, by any objective measure, highly accomplished and successful academics — long-time leaders on our campus and in their disciplines. They are also generally hopeful, upbeat people, not typically naysayers. But what I’ve heard from them, loud and clear, is skepticism — even cynicism — that CSU is capable of or willing to commit to the changes needed to significantly improve our climate for women in the academic ranks.
Frankly, as I’ve reflected on this, I think they’re right to be skeptical. Gender equity and the climate for women have theoretically been a focus of attention and activity at CSU since the first Task Force on the Status of Women report was drafted back in the early 1990s. At that time, then-President Yates looked at the progress of women in the faculty ranks and declared it an institutional embarrassment. Two decades later, while we can cite genuine progress toward equity and an improved campus climate, we also know that the pace of change has been slower than should have been acceptable, that we have lost ground in some areas even as we’ve made progress, and that there remain pervasive, persistent, and well-documented disadvantages that women continue to experience in the academic workplace.
For a university, a community of scholars dedicated to the life of the mind as expressed through the merit of one’s scholarly pursuits, losing any talent from our ranks should be deeply concerning, losing heterogeneity of thought and expression should be embarrassing, not correcting inequity wherever we find it should be anathema, and accepting an environment in which even one of our members feels unsafe should be abhorrent.
I realize there will be some of you who don’t recognize why I’m raising this issue now, so here is some of the context in which we are operating at this moment:
- Women are now a majority of students in American colleges and universities at both graduate and undergraduate levels, earning 58% of all bachelor’s, 60% of master’s degrees, and 52% of doctorates. But according to the American Association of University Professors, while women hold 44 percent of all full-time faculty positions, they comprise only 29 percent of full professors.
- Women are underrepresented in senior faculty positions and senior academic leadership roles — nationally and at CSU — and are in the minority on the leadership of all major academic councils and organizations including the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council, ACE, APLU and AAU. On our own campus, we’ve made progress in terms of women in administrative leadership positions but lost some ground in the academic leadership ranks.
- This campus and nearly all others in the U.S. continue to experience regular reports of sexual harassment and assault — violence to the body and spirit that leave a large segment of our community feeling unwelcome, unsafe, and unsupported. This is an issue that impacts women and men, of all ages and walks of life. And in all communities, but especially in one committed to learning and civility, this ought to be viewed as nothing less than a disgrace and should compel us to increase our efforts to make our campus safe and free from harassment.
- Many studies over many years have reported that women in the academy feel compelled to adapt their styles and ways of communicating to the expectations of a patriarchal environment — even as that environment is increasingly populated and sustained by women. In an academic institution, we’re committed to open expression of ideas, but it is clearly incumbent on all of us to learn to hear ideas presented in new ways, not just in the ways we have traditionally expected and required. This also compels us, as a University, to ask whether some of our traditional rules and practices aren’t actually working as well as they could for either women or men.
- While these issues impact women in higher education in general, we know that women of color are disproportionately affected.
- Few of us could ignore the news about the independent review of the University of Colorado philosophy department, which led to the removal of its chairman and suspension of graduate student admissions in February. The review uncovered repeated reports of women faculty and students being bullied, sexually harassed, and treated in an unprofessional, inappropriate, and uncivil manner. As many have noted since this review went public, one of the greatest problems in the department was the failure of leadership to take action — and for those who were not involved in harassing behavior to speak out against it. And in case anyone reading this is inclined to shrug it off as just a problem unique to another university: Don’t kid yourself. If this can affect a great university like our colleagues to the south, the same kind of toxic culture could develop on this or any other campus, if we allow neglect and indifference to carry the day.
It’s true that by many measures, we’re doing well in comparison to our peers and better than many places. But in that statement rests a big part of the problem: Few of us are really doing very well overall and we expect too little of ourselves. As a national academic community, we’ve been content to settle for just incremental improvement when it comes to the ability of women to work on a level playing field. And acknowledging this should force us to reconsider the very basic elements of our institution — how we assess and promote faculty, how we talk with one another, how we intervene in uncomfortable situations — and few of us really have allocated the time or energy to engage those challenges for substantive change over the long term. So we’ve settled, and we’ve nibbled around the edges, and fixed what we could most easily fix. And we have, all too often, turned a blind, if saddened eye on a situation affecting our colleagues that we would not have tolerated had it affected us.
So I’m writing today to make a clear statement to — and on behalf of — this University community that we must do better. We cannot settle for an environment in which any members of our community are institutionally disadvantaged in any way, but particularly by our own policies, traditions, and behaviors. Women and men should be able to enter the academic workforce with confidence that their success will depend on their performance — and that progress will be limited only by their own commitment to outstanding scholarship, hard work, and professional excellence. It is often argued on issues such as this that we cannot shift the national trends, but I fail to understand why that should excuse us from doing — each day, each week, each month, each year — what we can, what is within our power, and what we know to be right. We can change the trajectory of progress here at CSU, and we can send a signal that if each academic institution in this nation were to do what was within their power, then change is not only possible — it is inevitable.
If we really want to dispel the persistent, pervasive disadvantages that impact our women faculty on a daily basis, if we want to see change that doesn’t take generations to materialize, if we want to improve the climate for all women and men at CSU, then we need to address this as a University in more concrete ways than we have to date.
Here is what we already have committed to, unequivocally:
- Discrimination, including sexual harassment, is prohibited at CSU and will not be tolerated. People who violate anti-discrimination policies will be disciplined to the full extent of the university’s ability.
- We will hold all members of our community — including tenured faculty — to the same standard of professional conduct and behavior as any other workplace. Tenure is a privilege many of us enjoy and that we work to protect. It is not and has never been a license to treat other people intolerably.
- And we will not back away from our focus on improvements to the benefits and privileges afforded to all members of our campus community, which have already been taken to a new level through our Commitment to Campus program.
- I am creating a standing committee on senior women faculty that will be part of the President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity. This commission will advise the Provost and me on issues specifically related to possible improvements in the academic workplace and policies, including the Academic Faculty and Administrative Professional Manual. I’m also working with CWGE Chair Jane Kneller to update the Commission’s charge and provide it with funding and staff support to strengthen its ability to contribute in necessary ways to our planning and decision-making processes Among the issues we will ask this new standing committee to explore is the role of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship at the University and how we value and support faculty working across disciplines. We will also be asking this committee and the President’s Commission to weigh in on institutional surveys, policies, and assessment processes as they’re developed to help ensure they’re accomplishing what we want to accomplish.
- We are developing a program of “intervention training” (also known as “bystander training”) for both our campus and Fort Collins businesses and organizations that will help teach the skills we all need to intervene when we witness threats or harassment against other members of our community. This has come up repeatedly in recent months as a need for our campus, and Vice President for Diversity Mary Ontiveros and others in the Division of Student Affairs and at the CSU Health Network are taking the lead on pulling together an initial pilot program. We need to set a clear expectation at CSU that we care enough to step up when others need our help and support — and that we expect supportive behavior of each other.
- We are going to continue to engage in a full and open discussion across this campus — through the collaborative efforts of the Ripple Effect and the President’s Commission on Women and Gender Equity — about how our climate can better encompass and reward all members of our community. The President’s Commission and the Ripple Effect will coordinate, leverage resources, and support one another’s efforts to achieve the best outcomes for CSU, with the Commission playing a coordinating role among these groups.
- We will continue to reassess and revamp our analyses of equity, retention, hiring and promotional practices to eliminate any systemic disadvantages that exist and disproportionately impede the progress of any segment of our population.
- We’re going to take a close look at our family leave policies related to 9-month faculty to see if there are improvements we can make that recognize their unique situation.
- We will continue to explore improvements to our spousal/partner accommodation policies and programs and how to better support departments in recruiting dual-career families.
This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch. A more complete agenda for progress will need to come from our community as a whole. But we will make progress on these points, and we will be better for it.
Perhaps most importantly, we will commit to an ongoing conversation where we will hold ourselves accountable for improvement. And so I want to ask all of you to spend a little of your time over the coming summer months and reflect on what we, collectively and as individuals, can do to improve our campus climate for all people.
And come back to campus prepared to engage this topic in the fall.
I remain, as I have always been, proud of Colorado State University — I can say without reservation that this is a good place to work; that we have a campus culture that has been enriched and informed by the experiences, insights, and perspectives we all bring to the mix.
I believe fundamentally that this institution is committed to a mission of opportunity and excellence. But we can be better, we need to expect more from ourselves, and our response to this challenge will define our University now and into the future. I want all of us to be able to tell our daughters and granddaughters, our sons and grandsons — with pride and confidence — that this is a University that respects, values, and supports the success of all people — that we not only leveled the playing field but built a better playing field for both women and men at CSU — that the strength of our character shone most brightly when we undertook this challenge and drove real and lasting change.
Dr. Tony Frank