A Southern Cal Program Courts Minority Professors

September 29, 2006

By Alvin P. Sanoff

When C. L. Max Nikias became the provost of the University of Southern California last year, the WISE program was very much on his mind. Mr. Nikias had moved into the provost’s job from the deanship of USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, where he saw that the program—Women in Science and Engineering—was making a significant difference in the recruitment of women.

Soon after becoming provost, Mr. Nikias began a universitywide effort to diversify the faculty by hiring both female and minority faculty members in disciplines in which they were underrepresented. At USC that definition applies mainly to black and Hispanic scholars. “We want to recruit the best person we can get, and we want to make sure that the deans, chairs, faculty, and search committees go out of their way to identify women and underrepresented candidates,” says the provost.

Those hired under the program are typically lured away from other institutions. Unlike WISE, the program is not designed to expand the faculty pool, say USC administrators. Some people in academe say that is unfortunate. “These diversity programs move the pool of talent around the country, but we also have an obligation to grow the talent,” says Charlotte G. Borst, provost and academic vice president of Rhodes College, and a historian of science who has written about gender and race in academic life.

“In the long run, USC does have the responsibility to establish a farm system to get talented women and those from underrepresented groups to move on for graduate studies,” Mr. Nikias acknowledges.

But in the meantime, the provost’s office is willing to do what it takes, within reason, to persuade established faculty members to come to USC. If laying out money to set up a lab is necessary, then Mr. Nikias will put up the funds for that. If helping a new hire with mortgage payments is crucial, then the provost stands ready to take that step. Because the Los Angeles housing market is so expensive, USC has sometimes offered housing allowances to faculty recruits who are not part of the diversity program. But USC administrators say that in those cases, the money typically comes from the school that does the hiring, not from the provost’s office.

In many respects, the USC program is similar to programs undertaken by other institutions, such as Columbia University’s $15-million diversity effort, announced last year. But unlike Columbia, Mr. Nikias has not committed a specific dollar amount to USC’s effort. “We make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” he says.

Executive Vice Provost Barry Glassner says that, unlike some diversity efforts, USC’s program cuts across the entire university and often involves faculty members who have dual appointments. For example, one faculty member who has not yet arrived will hold appointments in both the sociology department and the Annenberg School for Communication. “There are sometimes complex issues of coordination that need to be worked out,” says Mr. Glassner. “We are committed to doing that.”

USC officials believe they are better situated than most institutions to diversify. “We are capitalizing on our position in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and we have one of the most diverse student bodies in the country,” Mr. Glassner says. More than 20 percent of the undergraduate student body is black or Hispanic.

Relative to other research institutions, USC’s faculty is already reasonably diverse. Michael B. Preston, special adviser to the provost, says that among the nation’s top 25 research universities, USC stands fifth in the proportion of full-time Hispanic faculty, and ninth in black faculty. (USC is among the nation’s top 25 research institutions according to the research-focused annual rankings compiled by the University of Florida’s Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance.) Four percent of USC’s 3,100 full-time faculty members are Hispanic, and three percent are black.

In less than a year, the provost’s program has yielded a total of seven black and Hispanic faculty members. “I can’t imagine very many universities have brought on so many high-profile African-American and Latina scholars and rising-star junior hires in such a short period,” says Mr. Glassner. Among the new hires is the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, an African-American, who, ironically, was lured away from Columbia.

Most recruits are unaware that parts of their packages come from the provost’s program, and USC prefers it that way. “This is a university commitment,” says Mr. Nikias.

Both Darnell Cole, an associate professor of education who came from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and Daria Roithmayr, a law-school professor who was hired from the University of Illinois College of Law, received generous housing allowances as part of their packages. Mr. Cole, who is black, says he was given a $25,000 down payment for a home. “I had heard of senior scholars getting that kind of opportunity, but never midlevel scholars,” he says.

Ms. Roithmayr, who is Hispanic, received rental assistance along with the promise of additional support should she choose to buy a home. In addition, she was given funds that will enable her to travel on a regular basis to conferences and for research.

She says that more important to her than the material benefit is the opportunity USC offers to do interdisciplinary work in her specialty, critical race theory. Her research encompasses history and culture as well as law and economics. “USC has groups of people doing work in almost all these areas—and they actually speak to one other,” she says. “I can’t imagine a more perfect fit intellectually.”


Section: Diversity in Academic Careers
Volume 53, Issue 6, Page B10