Princeton's commitment to diverse faculty: Q&A with Provost Lee and Dean of the Faculty Prentice

Jan. 20, 2016 noon

In 2013, Princeton University adopted a comprehensive strategy to increase the diversity of faculty, staff, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students as part of broader goals to create a more diverse and inclusive community. Since then, the University has launched various initiatives focused on faculty hiring, graduate student recruiting and mentoring, and staff development and training.

Provost David S. Lee and Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice recently spoke about the University's commitment to diversity and the progress of specific initiatives focused on faculty. Lee and Prentice explained how a diverse faculty is integral to sustaining Princeton's academic excellence and fostering an inclusive community. They also provided updates on continued and new efforts, such as significant funding to hire new faculty, the creation of postdoctoral fellowships in cultural studies, and programs to encourage underrepresented individuals to pursue careers in academia.

Why is it so important for Princeton to have a diverse community?

Lee: The University strives to foster a community that is diverse and inclusive at all levels — faculty, staff and students. When we talk about diversity, we mean diversity broadly in all its many forms. A diverse community is intrinsic to Princeton's mission to be the world's leading research and teaching university. By having people on campus who bring a range of perspectives and experiences, we can prepare our students to become well-rounded global citizens.

Prentice: When the Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity released its 2013 report, we included a statement explaining why diversity is so important to the University's ability to fulfill its mission. As the committee noted, in an increasingly interrelated and connected world, it benefits the University to identify and develop the most promising individuals from all segments of society. Excellence will only emerge from a campus environment that is both heterogeneous and inclusive.

Lee: In addition to the 2013 trustee committee, the special task force on diversity, equity and inclusion issued recommendations last May for policies and programs for improvements across campus, including student-focused initiatives such as strengthening the Fields Center as a home base for students of color.

Prentice: The recent student activism on campus gives a sense of urgency to the work the University has been engaged in for years. It's about trying to create diverse and inclusive community at all levels, as well as improving the campus climate for people of all backgrounds.

Why has there been a particular focus on diversifying the faculty in recent years?

Lee: First and foremost, we want to diversify the faculty because our professors are critical to sustaining Princeton's excellence in scholarship and research. Princeton professors are leaders in their fields, and are teachers and mentors on our campus. If we do not cultivate faculty who have varied academic interests and backgrounds we risk becoming stagnant. Diversifying the faculty also feeds into the University's effort to create a diverse and inclusive community at all levels.

Prentice: I recently gave a presentation at the Council for the Princeton University Community (CPUC) about the focus on diversifying the faculty. The University recognizes it's not where it wants to be in this area. For decades, Princeton has worked to increase the diversity of students, faculty and staff. The University community, particularly undergraduates, has become much more diverse during the past 35 years. However, progress has been slower among faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Certain populations, particularly underrepresented minorities, have not increased very much since 1980 among our faculty, postdoctoral and graduate student ranks.

There are a number of factors at Princeton, and within higher education more broadly, that influence our ability to diversify the faculty. We recognize these challenges and continue to develop new ways to encourage more diversity among faculty, as well as postdoctoral fellows and graduate students.

What are the challenges to diversifying the faculty? There is often discussion about the need to diversify the academic pipeline of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who pursue professorial careers.

Prentice: The academic pipeline is very relevant for understanding how we can make progress and where we can make progress. When we talk about the challenges of the pipeline, we are typically referring to the fact that there are not a large number of underrepresented minorities earning Ph.D.s in the academic fields that Princeton covers. In order to diversify, we need a strong pool of candidates from which to choose when we hire new faculty. Leaders across higher education need to think holistically about how to encourage underrepresented individuals to pursue academic careers by going to graduate school and earning advanced degrees.

Diversity faculty2

Princeton's Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice (left) and Provost David S. Lee recently gave an update about new and long-term initiatives to diversify the faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. The initiatives are part of broader efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive community of students, staff and faculty. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)

Lee: We have diversified the faculty in many ways, though some may ask why the pace has not been faster. Princeton has committed substantial funding and resources to diversifying the faculty. The part that takes time and consideration is finding the best candidates for these faculty positions — again, the academic pipeline challenge.

It also is about mobilizing the entire University community to support this work. The academic departments lead the searches for faculty within their departments, so we want to incentivize and encourage all of the academic search committees to include diverse candidates in their pools.

Prentice: The dean of the faculty's office does not hire faculty. The people who hire faculty are the other faculty within the academic departments. So we need leaders and partners within the academic departments. Departments know best their own opportunities and challenges to diversifying. And, most importantly, they know the kind of diversity that will enhance what they do.

What programs has the University implemented to diversify faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students? What specific efforts are underway?

Lee: My office, which coordinates and approves funding for many of the initiatives, continues to work with the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, Office of Human Resources, Graduate School and academic departments on a number of proposals and programs across campus.

On the faculty side specifically, the University has made substantial and ongoing funding commitments for new hires that diversify the faculty, with diversity understood broadly. This also includes significant funding to expand and diversify the postdoctoral program.

Prentice: In addition, we have a Faculty Advisory Committee on Diversity that is pursuing a number of efforts. All academic departments were asked to develop a comprehensive strategic plan, with five- and 10-year outlooks. The plans included a consideration of the opportunities and hiring directions the department will have, and how they plan to increase diversity within the department. The advisory committee is now reviewing those department plans and pulling out the best ideas to feed back to all departments. We want to help departments learn from each other and work together to make progress in this challenging endeavor.

Some specific faculty, postdoctoral and graduate student efforts include:


  • In February 2015, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty announced it would make available to departments funding equivalent to 10 full-time faculty members for new hires who diversify the faculty. As departments typically share in funding the new positions, 15 to 20 new hires could result from this initiative. Hiring for these positions is ongoing within various departments.
  • In May 2015, the University launched the Provost's Fund for Cultural Studies to support current faculty members, faculty visitors and teaching postdoctoral candidates to fill curricular needs in cultural studies. The first round of funding has helped support:
    • A postdoctoral research associate in the Program in American Studies focused on scholarship within the areas of race, ethnicity and migration.
    • A postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Gender and Sexual Studies with a focus on the field of disability studies.
    • A postdoctoral research associate jointly appointed in the Program in American Studies and the Program in Gender and Sexual Studies to work at the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality studies.
    • A postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Anthropology to focus on transnational aspects of identity and cultural community.
    • A postdoctoral research associate in the Global Health Program (GHP) to support a new initiative on identity, culture and health in the United States.
    • A three-year pilot summer undergraduate research grant in GHP to allow students to explore how identity and culture impact vulnerability and health in the United States.
    • The development of two new courses: one in the Department of Anthropology and the other in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Language and Cultures. The courses were endorsed by the Provost's Fund for Cultural Studies and funded by the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education.
  • The Office of the Dean of the Faculty continues to work closely with academic departments to support faculty searches that may yield more female and underrepresented minority candidates. This includes providing increased resources and training to departments; encouraging departments to develop "watch lists" to track promising young scholars in their respective fields; and improving recruitment and retention incentives, such as the University's family-friendly programs for faculty balancing careers and families.


  • The University is providing greater oversight of postdoctoral fellows, including increased mentoring and training to help postdoctoral fellows pursue academic careers and to strengthen the sense of community among postdoctoral fellows on campus.
  • The creation of new, three-year teaching postdoctoral positions to increase the intellectual diversity in the classroom. The postdoctoral research associate positions funded by the Provost's Fund for Cultural Studies (mentioned above) are all teaching positions. Each postdoctoral fellow will teach two courses per academic year.
  • The development of a competitive, honorific fellowship to attract top women and underrepresented postdoctoral fellows to Princeton.


  • The Graduate School has created a new position: assistant dean for diversity initiatives in the natural sciences. The assistant dean will support the recruitment retention and success of students underrepresented in the University's graduate programs in the sciences. The assistant dean will have a particular focus on the life sciences and continue the work of former faculty member Alison Gammie, who led a graduate diversity program for the Department of Molecular Biology.
  • The University is supporting existing academic pipeline programs, such as the Princeton Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (PSURE), and also experimenting with new pilot programs in astrophysics, physics and politics that encourage underrepresented students to pursue a doctoral degree. For example, the Department of Politics has launched an Emerging Scholars in Political Science Program that will allow students who have earned bachelor's degrees at other universities to spend up to two years conducting research under the direction of a Princeton faculty member. The program will allow underrepresented students to explore research interests and prepare for graduate school through intensive research, coursework and mentoring.
  • The implementation of improvements to the recruitment and selection process for applicants to Princeton's graduate programs, including a holistic application review process and the Graduate School's close partnership with academic departments.

What do you see for the future?

Prentice: Diversifying the faculty, and postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who may one day become faculty, is a full community endeavor. It also is something that requires constant attention and sustained effort. If we are going to make progress, we have to engage departments and people across campus in an ongoing effort.

Lee: Lasting change does not happen overnight. Many, many different things must happen over a long period of time to make our campus a truly diverse and inclusive community. It's not one silver bullet. It is a fully community effort that has been going on for a long time and will continue to go on with many people working together in various ways.