Students hold sit-in to raise awareness for physics department inclusion

| Contributing Reporter

Students lined the halls of Crow Hall, home of the physics department at Washington University, in a sit-in to spread awareness of the lack of gender diversity among physics faculty.

Wednesday’s sit-in, coordinated by sophomore Hilah Kohen, was also a celebration of sorts, underlining student support for the recently passed Student Union resolution regarding departmental inclusion.

The sit-in was deliberately planned to occur directly before the colloquium of a female bio-physicist candidate, which was a source of some concern for the department.

Kohen said the sit-in was important to show student interest in the issue.

“We wanted to show that students are concerned. We care about how this turns out; we care about how the wider issue plays out on campus,” Kohen said.

The physics department received word of the sit-in on the Friday before the event. Dr. Mark Alford, chair of the physics department, was concerned about the candidate’s experience of the department during a sit-in.

“I was a little nervous about the idea of her, as a guest of the department, sort of running the gauntlet of a sit-in,” Alford said. “I didn’t want a visiting female candidate to get the impression that gender was a really fraught issue and she’d be landing in sort of…a war zone. That’s what I was afraid of—is that would give her an impression that would hurt our chances of hiring her.”

Because Alford was absent on the day of the sit-in, professor Martin Israel addressed the students as acting chair and emphasized that the department was aware of their concerns.

“There have been some claims of some faculty members acting inappropriately. And we are very much aware of that. We are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. We have a committee of the department that includes men and women, faculty, staff, students that are working on…what can we do to better ensure that we are treating all of our students appropriately,” Israel said.

Kohen felt that it was important for students to have a space to express their concern for the issue and intended the sit-in to be a supportive demonstration.

“I think there was a bit of confusion in the department about what our message was going to be. The department assumed that this event would have a negative tone. It was actually one of the more important components of this, because the tone of the sit-in was very positive and encouraging but also a display of student attention to the issue,” Kohen said. “We wanted it to be at the center of the most positive things that were going on in the department at the time. I suppose it was my impression that if we were doing this directly before a talk given by a female candidate it would be very clear that this is a supportive demonstration.”

Israel acknowledged that there are no women on the tenured or tenure-track faculty. Alford, despite his original concern of the sit-in being disruptive and negatively affecting the department, noted the positive outcome of the sit-in.

“I think the sit-in underlines the importance of something that we are already engaged in. It reinforces our commitment to [increasing faculty diversity] because it shows us that the students feel just as strongly, if not more strongly, than we do,” Alford said. “When it’s done in a good and positive way, it’s a nice reinforcement, even if we’re already moving in that direction.”

The physics department has made multiple efforts to hire women, and although women make the short-list for positions in many cases, those who are offered positions do not always accept. In fact, according to data from four previous faculty searches in the physics department, 28.5 percent of offers were made to women, and none of the female candidates accepted the offers. Israel considers the fact that the qualified women that the University offers positions to are often highly sought-after to be a factor in this.

“We have made offers to women as a result of some previous searches, and, for various reasons, they have gone elsewhere. And partly, we are not the only department that would like to add women to our faculty. A well-qualified woman is likely to get offers from several places,” Israel said.

Expanding the diversity among faculty is a top priority for Barbara Schaal, dean of the faculty of the College of Arts & Sciences.

“When I meet with chairs and directors, I again talk about the importance of diversity and that we need to expand the diversity of our faculty. That has a very high priority. We have a very strong affirmative action monitoring committee that looks at all of the search plans to make sure that they are indeed open, that they contact a wide diversity of groups to announce the position and that all of the internal procedures are completely open,” Schaal said.

Other hiring methods such as cluster-hiring—hiring multiple scholars into one or more departments based on shared, interdisciplinary research interests—meant to enhance faculty diversity, pose some challenges to the University.

“The problem that we have always is budget. But there have been a couple of cases where, in fact, we have hired more than one individual. I think where it’s challenging, for example, is in an area where there are not many women candidates, and then it becomes much more of a challenge,” Schaal said.

The Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, appointed by Provost Holden Thorp, created a University-wide, two-year action plan. Immediate actions include committing increased resources to ensure the recruitment, hiring, and supporting of diverse faculty, and the review and assessment of hiring, promotion, and retention practices to promote greater staff diversity and inclusion.

According to the 2015 report from the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Commitee, the percentage of women tenure and tenure-track faculty on the Danforth Campus has grown from 23 percent to 33 percent over the last 15 years.

The percentage of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority faculty has also grown over the same time from 5 percent to 8 percent on the Danforth Campus. A report on faculty trends from the 2014-2015 academic year shows that, at 58 percent, the George Warren Brown School of Social Work boasts the highest percentage of female tenure-track and tenured faculty, whereas only 11 percent of the School of Engineering & Applied Science’s female faculty members are tenured/tenure-track.

The University has developed several initiatives to increase and support students and faculty from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. The Distinguished Visiting Scholars program, established in the fall of 1998, brings underrepresented minorities who have distinguished themselves as leaders and innovators in the academy, in business or in fields of endeavor to Washington University.

Additionally, the Office of the Provost is piloting a two-year Distinguished Visiting Scholars program for women in underrepresented fields. Academic pipeline programs, including scholarships, internships, fellowships and the STEM Pipeline Consortium were established to help create a more diverse community on campus.

Concerning the physics faculty search, the bio-physics experimentalist search will reach the stage of giving someone an offer next week. The physics department will choose a candidate for the astro-particle physics theorist post in the first week of March—women make up three of five and one of six candidates on the short-lists, respectively.