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Rethinking our Team
By Dean Nicole Sampson and Associate Dean Amy Cook, College of Arts and Sciences

Amy Cook NSampson and student Our role as great public research institutions is to innovate and discover new knowledge for the common good. We cannot do this adequately without a more diverse faculty, inclusive education and professional allyship. The past year has made two things crystal clear. One, health injustice, compounded by systemic inequities, is a global problem with a powerful local impact; and two, we cannot do without scientific research, facts, and the ability to communicate difficult ideas. The heavy lifting that must be done to move beyond this crisis and create new opportunities should not be the responsibility of our overtaxed faculty of color; this can and must be the work of administrators like us, two white women in positions that provide us a platform in which we strive to improve these inequities.  This is not about public relations or ideals; it is about progress toward a goal. We would like to take this opportunity to reinforce the College’s plans for education, research and mentorship based on its three constellations of strength that inspire future development for the next decade.  

Stony Brook University (SBU) is a public institution known for providing upward social mobility for first generation and underrepresented students, and those students from low-income families. New York’s Suffolk County, in which Stony Brook is located, has been particularly hard hit by COVID and racial injustice, adding to the financial, psychological, and medical strain on some of our communities. SBU has a strong record of recruiting, educating, and advancing underrepresented minority undergraduate students. In fact, a research team at Stanford University released a report in January 2017 in which Stony Brook was ranked #3 in the country on social mobility . According to college.net’s Social Mobility Index,   Stony Brook ranked #37 in the country for 2020-21, and #1 among public research universities in the American Association of Universities ( AAU).  However, SBU has not had the same success with hiring or retaining underrepresented minority groups to our faculty. Currently, our faculty is 3.7 percent Black, 5.2 percent Latinx, and 0.4 percent American Indian or Alaskan Native. 

As we look ahead, still immersed within the chaos and challenges of the past year, we are focused on two connected truths:

  1. Community-engaged academics and University systems are needed more than ever to generate new knowledge, address social inequities, and demystify complex challenges.
  2. A diversity of perspectives, ideas, and experiences are critical to achieving meaningful engagement, which requires diverse representation within the professoriate. 

Each of us has a favorite example of these truths. Dean Sampson remembers hearing about how sickle cell disease was removed from a biochemistry curriculum to avoid a discussion about race. Associate Dean Cook points to SBU Department of Art Professor Stephanie Dinkins, who exposes in her art the bias encoded in Artificial Intelligence systems because the coding team was all white. There are many examples in education and research of how a strong, diverse team made progress where a lone “genius” failed and most colleges and universities are seeking to “diversify.” The question is how. Especially when we repeatedly hear of circumstances where colleges and universities, and perhaps their specific departments, are attempting to recruit and attract diverse faculty and are failing - not only because of an antiquated process, but also because of perception, misinformation, and confusion.This recently happened at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where a renowned African American chemist withdrew her candidacy to join the Department of Chemistry due to the widely-publicized case of Nikole Hannah Jones tenure denial. 

Structural problems require structural solutions. We need to rethink the ecosystem of training, hiring, retaining and promoting faculty . Hiring from within disciplinary departments tends to reproduce what was there before. We do not believe we can use the same traditional approach to hiring to yield such diverse, interdisciplinary teams of faculty. We seek to hire postdoctoral students and faculty through a centrally-constituted hiring committee, looking for applicants based on how they contribute -- culturally, academically, and regionally -- to the future university, not the siloed departments of the past. To this end, we are launching our IDEA fellows postdoctoral program. 

The disruption of the pandemic highlighted the necessity of teams with a wide range of disciplines represented to converge on a public health solution. Analogously, the new university needs to support teams that reconcile multiple perspectives about complex problems. Moving forward, we need to revise the faculty reward system to count what we value, not value what we count individually. In making tenure decisions, we should value outstanding team leadership/mentorship, community engagement, public scholarship, scholarly activism, AND books/journal articles published, presentations, and research grants awarded. We must ensure that we are not losing our best scholars due to a system that has been designed to undervalue or marginalize their work. And this needs to be accepted, upheld and implemented by university administration. 

 As historian Timothy Snyder, professor at Yale University said in “ The American Abyss,"  his op ed featured in New York Times Magazine, “If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions.” The American Council of Learned Societies, with support from the Luce Foundation, held a series of design workshops this spring to bring together teams of faculty and administrators from different universities to brainstorm real solutions to deep structural problems in the university. We need to find new medicines to heal, new technologies for energy, new stories to tell, and a more accurate vision of who we are as a nation. 

We cannot solve the problems of tomorrow with the old university. It will take more than good intentions and statements; to change the demographics of the professoriate, we need to change the structure of how we hire, promote and support our faculty. If we are not willing to embrace what we know to be true --that our faculty does not match the diversity of our students; that increased diversity improves outcomes; the current university has failed scholars of color; and this inequity is baked into the system --then how can we claim to be living up to our mission to create new knowledge and teach the future leaders, thinkers, inventors, and artists of tomorrow? We must save the university by building a new university. And as we continue to elevate and expand our shared vision and navigation to 2030, the College of Arts and Sciences is committed to laying the foundation.  


8-17-21