With its only black tenured professor retiring, UMD’s public policy school faces pushback

Van Munching Hall, home of the business school and the public policy school. (Elliot Scarangello/The Diamondback)

Shelton Daal had a lot of reasons for taking Christopher Foreman’s PLCY737: Strategies of Equality class this semester. For one, Foreman has been director of the public policy school’s social policy program since 2000 — a specialization Daal is considering.

Foreman is also the school’s only tenured or tenure-track faculty member who is black. And while Daal — a senior sociology major pursuing a public policy master’s degree — said he’s had valuable experiences with some of the white professors he’s had in class, he said being taught by someone who shares his racial identity is different.

“It can often be a really transformative experience, seeing someone who looks like you — who’s been through, potentially, a similar journey [to] you — in that position,” Daal said.

But Foreman is set to retire at the end of this semester. And after he leaves, some public policy students are worried the school will have no black faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure-track: The search is on for a new social policy professor, and so far, all candidates who have visited campus have been white.

The Black Students in Public Policy organization held an emergency meeting Thursday night to raise concerns about the search process so far, which they say is emblematic of the school’s long struggle to increase diversity among its student body and faculty.

This fall, 16 percent of undergraduate students and 11.7 percent of graduate students were black, according to data from the university’s Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment office. Apart from Foreman, the school also had two non-tenure track faculty members who were black, according to IRPA.

At the meeting, students discussed the importance of black faculty. They shared stories about times their white professors have allowed problematic points brought up by students to go unchecked and when they lectured on issues shaped by racist policies without presenting the necessary background information.

Tiffany Ford, BSiPP’s graduate president, also talked about the significance of specifically having black faculty members who are tenured. For one, doctoral students are required to have tenured or tenure-track faculty members on their committees. And earning tenure comes with an enormous amount of job security.

“On one hand, that can be wild as a black student because it means that sometimes we end up with faculty who are saying some wild stuff that frustrates us,” she said. “But on the other hand, we can think about it as: Imagine having tenured black faculty who are able to push on some of these issues that we care about without so much fear of being let go from their positions.”

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Robert Orr, dean of the public policy school, stressed the school’s commitment to bolstering diversity and inclusion.

Last year, the school hired a chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer and created a task force comprised of students, faculty and staff. Furthermore, it created another committee last month to focus on the retention and recruitment of a diverse faculty.

And, when the school approved its five-year strategic plan on Wednesday, it included a goal to strengthen the diversity of its community and the sense of inclusion and belonging within it, Orr said.

Orr also highlighted how the share of underrepresented minority groups in the school has changed over time. According to IRPA, from 2017 to 2019, this percentage among graduates increased from 17 to 19 percent and remained at 26 percent for undergraduates. The number of faculty who are underrepresented minorities also increased from three to seven from 2015 to 2019, according to IRPA.

“It’s not enough, but we are moving,” Orr said. “What we’ve done over the last five years since I became dean is to create the infrastructure for sustaining support for efforts to diversify our community.”

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Many students emphasized their appreciation for the school’s recent efforts on Thursday. Some who were present sit on the diversity task force and expressed optimism about its progress. They also pointed out that the school has hired more women over the years: the number of female faculty members increased from nine in 2015 to 25 in 2019, according to IRPA.

However, they also took issue with the low percentages of black undergraduate and graduate students in their classes. Ford, for instance, says she’s the only black doctoral student in her cohort, as well as the cohort below hers.

“We rely on each other, we need each other,” she said. “And until we kind of have that critical mass, we’re not going to see an increase in the black population in the School of Public Policy.”

While Orr said he couldn’t go into specifics about the ongoing search process for fear of violating its confidentiality, he detailed how the school’s hiring process typically progresses.

Prospective faculty members visit campus to give mock lectures, and their CV’s are circulated to students. The school also arranges meetings between interested students and candidates.

However, no students sit on the search committee — a structure some students on Thursday, such as senior public policy major Raymond Nevo, said should change.

“There should be an opportunity out there for students who want to be involved to be involved,” he said. “You know, you can’t claim transparency, but then close doors.”

In an email to The Diamondback, Foreman — who is chairing the committee charged with finding the new professor — emphasized that everyone involved in the search has been “acutely aware” of the need to increase racial diversity in the school’s faculty.

Foreman stressed that the search isn’t over yet. And while he acknowledged that it was “quite true” that all four candidates who have visited the campus so far have been white, he is confident in their qualifications.

“I have scrutinized the records or each of these candidates, discussed their relative merits with my committee colleagues, and dined with each of these candidates along with one other member of our search committee,” he wrote. “I have little doubt that each of these candidates would, if hired, be sympathetic to the interests and needs of our students of color.”

Moving forward, BSiPP plans to continue pushing for some level of accountability to be attached to the public policy school’s diversity initiatives and for its hiring process to be more transparent. However, students pointed out that their concerns transcended building a more diverse faculty.

“This issue is about: How are we creating an educated public policy force?” Ford said. “Who’s going to go forward and address these issues if they’re not being educated by diverse faculty members? And how can we expect that they’re going to go into public policy spaces with diverse perspectives?”

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