Letter to the editor: Colloquium organizer responds

I appreciate the recent Wit article, “Gender equity and colloquium need examination,” published on Sept. 27, for exploring the important issue of gender equity, and (among other things) calling out the Colloquium program for this year’s quite evident gender imbalance. Thanks to Kenny Beeker for doing some thorough research and bringing this ongoing issue to the attention of Wit readers. As the organizer of the Friday Colloquium series, I would like to respond, and perhaps adjust some of the impressions that the article created.

It’s not exactly true that as director I choose Colloquium presenters of my own sweet will. In fact, I meet with the academic dean in late summer every year, and we begin with a list of faculty who have received BURC summer grants or faculty scholar grants, been on sabbatical, and those who hold endowed chairs. Usually most of the schedule is filled with these speakers, whose university support requires that they present a Colloquium. Finishing a dissertation is also usually occasion for a Colloquium, although last year we asked Jackie Wyse-Rhodes to present on her research in progress.

If and when more spaces are available, I consult with the dean about inviting new faculty, or others on campus who are engaged in active research projects, to fill those spots. We try to find representatives from as many departments and interest areas as possible. And in fact the fall schedule of seven Colloquia includes 10 faculty who represent eight academic disciplines—history, sociology, biology, math, communication, social work, religion and English—so in terms of that diversity measure, I think we did quite well.

All this adds up to only limited room for pursuing gender balance in the Colloquium schedule, since the presenters are mostly chosen elsewhere. BURC grants are awarded through a competitive process with outside evaluators, and we typically follow their rankings, except in rare special cases. Faculty scholar grants are also competitive, ranked on their merits by the Faculty Development Committee. I am a member of that group as BURC director, but don’t have a vote. Full-time, tenured faculty are eligible for sabbaticals on a regular timetable, but must submit proposals that are approved by the Faculty Development Committee, the President, and the Board of Trustees. Again, I have helped many faculty members prepare and revise proposals for BURC grants and sabbaticals, but I have very little influence on who actually gets them.

There are other factors, some my responsibility and some less so. This year a few more Colloquium spaces were open, mainly because BURC grants were suspended for budgetary reasons. I invited members of an informal summer research support group to fill the open spaces, and several accepted, including all four of the female faculty members now on the fall or spring schedules.

I also invited a recently retired, long-time male faculty member over a new, female adjunct who is teaching one course for one of the last open spots—arguably a mistake. One holder of an endowed chair declined her standing invitation to present a Colloquium lecture, further tipping the gender scales in the wrong direction.

Colloquium presenters are usually tenure-track or at least regular, long-term faculty members. I did go outside this pattern to recruit Paula Unrau, Adjunct Instructor of Theatre and English, for a presentation on Dec. 1 that I expect will be excellent. And while the spring schedule is largely set, I hope to bring in one or two more speakers to tip the scales back towards some kind of balance.

Another factor is length of service at Bluffton. We have a number of active and productive female scholars, but our female faculty tend to have been hired relatively recently. Current listings show 16 women and 12 men with 1-10 years of service, eight women and eight men with 1-20 years, and five women and 17 men with more than 20 years. These statistics (which include librarians and some administrators who have faculty status) seem to suggest that we have been more successful at hiring women in recent years, though there are still more men overall. These differences in length of service also at least partly explain the disparity in tenure and status between men and women on the faculty, and suggest those differences should diminish over time. (Thanks to George Lehman for these statistics.*)

In my own department (English and Language), our last six English hires, at least, have all been women (some have retired or moved on), and our last four Spanish hires have been women as well (Paul Neufeld Weaver teaches some Spanish courses). The last man we hired for a full-time English position (over 20 years ago) was Lamar Nisly, now serving as interim dean. I can say from serving on many search committees for various departments that diversity (of all kinds) is always a major concern, but so is finding the best possible candidate that we can actually convince to join us. In my area there is a wealth of well-qualified female candidates, but this is less true in some fields.

In my 30-plus years at Bluffton, a great deal of effort and discussion has gone into recruiting and retaining students, staff and faculty who will increase our diversity and gender balance. Clearly we need to keep working at all these areas. I look forward to more conversation about how we can do better. And I wish it was as simple as buying a smaller Beaver costume!

—Jeff Gundy, professor of English and director of Bluffton University Research Center


*Editor’s note: The statistics to which Gundy refers were submitted in the comments on the original post by George Lehman and have not been verified by Wit staff.  

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