Committee calls for strengthened diversity in UMN English department

The Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee released a report that lays out a plan to promote diversity.

<p>Douglas Kearney, an assistant professor in the Department of English, fields questions from his colleagues in Lind Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee developed its first-ever report which lays out a plan to improve diversity across curriculum and personnel.</p>

Nur B. Adam

Douglas Kearney, an assistant professor in the Department of English, fields questions from his colleagues in Lind Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The department’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee developed its first-ever report which lays out a plan to improve diversity across curriculum and personnel.

Michael McGough

The University of Minnesota’s English department should take steps to address diversity within the department, according to recent report. The report, which came out last month, makes recommendations for moving forward which include prioritizing salary equity and encouraging students, staff and faculty to pursue diversity training.

Departmental weaknesses identified in the report include failing to retain faculty and staff of diverse backgrounds, gender inequity and a lack of diverse representation in required course materials. 

Faculty assembled the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee in the spring to help the English department craft a three-year plan to improve diversity within the department. The report and its recommendations draw attention to departmental issues that members of the committee identified and provides a direct response to the department’s current and past relationship with diversity.

The pay disparity is also an issue, said Qadri Ismail, a professor and the chair of the EDI Committee. On average, the four male associate professors make nearly $6,500 more per year than the seven women at the same level, according to the report. 

The report addresses a lack of diversity in courses and calls into question whether the department should continue to require undergraduate students to take a course on William Shakespeare.

“We have a very Eurocentric curriculum centered around Shakespeare,” Ismail said. “The ideology of the English department can be summed up in three words: white writers matter.”

To deal with this, the report recommends that the department teach a diverse range of material and focus on developing teaching methods to recruit and retain students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“We wanted to set a scene, given the conditions, but not spend the whole report relitigating things that happened last year or five years ago. We wanted to give context for the recommendations,” said Holly Vanderhaar, a committee member and creative writing program coordinator.

Now that the report has been released, the department will discuss what steps will be taken. 

“The report is really valuable in serving as a starting point for discussion,” said Andrew Elfenbein, the chair of the Department of English.

The department has begun to carry out some of the recommendations, particularly with regard to internal communication about diversity, said Committee Member and Assistant Professor Kathryn Nuernberger.

“The [recommendations] that are easily undertaken right away are being undertaken right away,” Nuernberger said. 

Douglas Kearney, a committee member and assistant professor in the department, said the committee had to search for and try to fix gaps in representation within the report as they wrote it.

“We were constantly pushing and trying to figure out where our gaps in terms of representation were on this committee. We are not the whole picture,” Kearney said.

Members of the committee wrote specific sections of the report rather than co-authoring the report in its entirety to “keep a range of diverse voices,” said Mariela Lemus, a committee member and graduate student.

Committee members said response to the report has been mostly positive. It will take a lot of effort to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in the department, Elfenbein said.

“We are committed to working on it, and changes will occur, but they take time,” Elfenbein said.

Joe Kelly contributed to this report.