Subscribe for 33¢ / day
uw diversity
BRANDON RAYGO illustration — The Capital Times

Michael Ramsey-Musolf recalls a time that his colleagues in the UW-Madison physics department, entertaining seminar visitors, walked past his door on the way out to dinner without inviting him to join them.

As a nationally known researcher in theoretical high energy physics, his exclusion was puzzling from a professional point of view.

"I worked in the same area and my research was recognized by them," Ramsey-Musolf said. But as an openly gay man working in a field with what he calls a "pretty sad record" in terms of diversity, he had his suspicions.

"It was pretty obvious what was going on," he said.

Ramsey-Musolf attributes such subtle but powerful incidents — like being shut out of hiring decisions or seminars — to what he calls the "lavender ceiling," a resistance to gays who acquire too much visibility or power.

It is part of a climate of exclusion prevalent throughout the field of physics, says Ramsey-Musolf, and at UW-Madison was part of an atmosphere of mistrust in one circle within a largely supportive department.

When he was offered a position at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2012 and UW-Madison began an effort to retain him, Ramsey-Musolf hired an attorney to assist him in evaluating his choices. As part of an investigation of the department climate, Ramsey-Musolf was given access to emails written about him by colleagues. He found derogatory and, in one case, overtly homophobic comments, Ramsey-Musolf says, that convinced him to leave Madison.

Now a professor at UMass, Ramsey-Musolf says what disturbs him most about his experience at UW-Madison is the message it sends to young students. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, he says, are minorities in science, technology, engineering, math and physics and role models in those fields are rare.

"You would think a successful, openly gay man in physics would be strongly supported to provide a role model for the next generation in an area with a pretty sad record in terms of diversity in general," he said. "Diversity is necessary for relevance and competitiveness and also human rights, which is where I come down most strongly."

Ramsey-Musolf is not alone in his disheartening experience at UW-Madison, according to the latest Study of Faculty Worklife, released by the UW's Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI) last month.

The survey of faculty across all departments revealed that while more than three-quarters of respondents said the climate at the university is positive overall, significantly fewer gays and lesbians, women, and faculty of color rated the climate as positive. The results echo those of surveys taken in 2003, 2006 and 2010.

The value of a diverse faculty to the mission of the university is a popular refrain among administrators, faculty and staff interviewed for this article. Fostering and supporting a diverse faculty is the right thing — and the smart thing — to do, they say.

"It's not only a matter of justice, it's also a matter of self-interest," is the way Steve Stern, vice provost for faculty and staff, put it. "For our research and knowledge mission, it's really important. There is a lot of research that shows that when diverse people work on problems, you get better results.

"Secondly, we are teaching in an increasingly diverse society, so it is important to have diverse teaching staff to whom people can relate," Stern continued. "Whether you're looking at role models, mentoring, or perspectives brought in to the classroom, making the university more diverse makes it more connected to the increasingly diverse real world.

"And we know the world of employers values people who are experienced with what it is like working with people not like themselves. To the extent our graduates can't do that, they are not as employable."

Diversity includes gender, race and sexual orientation along with various combinations of attributes that make up the people whose life experiences shape the research they do and the classes they teach. A culture that supports the interplay of those attributes enhances UW-Madison's ability to attract and retain faculty and students with diverse backgrounds and outlooks, campus leaders say.

UW-Madison is currently developing "Forward Together: UW-Madison's Framework for Diversity & Inclusive Excellence," an update of the campus' previous diversity plan which was in effect through 2008. The plan seeks specifically to recognize and support more facets of human diversity. Reaching beyond gender, race and ethnicity, the plan embraces sexual orientation, religious beliefs, disability and more as attributes contributing to the richness of the university.

A sampling of campus work life "climate," such as the Study of Faculty Worklife, is one way to gauge whether faculty feel their work is respected and valued.

"The reason we do the survey is that we want to be mindful that climate can be uneven for various groups, whether it be intellectual groups like arts and humanities versus physical sciences, or groups determined by social markers," said Stern.

"I work a lot with people who view themselves, and rightly so, as adding to the diversity of the university, intellectually or socially," Stern said. "And people who bring diverse backgrounds and perspectives into research do sometimes face more challenges and need more support."

The UW-Madison faculty remains overwhelmingly white: more than 80 percent in 2012, according to the Office of Academic Planning & Institutional Research. Only 49 black faculty members (2.2 percent) were counted in 2012-13; 76 Hispanic (3.4 percent), 245 Asian or Pacific Islander (11.2 percent) and nine American Indian (.004 percent). Women comprise nearly one-third of 2,173 faculty members and 25.9 percent of full professors are women.

Fewer minority faculty members, including self-identifying lesbians and gays, ranked UW-Madison as having a positive climate in WISELI's most recent study, which was sent to 2,099 faculty members, half of whom responded.

Among gay or lesbian faculty members, 63.3 percent rated the climate as positive compared to 78.7 percent of heterosexual and bisexual respondents; 71 percent of female faculty ranked the climate as positive compared to 81.5 percent of male faculty; and 66.9 percent of faculty of color rated the climate positive compared to 79.3 percent of white faculty.

The survey plumbed positive feelings about the workplace with questions about whether respondents felt respected by colleagues, department heads and students; were comfortable navigating the unwritten rules of the office; believed their scholarship was valued; and felt that they were included or "fit in."

Tenure-track minority faculty were more likely than white heterosexual males to report experiencing or witnessing an act of unconscious or implicit bias on the job within the past 12 months. Nearly three-quarters of gay or lesbian faculty (72 percent) and more than half of women (53.9 percent) and faculty of color (52.8 percent) reported bias, compared to 22.6 percent of men and 31.8 percent of majority faculty.

The most commonly cited instance of bias was disrespectful or inequitable treatment, followed by hiring, exclusion from meetings and decision-making processes and tenure and promotion cases, according to the WISELI report.

One respondent remarked how lower-status activities in the department tended to be delegated to women. Another told of a hiring process that gave lower value to research areas that typically attract minority applicants. Yet another talked about the "things people say informally at meetings."

Minority UW-Madison faculty look to the workplace climate surveys with great interest, said Vanika Mock, an African-American staff member in the Division of Continuing Studies who is among those examining campus climate and culture for the "Forward Together" initiative.

"People take the climate surveys very seriously," said Mock, because they offer an opportunity to speak anonymously. "Some people fear that if they speak out, they will be treated differently or ostracized, so they become even more isolated."

Theresa Duello, an associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology in the School of Medicine and Public Health, says she is not surprised at findings that minority faculty experienced a less positive workplace climate.

"I know firsthand and secondhand of problems on campus that aren't addressed," Duello said. "I know women faculty who face bias in terms of teaching load, bias in terms of institutional support of their research, bias in getting graduate students, bias in salary committees within departments. I know outrageous stories."

Duello, who is white, successfully sued the medical school over sex discrimination in pay in 1997 and has remained a vocal critic of the university's treatment of women faculty. The university last year determined there was insufficient evidence to support a 2011 complaint by Duello of continuing gender-based discrimination and retaliation against her.

After more than three decades on campus, Duello says, she is "still going around in my head over what is malice and what is ignorance. There's some of both."

Duello says that the processes in place to review complaints of inequitable treatment are not adequate.

"It's an administrative problem," she says. "From a (department) chair all the way up to the chancellor."

Stern said the university has a policy that allows faculty members to request an equity review of salaries, a committee that can call for a new tenure review if rules aren't followed, and an Office for Equity and Diversity to which faculty can bring allegations of discriminatory treatment. The University Committee, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, helps design policies for equitable treatment and may review individual cases, he said.

Stern is often called on to work through workplace issues with faculty members.

"Not a month goes by without dealing with issues of climate or professional frustration or brainstorming to figure out a better path," he said.

And given the size of the university's workforce, it is not unexpected that such issues arise, he said.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

"It would be shocking if we didn't have dozens of cases where people feel they are not able to do their best work because people don't understand who they are or respect what they do," said Stern.

The climate survey is valuable in uncovering equity issues, he said.

"There's always room for improvement in the nuanced zone of human interaction," said Stern.

But Ramsey-Musolf believes that the "shared governance" model of the university, which gives faculty influence in policy matters, makes it difficult to address climate issues.

"It means the fox is guarding the henhouse," he said. "People don't know what to do when someone on an equal power basis is not behaving in service of the highest principles of the university. There is no policy saying what to do when you experience or hear discrimination, so a lot of people don't know what to do."

Some in the physics field have begun working through their national professional association, the American Physical Society, to provide guidelines and best practices in responding to discrimination against sexual minorities, Ramsey-Musolf said. That's a positive sign that things are changing, he said.

Addressing climate is challenging because it is difficult to calibrate experience, says Patrick Sims, an associate professor of theater and drama who as interim chief diversity officer is overseeing the "Forward Together" initiative.

"You're talking about creating a space where people feel welcome and included," Sims said. "How do you quantify that?"

One measure is the extent to which university resources are spent on the type of research – or in his department, theater productions – which embraces a non-majority sensibility, he says.

Sims pointed to University Theatre's 2012 production of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and an accompanying symposium on issues of self-esteem for young men of color as an example of university commitment to diverse culture. But the overall history of productions by his department leaves quite a bit of room to grow, he said.

Chris Walker, an assistant professor of dance and an artistic director with the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community at UW-Madison who is also gay, hasn't had an experience similar to Ramsey-Musolf's when it comes to his sexuality. But he has been introduced to the complexities of race in Wisconsin while working in a field informed by racial experience.

"What became an issue was not the fact that I was gay, but the fact that I was black," Walker said.

In his native Jamaica, where most people have black African roots, his homosexuality had to be constantly masked for a culture that would not accept it, Walker said. In Madison, he feels blessed to able to be open about it.

But a friendly conversation with a white custodian at the university, Walker recalls, touched on the complexities of race and class in the UW-Madison community.

"He told me that in the building, I was a professor and he was a custodian," Walker recalled. "But when we walked out to the street, he was white and I was black."

Walker said he feels support from the university community for his work in hip-hop, an outgrowth of black cultural experience and dynamics not often accepted by old-guard academia.

"The university is responsive – sometimes too slowly – but it is responsive," Walker said.

In addressing the process of getting the institution to do a better job of embracing diversity, Walker turns to the fundamental philosophy of the Wisconsin Idea, which holds that the work of the university should improve the lives of the people of the state.

"The ideas that the research we do should have immediate and important impact to the communities we serve attracts scholars from all over the world," he said. "If we do not actualize that potential because of issues relating to comfort, we are failing the whole process."