Gene Jarrett ’97 is the Dean of the Faculty and the William S. Tod Professor of English. He previously served as a Chair of the English Department and Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Humanities at Boston University. Jarrett spoke with The Daily Princetonian for the first time since beginning his role as dean in August 2021.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Daily Princetonian: You’ve been in this role for two years now. What were some of your initial goals coming into the job and how do you feel like you’ve done on them so far?
Gene Jarrett: My initial goal, as in the case of when you enter any new leadership role, is to meet people, to listen, to learn the lay of the land. Again, as you know, I was a student here, and I was never in Nassau Hall as a student. In this current role, I'm in Nassau Hall most of the time. In a way, I’m at Princeton, in a different seat around the table. I wanted to understand that new kind of orientation I have on campus and to the lives of people here at Princeton.
After talking with people and building relationships, it gave me an opportunity to develop a certain set of priorities that I have in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty and in my role as the dean who oversees not only the administration of this office, but also the ways in which we work with chairs and directors of academic departments, programs, institutes, and centers. I was able, by the end of my first year, to establish four major priorities.
The first is academic excellence, and so ensuring that we can sustain or enhance the academic quality of our departments. The second priority is diversity and inclusion, so ensuring that we have a diverse array of ideas and perspectives in order to produce and advance academic knowledge. The third priority is compliance, so ensuring that faculty, as they proceed in their academic work, that they are complying with the various regulations or guidelines that exist at the University. And then the last priority is modernizing the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. We have peer offices in the Ivy League system. And I want to make sure that we are updating our policies, that we’re updating our software or technological platforms, and we’re updating the ways in which we try to support our faculty, but also the academic professionals who are appointed by our office, which includes researchers and others.
DP: So I want to start with your second priority, about diversifying faculty. The 2022 D.E.I. [diversity, equity, and inclusion] report showed that around 69 percent of tenured or tenure track faculty are white. And then in his interview with the ‘Prince’ last fall, President [Christopher L.] Eisgruber ’83 said that the University is subject to certain legal limits when it comes to diversity and diversifying the faculty, like you can’t really consider race when making those types of decisions. At the same time, he said that he wants to increase the number of underrepresented minorities on the faculty by 50 percent in the next five years. So is that a tenable goal and how can the University achieve that goal while working within the limits of the law?
GJ: That was a goal that was outlined before my time. I will say that as someone who prizes diversity of perspectives and ideas, I’m all for thinking about ways we can diversify our faculty community.
I’ve appointed a new leader, Professor Fredrick Wherry. He’s of the Department of Sociology [and] he’s the Vice Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. He has been proactive in engaging with faculty with chairs and directors about how they conduct searches. Departments have search officers [and] they have faculty who participate on search committees. [We are] just ensuring that we are thinking in a holistic or in an open-minded way about how we build an applicant pool that enables us to identify the talent that we need around the world.
[Wherry] also enabled us to ensure that how we characterize our academic mission in searches and search descriptions and also how we are establishing relationships with people, not only on campus, but beyond campus. All of those things are driving toward our ability to recruit faculty of a high academic quality, but also who bring a variety of perspectives.
In my view, it’s most important to establish that kind of groundwork of procedures of a philosophical approach that, central to the advancement of knowledge is intellectual excellence and central to that is ensuring that you have a wide array of ideas. Now, I tend not to view our success only in terms of metrics. I know that that was the language used in the past. I am confident that after this current year, we will have a great story to tell.
We’ve established a new website on the Office of the Dean of the Faculty where we’re improving our storytelling, and also highlighting the stories of our faculty from a variety of backgrounds who’ve been contributing to our educational mission. I'm inclined to say that we are recruiting people to Princeton. People who have left are coming back. Princeton itself is one of the best places to be an academic, teacher and researcher.
DP: I’m interested in you mentioning Professor Wherry, because when you were at Boston University, and you lead the taskforce on faculty diversity and inclusion, you made a similar move. You made a recommendation that the University should appoint an Associate Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion. Given that Princeton has an entire Office of Diversity and Inclusion, how important do you think those types of administrative structures can be in achieving these types of goals? And are there ever concerns that too large of an administrative body can actually slow down the pace of change?
GJ: When I was at Boston University, I was a co-leader of a task force on diversity and inclusion, as you say. That task force consisted of a wide range of faculty and administrators from across the multiple campuses of Boston University. We had not only a College of Arts and Science, but a school of business, we had a medical school, we had the College of Fine Arts. It was a very complex environment. That experience was useful to me because it gave me a chance to understand how different professional populations understood the notion of diversity, how they understood academic excellence, and how we could work together to advance the mission of the University with respect to identifying and cultivating talent. When I made that recommendation, along with my colleagues there, the idea was to have a thought leader, someone who is the focus of conversations [and] who is a generative thinker. Someone who's an expansive communicator to reach out to the various people and constituencies we have at the University, but also beyond the University.
Prior to hiring, or recruiting Fred Wherry, I imagine that this is something that I would have done as Dean of the Faculty. But given the nature of my portfolio, there are a lot of things I need to do. By recruiting Professor Wherry, he’s able to be an extension of the Dean of the Faculty. He enables us to be even more strategic than we have been in the past, in developing priorities and updating our guidelines. He's someone who is a remarkable interlocutor, between the Office of the Dean of the Faculty and Nassau Hall, with faculty, with students and staff on campus. Also having a leadership role enables you to establish a set of priorities that could last a very long time, such that you're not working on these issues, as they say, on the corner of your desk. Fred is committing much of his time to this.
It’s helpful having someone with fresh ideas in our community. I have the ideas that I brought from Boston University. These are the kinds of ideas that bode well for my time here as a leader. But I’ll also say that identifying someone who has his own perspective in Fred Wherry and someone who can bring energy and a kind of panoramic view of campus, that is useful as well. I look forward to identifying those kinds of opportunities for our faculty.
DP: I’m gonna shift to tenure, which is a big part of your portfolio. After Professor Erin Huang was denied tenure in 2022, a group of over 300 students and faculty wrote an open letter to the University protesting that decision. Among the complaints raised in the letter was the lack of transparency regarding the process of drafting tenure and another was that scholars and humanities fields are being overlooked for tenure. Have there been efforts to increase the types of scholarship represented by tenured faculty? And is there room for the University to increase transparency around these types of decisions?
GJ: I’ll say first of all that guidelines for what’s called the ‘appointment and advancement of faculties’ is in Rules and Procedures on the Faculty that is a public document. Anyone can Google it [and] it’s available on the website of the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, and so we don’t hide that. That document lays out the scope of efforts that would be made by academic departments in appointing, reappointing, tenuring, and promoting faculty.
The next thing that I’ve done over this past academic year is I’ve worked with chairs and directors across the University to update their tenure and promotion policies and procedures. Some policies have not been updated in a long time and I’m pleased to say that the majority of departments now have updated policies and procedures. That includes provisions for ensuring that information is circulated to faculty in a timely way. It also includes provisions for clear procedural steps on how faculty can make progress in their careers. All members of the faculty and community within departments were part of that conversation. That was a presumption because these policies had to be approved at the department level before they’re submitted to our office.
In terms of the kinds of faculty we recruit, departments have played a central role in identifying the excellent faculty [and] the diverse faculty who exist in the academic field. We are in conversations with them about ensuring that they’re able to recruit that talent, but also to retain that talent. It is our view that departments, particularly as we have been working with Professor Wherry and with Deputy Dean [Office of the Dean of the Faculty] Turano in my office, to ensure that departments have an open mind to the kinds of applicants they’re willing to recruit. That has been a beneficial approach that we've taken to faculty recruitment. I know that’s been the case here at Princeton in the past, but [will be] even more so moving forward, given the number of the new people and structures that we've established in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty.
DP: You mentioned that a lot of departments have updated their policies around this [tenure] process, what types of changes have they made?
GJ: It depends. Some policies were being updated, and they were five years old, some were older than that. Princeton is a university of remarkable antiquity, if I may put it that way. The last collective update to policies and procedures was in 2008. We’ve had an opportunity now to engage in a conversation with departments about what are the kinds of things that we should focus on, so that faculty are in the best position to succeed. That can include ensuring that they have proper mentorship [and] it can include their opportunities to receive feedback on the progress that they’re making, towards tenure and promotion. It also ensures that departments are able to gather the intelligence from the broader academic field in systematic and consistent ways.
Just ensuring that we have alignment of being systematic and consistent across the academic units, and ensuring that all of us within respective departments were engaged in this process of updating policies and procedures. That is something that may not make a headline in a newspaper, but it’s beneficial long-term to our University.
DP: Some people speculated that Huang was denied tenure because there is a declining interest in the humanities. We’ve seen this at Princeton, where Engineering students outnumber students in the humanities by two to one. We’ve also seen this as a national trend. At the same time, Eisgruber has named “rebuilding and fortifying” the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as a top priority for the next few years. I’m wondering how this focus in terms of hiring faculty in the midst of the declining interest in humanities will work. How do you continue to plan on attracting faculty to the humanities? And also at the same time, how are you thinking about these emerging technologies and attracting faculty who have expertise in those areas?
GJ: The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is a high priority for the University, and rightfully so. That is something that has been stated by President Eisgruber and I support that priority. There is great interest in the humanities at Princeton and many institutions of higher education. The question is, how do you measure that interest?
People tend to focus on the number of majors, but you should also examine the extent to which students are taking classes in the humanities. The enrollments in the humanities are actually at, at its highest rate, if not one of the highest rates, over the past several years. It’s an opportunity for students and faculty to not only engage in humanistic ideas, but to think about the relationship of the humanities to disciplines outside of the humanities. We do find that there is great synergy among faculty in the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences and in engineering, along with the humanities.
You have colleagues like [Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor] Naomi Leonard, who does work on engineering and the arts, or you have Judith Hamera in the Lewis Center for the Arts, who has been engaging with faculty across divisions. I should say that I am a humanist, as they say, quote, unquote, I’m a professor in the English Department, so the humanities mean a lot to me. I’ve been working with humanities chairs and directors to think about the academic well being of the humanities at the University, and President Eisgruber has been supportive of me making that one of my priorities.
DP: President Eisgruber has placed an emphasis on institutional restraint. Many Princeton professors have spoken out about controversial issues: Professor Michael Flowers publicly condemned former professor Joshua Katz, SPIA dean Amaney Jamal took a position on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, [and] the head of the English Department, Jeff Dolven released a statement on antiracism in 2020 but more recently refused students’ request to issue a statement on antisemitism. I’m interested in how you think about how faculty have a role of speaking out about issues that aren’t necessarily in their discipline in a world of institutional restraint. To what extent do you think institutional restraint should apply to faculty speaking out about these issues?
GJ: Faculty have opportunities to express their ideas freely at Princeton, and Princeton has been one of the leading institutions in encouraging faculty to speak freely. Faculty also have great opportunities to pursue their line of academic work, so this is the kind of environment where ideas can be exchanged. It’s the kind of environment where faculty, in my view, are able to state positions, either some that may be perceived as normative, or others that are perceived as controversial.
We’ve had a faculty advisory committee on policy that has been examining the role of academic units [departments], and issuing statements and the implications for faculty governance. That has been a year-long effort that has been established by President Eisgruber. There will be key developments there. I would defer to the outcome or the announcement of those efforts. But I should say that Princeton, of all the universities that may be regarded as its peers, is one of the ideal places to express a variety of ideas in order to advance academic knowledge, but also to identify ways in which we agree or disagree in the best interest of intellectual exchange.
DP: The Class of 2026 is the largest in University history and the University plans to continue to grow its undergraduate population. As a result of that, this year, many popular first-year classes have been full, or not had enough seats for students, and some faculty have reported feeling strained due to their increased class sizes. What are you doing to try to hire faculty at a rate that matches student expansion so that more classes do not end up being taught by lecturers or postdocs or overflowing? And how are you attempting to ensure that this effort does not decrease faculty quality or throw off the balance between departments?
GJ: There are universities across the country, particularly those that are popular, that enjoy great interest among students, students who decide to, in this case, come to Princeton. We could yield at a very high rate. Of course, in any one year, there are fluctuations in the overall campus population size. In my view, what we’ve been trying to focus on particularly at the academic unit level, is what are the strategic intellectual priorities of the department with respect to research? But we also account for mounting the curriculum [sic].
In that respect, we do want to make sure that we have the kinds of excellent faculty, and that does include lecturers, to engage students. I should remark that we have some of the most outstanding instructors on campus who are lecturers, and they are lecturers, senior lecturers and University lecturers. We also have professors of the practice, not only assistant, associate, [and] full professors, so that constellation of faculty with different backgrounds enable us to establish an educational mission, and to meet students where they are. In my view, we are well prepared to handle the increased interest that comes from students who come to Princeton, but also the strategic initiative of the University to expand the undergraduate class.
With the leadership of the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Andrea Goldsmith, who has been key to building the faculty in the School of Engineering, where we have many computer science majors, and in partnership with the new provost, Jennifer Rexford [’91], I believe we’re going to establish the foundation of resources to recruit faculty, but also to ensure that the students are able to get the kind of education they were expecting when they arrived.
GJ: We handle questions about growth on a year-to-year basis. Some departments may decide not to hold any faculty searches at all, because they’ve reached some kind of stability in terms of their size, and they’re comfortable with that size. Then we do have occasions where departments are thinking about either replenishing certain academic disciplines or building in new areas. You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. But in my view, I would say that certainly computer science has been a popular field where we're doing our best to ensure that students have the kind of instructional support that they need, but because we have upwards of 30 to 40 departments that are thinking about how they wish to recruit faculty in the years ahead, there's no one-size-fits-all kind of analysis.
DP: In the wake of the University removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs [in June 2020], there were calls from students for the administration to introduce anti-racism training for all faculty. Do you see a future where such a policy might be implemented? And are there any possible alternatives to that?
GJ: I can’t comment on the concerns expressed by students, that [was] before I arrived at Princeton. I will say that we have been working diligently through the new leadership of Professor Fred Wherry to engage with department chairs on how they can foster an environment of inclusivity and also to ensure that faculty understand how students have been evolving in their interests, and also in terms of their backgrounds. We're on the very front end of that. [We’re working on] the kinds of ways that faculty can be acquainted with certain policies at the University that encourage free expression. That is to say, it’s free expression in the classroom that we’re working on through Professor Wherry and our office. We might not necessarily adopt that terminology [of anti-racism training], but we are thinking about how to ensure that faculty are able to engage students in appropriate ways and our moment in time.
DP: Do you think there is a role in this process for some sort of mandatory training or orientation for faculty, so that students coming into any class know that their professor has undergone some sort of training around anti-racism?
GJ: I meet with new faculty every year particularly as we enter the fall semester. I meet with them through the McGraw Center, where they have sessions for new faculty to understand approaches to pedagogy and how to engage with students here at Princeton. I also meet with new faculty in a luncheon in the fall to talk about their opportunities for advancement here at the University. There are a number of touch points that we have to interact with our new faculty to orient them to Princeton.
DP: I want to shift to a different type of faculty that we haven’t really been talking about yet. Both at Princeton and nationally, postdoctoral researchers have been voicing concerns about low wages and mistreatment from some administrators and professors. Nationally, we’ve seen a growing movement by postdocs and other non tenure track faculty to unionize. How do you think these trends bode for the future of academia? And how do institutions such as Princeton, continue attracting talented researchers amidst a growing concern about job security and making a livable wage?
GJ: A few months ago, we had established a new floor for postdoc salaries. That was crucial, because that new floor recognizes the contributions that postdocs make to the Princeton University community. It also identifies the ways in which we want postdoctoral researchers to excel in their professional careers. The new floor that we established of $65,000 a year is among the highest in the country. In fact, we were among the first to reach that level. In a way, Princeton came forward in a positive light in the same way that we came forward positively when we increased the graduate student stipend. Princeton has been one of the leading institutions with respect to supporting postdoctoral researchers, recognizing their contributions to higher education, and ensuring that they're in the best possible position to succeed professionally.
DP: What type of effect do you think it has on the institution or maybe relationships among colleagues, when you have a group of employees such as the postdocs who are so publicly talking about their working conditions and asking for a raise?
GJ: Anyone at Princeton is entitled to express their ideas, so postdocs doing so is not unusual. We welcome the ideas they have about how they can improve their conditions at the University. In fact, we have Alice Seneres in our office. She is the Senior Assistant Dean for postdoctoral affairs. That is a new position that we established over this past academic year to meet postdocs where they are and she meets with postdocs regularly. She also has been working to establish a number of structures such that they can have a productive experience here at the University. I should say that postdocs are not students, they are employees. Our goal is to continue to think about them in the matrix of how they can excel professionally and how they can advance knowledge through research.
DP: We touched on this a little bit at the very beginning of the interview, but I wanted to come back to it because you mentioned the opening of the new position. There’s been a lot of talk in the news about administrative bloat. I wonder if you have concerns when you’re adding these new positions to address very specific concerns if there's ever a cost to adding new positions and having more administrators?
GJ: The University is a remarkably complex environment. There are a number of aspects of Princeton that have grown, which you’ve indicated that it’s grown in the student population, it’s growing in facilities, [and] it’s growing with respect to its ability to address the regulatory environment. It’s growing in the complexity and the diversity of fulfilling its academic mission. As a result of this kind of growth of the University, it is not unusual to think about how we can ensure that we are supporting all people on campus in the best way.
We could have a world where we have very limited expertise in people in leadership roles such that there are very few opportunities for leaders to interact with members of the community. That’s an alternative kind of world. I’m inclined to think that the ways in which we’ve been investing in talent and leadership are in the best interest of ensuring that the University can fulfill its mission, which is increasingly urgent in our contemporary era of higher education. I’m inclined to think that the idea of bloat is a negative way of interpreting how the administration of a University is evolving with the times. We don’t have the same leadership structures we had in the 20th century and in the 19th century. I don't even want to go back to the 18th century.
The University has changed over time and in proportionate ways, the leadership structure changes too. The demands that students have and the demands that faculty and staff have necessitate identifying the kinds of people who have the professional experience and expertise to address people where they’re situated. Not to say that I’m advocating a disproportionately large growth of administration, but at appropriate levels, attentive to the specific circumstances of our campus community, these are excellent investments to make in the future.
Julian Hartman-Sigall is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.