When Charlton McIlwain began his role as head of NYU’s Center for Faculty Advancement (CFA) in 2018, he was drawn to the findings from a series of focus groups that the provost's office had convened. In those discussions, early-career faculty were asked: Why are you here at NYU? Why are you in higher education? What made you choose this as a profession? 

The near universal response, says McIlwain, was not that academia is “a great place for a cushy job where I have guaranteed employment for life.” Instead, almost every single person, he notes, answered that they were at NYU because they wanted to “have an impact on the world and the community in which they work and move and live.”

The responses led McIlwain to consider whether CFA’s work was facilitating this desire for impact beyond the classroom. His conclusion was that it wasn’t—at least not yet.“For one, we've got very rigorous tenure standards at NYU,” McIlwain reflects. “You kind of have to go through the gauntlet, and do your thing that makes you successful as a researcher and teacher, and then you can figure out ways to have an impact sometime later.” 

With this in mind, McIlwain, who is vice provost for faculty development, pathways, and public interest technology, set out to reimagine how CFA could give faculty the chance to effect change both at NYU and across New York City. 

The effort has yielded, among other successes, several programs that connect faculty with underrepresented students, including the College & Career Lab, which currently provides more than 200 NYC middle and high school students a chance to experience a variety of academic settings through classes, workshops, and professional development at NYU. 

student training with a nursing professor

In the College & Career Lab, students learn about pathways into the field of nursing by participating in a rotation simulation.

Of course CFA, as the name implies, also focuses on faculty career development. And essential to that work is nurturing teachers and researchers who reflect NYU’s increasingly diverse student population. Faculty First-Look is an initiative that invites gifted scholars of color, and others underrepresented in the academy, who are completing their PhD, EdD, or other terminal degrees to learn what it takes to prepare for scholarly careers. And the Early Career Faculty Institute is one of several NYU programs offering resources and mentorship to foster success and retention.

While last June’s Supreme Court ruling to end race-conscious admissions programs at colleges and universities does not affect any of CFA’s programs, McIlwain notes that it “underscores the necessity for investing NYU’s resources and social capital to ensure that greater numbers of underserved students in New York City public schools can capitalize on, and have pathways to, their great ambitions.”

NYU News recently spoke to McIlwain to better understand the goals of CFA and how he’s trying to transform the timeline of change at NYU and beyond. 

How did you decide on which programs to include under CFA’s umbrella? 

One of the things that has been persistent, certainly over the last 10 years of my career here at NYU, is that faculty members want to see students and others at the university who reflect the world and the city in which we live. When I first started doing this work, that's what got the faculty most excited—the idea that we could help facilitate the ability to create pathways for students at the very earliest stages of their development to reach their dreams and aspirations, whether those aspirations ran through NYU or another higher education institution. 

Charlton McIlwain

Charlton McIlwain

So that's the kind of thinking that led to structured programs starting as early as middle school and running all the way through post-graduate education, with the goal of feeding into academic careers and careers outside of the academy. 

What is it about NYU that attracts the types of faculty you’ve been working with? 

I think potential faculty members, like many folks on the outside looking in, see an institution that is large in an extremely diverse city, and one that has a footprint across the world. And they see the potential for impact written all over that. They see an institution that can help facilitate their desire to impact the world beyond what they might be capable of doing as one individual faculty member. 

What have been your priorities in recruiting and supporting new faculty?

Much of the work has started from a recognition that the faculty at NYU, like at pretty much every one of our peers institutions, does not look like our student body. And so I looked at our data to ask the question: How long would it take at our current pace to have our faculty composition match the diversity of our student body? And, at that pace, it would take something like 30-plus years. And so I think for a long time that's been the recognition—that we do ‘okay’ but we have not significantly increased the proportion of our faculty that are from underrepresented groups. And so then the question becomes: How do we do so at a pace that meets the urgency and need that’s particularly driven by our student body? What has been clear is that it takes fairly extraordinary measures to accomplish that.

And that’s where Faculty First-Look comes in?

That was a program that I developed when I was still associate dean in Steinhardt. We said, let's find talented doctoral students of color or students that are completing their terminal degrees a year or two years before they're coming into the job market. Let's identify them then. Let's bring them into the institution. Let's introduce them to other faculty and staff around the university. Let's give them a sense of what the hiring process is like. 

We had a little bit of money to play with, and we came up with a description of the program and we basically circulated it on social media. We figured we would get seven, eight, nine people to be part of this pilot. We ended up with, I think, something on the order of about 120 applications in a span of about 10 days. The word spread like wildfire. And we ultimately decided on a cohort of 30 that we could reasonably bring in and support. 

I remember that first cohort said that what was most Earth-shattering for them was looking around the room and seeing 29 other people like them. Same stories, same aspirations, same challenges, same struggles. What they saw was that they now had a community. When I started here in the provost’s office, one of the things that then-Provost Katie Fleming asked me to do was to expand the program across other schools. And so that has since expanded beyond Steinhardt to Arts and Science, Tandon, and Stern. 

How many of those original 30 have found jobs in academia?

All of them have gone on to find jobs and do great work in and adjacent to academia. Some have gone from the post-doc into faculty careers here at NYU. That, in essence, represents the outcome that we are shooting for. We are preparing professors who will help diversify our own faculty, but also diversify higher education more broadly.

What other methods are helping to diversify the faculty ranks?

The Cluster Hiring Initiative emerged post George Floyd. It’s a way of facilitating the ability to recruit faculty differently than we typically do, which is: We get approval for a position, we task a search committee, we sift through those applicants, and we make the choice. The cluster initiative says: What if we think about hiring faculty collaboratively across departments and across schools based on their ability to address a given issue or social problem? What would it look like for us to be able to say we're not just going to put out some ads and see who walks through the door? We're going to proactively go out and search for the best team of faculty. 

It’s a change in the culture of hiring across the university in terms of having departments being seriously collaborative and having a stake in a group of faculty. We're going to be on each other's committees. We're going to review the materials of people who apply. We're going to make joint decisions about who we bring in. And catalyzing a search process that is pushing us toward building up a diverse faculty will serve us as an institution better down the line.

Academia does not have a reputation for being especially nimble in updating its processes. How have all of these changes come about? 

By and large, most people buy into the necessity for us to really diversify our ranks in many different ways. The challenge usually is about two things: collaboration and resources. I tell one anecdote about the start of the Cluster Hiring Initiative, which I started by gathering a group of faculty and other university leaders. And some said Charlton, I'm here because you asked me. But I'm not interested in another empty, shallow show where we say we are going to do something but then not really put enough effort or resources behind it. Others were only interested in being part of an initiative that would also focus on retention. So I felt very personally that my capital was on the line because I was saying hey, we can't do this without you. And then me trying to assure them that the institution and the leadership would, to the best of our ability, try to do this the right way, meant putting the right amount of resources behind it. And long story short, we've been able to make good on that. And by we I mean our Deans who commit the funds for faculty lines, and the provost's office that has committed resources to support hiring and ongoing support for cluster faculty once they arrive. 

students at the New York Stock Exchange

Through a partnership with Modern Markets Initiative, students spent an afternoon at the New York Stock Exchange, learning about the history and the career of a designated market maker, and experiencing the buzz of the trading floor..

How did the student component of the center’s work become so integral?

I think it comes from the recognition from faculty members, including myself, that we didn't end up where we are by accident. Meaning somewhere along the way that spark happened—most likely in elementary school or middle school or high school. And then at some point I had to have some kind of aspiration. And then I needed support that said this is how you get from having your aspiration to realizing it. 

If you are a student of color or an underrepresented student, the likelihood is you’re not going to get there without the luxury of someone helping to build and connect and sustain pathways. And that for me was where the two ends of this circle connect. It makes sense to say that if we're going to champion the work of faculty diversity, we have to enable and build pathways to that aspiration as early as possible. We make it possible for underserved students to really pave their way to career choices, whether that's being in higher education or any number of other ambitions.