Provost Responds to Article in Chronicle of Higher Education

Peter Lange says the article examining problems faced by women in Duke's physics department reflects more on the past than the present, but should spark a welcome debate about how to help more women succeed in the sciences

Duke University Provost Peter Lange sent the following letter on January 21, 2004, in response to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The final paragraph incorporates minor subsequent edits with the Chronicle, whose article is available online at

To the Editor:

Your article on women having faced an unfriendly climate in Duke University's physics department highlights an issue we have been addressing actively for well over a year. Unfortunately, it does so in a way that reflects more on the past than the present and more on the problems we all recognize than the efforts that have been undertaken to improve the situation. In doing so, it does a disservice to the department, to many of its faculty and its chair, and to the university.

Duke's Women's Initiative, which the Chronicle and others have covered, illustrates how seriously we regard this issue. We are committed to providing a workplace that is not only free of discrimination and harassment, but that provides a genuinely supportive environment for everyone in our community. In particular, we seek to attract and retain more women in fields such as physics, which, as your articles notes, "remains one of the most male of the male-dominated hard sciences."

The article cites several actions Duke has taken to address past problems in its physics department-problems that were both real and unacceptable. We have created a system by which female faculty and students can submit complaints, established a standing committee to monitor "climate" issues and organized activities such as lunches and seminars to strengthen the sense of community.

Not mentioned, however, is that we also have established a new associate chair in the department to focus on improving teaching and mentoring. We have launched a review of the university's harassment policy to assure that it is effective not only in principle but in implementation. The physics department is developing written behavior guidelines, lowering barriers to bringing up "climate" concerns of all sorts, and establishing mechanisms for mediating and resolving such concerns. Department members are filling out anonymous annual surveys about these issues.

In addition, the department has worked hard to recruit new female faculty members; in December, for instance, it was able to attract another outstanding junior professor by assuring that positions could be found for both members of a physics couple. All of these initiatives have been taken by the department under the committed leadership of its chair, Professor Harold Baranger.

As the Chronicle noted, some members of the department say these efforts are unnecessary and polarizing. I disagree. We have an obligation to female physics students and faculty members, and to the Duke community as a whole, to insist upon an atmosphere of respect and collegiality in all of our departments. Any behavior that jeopardizes this goal is unacceptable.

The article concludes in a way that might lead readers to believe that Sergei Matinyan, a physicist who previously worked at Duke, may be returning to work at the Duke physics department; this is incorrect. What is true is that although we were disappointed the article did not say more about what Professor Baranger and others have done to improve matters, we welcome the debate it will spark about the continuing responsibility we all face to help more women succeed in the sciences at Duke and elsewhere.

Peter Lange Provost Duke University