The Question of Faculty Diversity at Predominately White Colleges and Universities

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EZRA, Cornell’s Quarterly Magazine just featured a cover story and 12 page article on faculty diversity at Cornell. Big shot out to Anne Ju, Rich Allmidinger, Lance Collins.  Overall, I found their writing on diversity at the College of Engineering to be insightful. Their features on “Why Cornell has Become a Better Place to Go,”“Faculty: The Next Frontier for Diversity,” and “A Landmark Appointment,” respectively, provide in-depth perspectives on the challenges facing minority faculty at Cornell and the issue of diversity at elite, predominantly white institutions of higher learning (“EPWI’s” for short!).

In this blog entry, I want to reflect on the question of faculty diversity. If we are really serious about changing the dynamics of race/privilege in our nation’s top-tier universities, we have to begin by rethinking what we mean by “diversity.”

I am, of course, a faculty member of color at Cornell. Young, black, and just don’t give a f educated, What? I don’t think Cornell is a unique place, at least in terms of diversity (or lack thereof). My view on the topic is derived from my time at Cornell, as well as my previous time teaching at Williams College (yes, that elite liberal arts school in Mass.) and doing my graduate research/teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. EPWI’s like Cornell, Harvard, Yale, etc seem similar enough. Reading the articles in the EZRA magazine suggests that the situation facing minority faculty at Cornell reflects the larger experience of minority faculty elsewhere. After being at Cornell for two years, it is my personal feeling that it may be doing a better job than peer institutions at tackling the issue of diversity. I have no particular beef with Cornell.

What, Exactly, Does Diversity Mean?

It might be useful to make problematic the discourse surrounding faculty diversity at colleges and universities. What, exactly, does “diversity” mean at a place like Cornell? Or Harvard? Or Luxury Brand University?

The meaning of diversity at any university is a slippery concept. Cornell, or any big institution, doesn’t represent “one place.” Here in Ithaca, NY, there are many “Cornells,” plural. My experience of working at the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC), for example, means that I am surrounded day-in and day-out by people and intellectual work based in African-diasporic culture. What does diversity in my little nook mean?  It is likely that minority faculty in Nano-Technology would have a different of experience and outlook on the meaning and implication of diversity.

Diversity seems to be a “concern” at Cornell. These recent articles provide some evidence of what you will read on similar college campuses:

Survey reveals that minority professors’ satisfaction with jobs has decreased since 2005

Survey: Cornell’s Female Faculty Less Satisfied

Cornell Lags Behind in Faculty Diversity

Campaign to Save the Africana Studies and Research Center

Any search of the Cornell Sun [insert Student Newspaper name here] will turn up the same type of discourse.  As you can see, the politics of identity are alive and well on college campuses. Dream of Post-racial America, deferred. Sigh.

Arguably, though, this is the perfect time in America to start a dialogue about issues of diversity. I am happy that EZRA magazine dedicated the summer issue to this question. The special EZRA issue is a good start, and I want to use this blog as a way to throw in my 2 cents on the topic, and hopefully spark some constructive conversations in the comments section.

Diversity as a Numbers Game

Usually by “diversity,” people mean the physical presence of non-white, non-male, non-tweed sports-coat wearing, non-heterosexual adults on campus. Diversity is usually about socio-economics, specifically race-ethnicity, religion, gender-sexuality, nationality, etc. Faculty diversity denotes a quantitative assessment of the faculty composition: how many black professors are there? How many female engineering professors are there?

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Sometimes academics get fancy with numbers, and refer to ratios and percentages, change over time, trend lines, or even hierarchical linear regressions (HLM, represent, son!). Diversity is about absolute numbers, though it may be based on a comparison of similar institutions/peer institutions/competitors: How many Latino faculty members do we have as compared to Stanford University?

Quantitative discussions of faculty diversity tend to stay away from absolute quotas or minimums, and nobody wants to use the “A Word”: Affirmative Action.

But when we talk about diversity, we assume that “something is wrong” if there is not at least one (1) fill in the blank faculty minority member.

For example: “There are no professors of Mexican descent in the Philosophy Department at Big Cash University. Whoa, that department at BCU must be a bunch of Xenophobic, Eurocentric racists!”

On the flip side, if there is exactly one minority faculty member, there is also a problem with diversity.

For example: “Was Professor Hawks Blood hired as the token Native American Jazz professor? Must have been that affirmative action [hushed tone].

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To note, according to other professors I’ve talked to, being the “only one” in your department/university seems to be the worst situation.

There also seems to be a tipping point problem with diversity: Too many minority faculty members, especially in one building, can also become problematic. Research shows that the magic number seems to be 3 or 4, especially if they eat in the faculty club together.  (Fake citation, 2011).

For example, “The political science department hired three African American males last year. Black people got Obama and three professors; that should end the debate on reparations for slavery…

If there are 3-4 minority profs in the same (non-ethnic studies) department, then there is a sense that the university is uber-diverse, a post-racial heaven. Or this is an indication of reverse discrimination, or the administration’s pandering to “white guilt”/”identity politics.”

Thinking about faculty diversity in terms of numbers alone is a pretty narrow conception of diversity. Here are some problems with thinking about diversity simply in terms of numbers:

You never know “how many are enough.” Do we need 20 _____ professors? Should the faculty demographics be proportional to the student body composition? How about relative to the National population? Should we count Professor Alliboo over in Policy Studies–a lesbian, Nigerian, atheist—as a quadruple underrepresented minority (race, immigrant status, gender, religion)?

Also, the emphasis on numbers also tends to limit discussions about meaning of diversity. There is a tendency to always think more is better. Who is going to stand up at a faculty senate meeting and declare, “I think we have enough Native Americans now that Prof. Hawks Blood is teaching Jazz…In fact, we could use 3.2% fewer Asians up in this piece!” Conversations about diversity will always go like this: “we need more ______ faculty members,” and people will applaud in agreement, as not be seen as racist/sexist/homophobic. Even when people are sincere in their concerns about diversity, the efforts end up as being symbolic gesture.

Diversity As A Feelings Game

In addition to counting the number of faculty members from disadvantaged backgrounds, we also tend to think about diversity as something more than just numbers: diversity is how “we feel,” perceptions of “inclusion,” “comfort,” “campus climate.” Are black faculty members “satisfied at Cornell?” Are they “happy”? Or sad? Qualitative subjectivities comprise a second way of thinking about the issue of diversity at EPWIs. Supposedly, we can quantify this through opinion surveys of faculty members, then figure out if female professors are getting happier or sadder, over time, controlling for their background characteristics.

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Again, there are several limitations to this way of thinking about and measuring diversity. Any student in introduction to social statistics can probably point to the obvious. Here are a few:

Opinions are highly sensitive to time, context, and phrasing of question. For example, how might black faculty respond to a diversity survey in late December 2010, after a black professor was attacked by neo-Nazis on the quad (hypothetical story)? What if the same survey was given in September of 2010?

Also, the reliability of climate surveys is complicated by issues of trust and power. Simply put, there are reasons to believe that minority professors could be less than forthcoming when responding to surveys, despite assurances of confidentially. Part of it is fear of retribution, another part is fear of being seen as an ungrateful, trouble maker (“Shouldn’t you be honored that School X hired you in the first place? You’re the first ______ professor at this college.)  Another part is feeling powerless (“Why should I bother complaining, nothing going to happen anyway, except perhaps another committee on diversity! And I’m not trying to be the token Asian female on that committee, I have too much work to do!”)

A big issue with diversity surveys is the problem of individual identity (“I”) versus collective identity (“we”). Many minorities posses both and often see no binary distinction between the two. That is, as a black male, I may have never been called the N-Word by the dean of engineering, but I could still feel that “black people are disrespected at Cornell.” This affective feeling might be based on the experience of other black men we know (“My colleague Prof. Gosa is constantly followed by Cornell police! It’s because he is black and male.”) Likewise, it is conceivable that other black professors don’t possess any significant collective identity or sense of “what it’s like for black professors at School X) and/or have no opinion about race on campus. The process of survey research either forces this last group of professors to adopt an opinion, or self-select out of the survey (by not responding to it).

Or more complex, it could be based on the collective identity of black maleness at Cornell that has no relationship to everyday experience of discrimination. It is possible that “weness” of black masculinity–the shared identity used to create a sense of solidarity at Cornell—is based on the belief that “people like us are devalued.” In this later case, black men would say they are unhappy at Cornell, but have few empirical examples, no burning cross, to point to.

Last, I suspect that respondents simply lie or lie by omission. Growing up in the black community, I learned two basic rules to success: (1) First, you have to work 10 times harder than white people to get the same rewards, so work 20 times harder. (2) Second, never, ever, tell white people the truth. A healthy mistrust of white people and/or white institutions (schools, your boss, the police) is key to survival in an unfair, often hostile society.

Professors, like students, are not consumers of a campus experience product, so it makes little sense to overemphasize satisfaction reports. Consumer report tabulations are useful when you are evaluating which car or refrigerator to buy, but diversity surveys yield much more nebulous ideas about the quality of campus life.

What it is like to live in Ithaca and work at Cornell cannot be completely captured by likert scale questions.  These measures can help paint a picture, but they are just measures.  The goal of diversity isn’t to boost satisfaction scores. Likewise, the goal of education is not to boost test scores. In the case of schools, testing, when used in moderation, can help keep us on track towards making sure that students are really learning valuable skills.

Toward a More Complex Conversation about Faculty Diversity

These quantitative and qualitative notions of diversity provide some convenient tools for thinking about the issue of diversity. I like the idea of working around lots of people with diverse life experiences, backgrounds, etc. And I want same-sex-loving-folks at my university to be happy. Accomplishing these two things under the banner of diversity seems like a win. However, the idea of diversity can be about more than numbers and satisfaction.

In no particular order, here is an annotated list of ideas that complicate the issue of faculty diversity:

1. Diversity initiatives must interrogate privilege and advantage.

Who benefits from the status quo? How do members of historically privileged groups benefit from excluding faculty of color, women, etc?  How does whiteness/maleness operate at the university? How are privileged faculty harmed by this process? ( For example, I’ve had two white professors lament that they wish they could be more “hip” and “laid back” and study things like ‘rap music,’ but can’t, because of their whiteness.) Related, we need to think about how increasing “diversity” is incompatible with certain models of education. Achieving diversity in the increasing corporate, capitalist logic of academia seems impossible. If prestige, exclusion, competition, opportunity hoarding, elitism, profits, etc are the benchmark of success, then adding more minorities to that system will do little to change how higher education operates.

2. Notions of diversity cannot be separated from theorizing about organizational structure.

The idea of diversity seems to imply some ideas about democracy, voice, procedure and due process. Diversity, beyond bodies in the room, is predicated that there are safeguards in place to prevent unfair treatment, and that there are structural rewards in place to encourage members of the majority/privileged groups to play nicely. Without a system in place, a diversity that depends on good hearted people will quickly devolve back into non-diversity.  Sustainable diversity requires institutional change. How might we change the process of hiring, firing, recruitment, retention, promotion, and measuring productivity (teaching, publishing, service to field, public) to achieve and maintain diversity?

All of these things sound great, right? But…

3. The issue of faculty diversity most also include redefining the social norms or the ideologies surrounding professional academia.

What it means to do “good research” or to be a “good teacher,” for example, tend to put severe limits on the types of people hired, supported, and promoted in academia.  The implication is that we tend to set up minority faculty for failure. We say in effect, “we value your socioeconomic demographics, now act like a good professor (read: middle aged, heterosexual white male who publishes in the flagship journals, read: journals and presses controlled by middle-aged, heterosexual white males) or get fired in 7 years.” Diversity of professorship must include some reconsideration of the meaning of professing. This includes reassessing what we mean by teaching, by research, by knowledge, etc.

4. We have to be honest about the expected value and outcomes of diversity.

Why do we want diversity? And are we willing to sacrifice other desirables to achieve this goal? Serious conversations about diversity might begin with an introspective look at why we want diversity in the college faculty. Do we really believe that diversity increases student learning? Do we really expect a black chemistry professor who went to Harvard to contribute something special to chemistry, versus a white professor who also went to Harvard? Or, are we primarily concerned with higher notions of social justice, and the university’s role in bringing about progressive change in society?

BET and Lil Wayne Worse than The Ku Klux Klan?

In a recent blog post, Syracuse Professor Dr. Boyce Watkins compares BET to Ku Klux Klan. Interestingly enough, I spend about 4-5 hours on the internet/listening to rap music/and hanging out in the bloggersphere a day, and didn’t even notice that the BET Awards were held last Sunday night!

So here is the question: Is it fair to compare BET or Lil’ Wayne to the worst domestic terrorist group in US history?Is Prof. Watkins taking the comparison too far, or does he have a point?

The comparison of BET to the Klan is actually not new. The Boondocks episode on BET, in which Huey goes on a hunger strike against BET, made a similar observation.

In addition, Mos Def made the same point about Viacom on the track “The Rape Over.”

It is difficult to dismiss Dr. Boyce Watkins as a hater, either of popular culture, rap music, and/or black America. In fact, his career demonstrates just the opposite (google his work or spend 5 minutes reading his blog). In fact, it is hard to disagree with the following observation in his post:
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“BET, the media company that targets black consumers, but is ultimately controlled by a predominantly white organization called Viacom, is not exactly on the same page when it comes to their assessment of Lil Wayne or any other artist (i.e. R. Kelly) who can be directly linked to the holocaust occurring within black America today”
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The notion that multinational national corporations get rich by selling minstrel-like characterizations of black people in the global market place is hardly a controversial statement. I applaud the good Prof. for putting the blame on everyone involved: listeners/fans, the artists, the networks, and perhaps most importantly, those at the top that actually reap most of the profits from selling death, drugs, and hate to children.

Professor Dr. Boyce Watkins is correct that the Klan and other hate organizations in America are powerless, relative to the media industries. And in terms of influencing how white people imagine and view black people, certainly 106 & Park speaks more to the hearts and minds of white youth than the KKK.

Is it possible to argue that Lil’ Wayne is good for black America? Probably not. Lil’ Wayne is definitely one of the most talented and creative Emcees in the post-Biggie, post-Tupac world of rap. On the flip-side, along with the Cam’Ron, pioneered the “No Homo” meme/slur in rap music. So it’s also hard to say that Lil’ Wayne is good for the self-esteem of same-sex loving folk.

Based on my reading of the situation, I have to co-sign the overview thrust of Dr. Boyce Watkins. In the absence of legal or excepted racism and violence against black folk, entities like BET and Lil’ Wayne certainly represent a continual source of symbolic violence against the public image of black people.

Amplify’d from yourblackworld.com

The Ku Klux Klan has been regularly criticized for encouraging violence against African Americans and terrorizing our community.  But the truth is that the Klan doesn’t have much power anymore, and their thirst for African American blood seems to have waned a bit.  At the same time, Lil Wayne and artists like him have made a habit of encouraging black men to shoot one another, to abuse or murder women, to consume suicidal amounts of drugs and alcohol and to engage in irresponsible, deadly sexual behavior.

As a result, black men are the most likely to die from gun violence, mass incarceration continues to decimate black families, drug addiction and possession ruins black lives in droves, and HIV is the leading killer of black women.  So, the truth is that Lil Wayne-like artists and the corporate armies producing this weaponized genocide have killed more black people than the KKK ever could.  By accelerating, financing and supporting the “Lil Wayne gospel” to a community that is already dying, BET has effectively positioned itself as a new and improved version of the KKK.  In fact, if we had a choice between eliminating the KKK or getting rid of BET, the black community would benefit more from the latter.

Read more at yourblackworld.com

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