Faculty diversity examined

The past three editions of the Record have carried a series of articles and opinions that have described and debated the issue of diversity in the College’s faculty. Notice of the issue of diversity within the faculty began in the March 12 edition of the Record with the news article entitled “Diversity an important factor in new hirings.” The candid quotes from President Morton Schapiro and members of the faculty caught many by surprise. Schapiro is quoted as stating, “If we just hire a greatly disproportionate number [of faculty] who are Caucasian we are going to have missed a great opportunity.” The President later noted that if greater diversity does not come to Williams, “you’ll be talking to my successor, with good reason.”

The president’s description of a need to make the faculty more diverse seems to have been the quote that turned the most heads in the article. In one of my courses, the professor spent class time teasing out this very issue. After spring break, Kevin Koernig ’05 wrote an op-ed entitled “Faculty Diversity Misunderstood.” In his article, Koernig argues that the logic behind the president’s claims was lacking. Koernig asserted that diversity should not be a category of measure for the hiring of faculty. The next week, Rory Kramer ’03 replied to Koernig’s article, stating that “Koernig’s article, though well-articulated, sadly appears to me as an exercise in sophistry.” Kramer argues that Williams must create a more diverse faculty or the College will “have failed in its quest to be a paragon of liberal arts education.”

The arguments behind creating a more diverse faculty are intriguing, for they carry so much behind them. Let’s start with the originator of this debate, President Schapiro. The President’s comments are ones that essentially no college president would argue with. There is a wide consensus within the academy that student bodies and faculties should become more diverse – specifically, more diverse in terms of gender and race. This consensus can be easily viewed at Harvard, home of the “Dream Team” of Afro-American scholars. Diversity, as almost anyone in higher education knows, has become a sort of currency, a gauge by which institutions can measure each other.

The argument roughly goes that the more diverse an institution is, the better it must be. This argument is obviously not true for every situation. There are numerous factors that can determine an institution’s racial and gender diversity. However, it shall be noted that the institutions that are seen as the leaders in higher education, such as Harvard and Yale, were the vanguards in the creation of the new diversity consensus. As the leaders in education created a new consensus, the vast majority of colleges and universities fell in line. This historical fact began roughly around the period of the civil rights movement as a reaction to the homogeneous composition of the student body and faculty within Ivy League institutions at that time.

So we have a historical moment when the present consensus was created. But what was the reasoning behind that consensus? Why did colleges and universities, why did Harvard and Yale, Amherst and Williams, decide to become “more diverse?” From what I have been able to take, there are a handful of reasons. I will describe three. First is the “proportional” or “fairness” argument. Until the late 1960s, higher education at elite institutions was the privilege of the few. This class of people, for the sake of argument, I’ll call “the Eastern Establishment.” Women and racial minorities were typically left out of the Establishment. Rather visibly, this left out a large percentage of the national population out of the best colleges and universities. This was on top of a list of long-standing Jim Crow laws that prevented minorities from attending public universities in several states. Such a system began to create an obvious two-caste society – those who were allowed into such institutions by way of whom their parents were and those who were not allowed in. It does not take a rocket scientist to see what happens when one specific segment of the population is allowed to have the best education while a large segment is not. You find a highly divided society: a small, elite, Ivy League bourgeoisie and a large, uneducated, female or non-Anglo Saxon male proletariat. Once people saw that such a system was absurd, admissions officers began to make appropriate measures to change whom colleges granted admissions. As such, said minority and female students made calls for more diversity throughout the academy – in the faculty, in the curriculum and the like. Additionally, women and minorities began to enter careers in the academy in larger numbers, making it possible for more institutions to initiate diversity within their faculties.

Second is an argument that became teased out more in later years. Known by some as the “experience” argument, it holds that associations should have a diversity collection of peoples because, surprisingly enough, different people have different experiences. What is difficult about this argument is that it is believed that people with similar characteristics, such as being the same gender or of the same ethnicity, hold similarities that may allow them to relate to one and another better than if they did not have the same characteristics. This is a difficult argument because, as least to my knowledge, there is no way to scientifically measure how much “experience” matters in the academy. What we do know, or possibly assume, is that if a diversity of experiences does matter, then it should be embraced by the academy. I am willing to contend that people with similar characteristics can relate more easily, but not necessarily. This assertion does not mean that a black student cannot relate to a white professor, but that a black student may be better understood or feel more comfortable with a black faculty member. Heretofore, if the academy is dedicated to promoting a more diverse student body for the betterment of society, then it should embrace a more diverse faculty.

The third argument is one that claims that greater diversity in the academy will create leaders within communities that lacked leaders previously. You could even consider this to be the Ivy League’s attempt to create a “talented tenth,” to borrow from W.E.B. DuBois. Postulated in “The Shape of the River” by William Bowen and Derek Bok, this argument contends that diversity in the academy will produce leaders for previously under-represented groups that will advocate and work for the betterment of said person’s identification group. Research by Bowen and Bok reveals a strong likelihood that Afro-American graduates will assist in the improvement of their respective communities. This seems like a goal that almost everyone should support. Since the government is unwilling to redistribute wealth to those people in need, it seems that only the creation of a talented tenth can assist in alleviating the woes of the underclass.

In conclusion, I would like to look at Koernig’s last sentence: “Once again we are going to be using skin color and racial identity as a factor in judging applicants and hiring professors. Talk about being set back a generation.” It is one of the strongest arguments against the diversity consensus. Koernig, like many others, associate color blindness with social justice. That is what Dr. Martin Luther King said, isn’t it? However, I assert, borrowing from Bowen and Bok, that color blindness does not equal to racial justice. As a society, we are all very
aware of our “diverse” surroundings. To claim that we do not see people as black or white, man or woman, is a flat-out lie. Instead, the academy should see its role in diversity as driven by a morality of racial justice that makes inclusion more “fair.” Color blindness, once a dream of the disenfranchised, has become usurped by those who seek a world where the social wrongs associated with race and ethnicity and gender can be ignored.