The Overlooked Diversity Issue

Colleges don’t always realize that their small-town communities are unsuited for the faculty members whom they hope to hire, argues Rachel S. Harris.

August 1, 2019
 
 
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This summer, faculty members all across the country will be moving to take up new positions in locations that are geographically remote from their previous homes, their social networks and sometimes even their families. Thoughtful and kindly academic chairs are reaching out with advice on local real estate markets, good school districts and other community activities. But when you aren’t planning on living locally, how do you politely decline the help without fearing for your tenure future?

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel Pnin paints the picture of Waindell, a small college town in a remote but pretty part of the Northeast, and Pnin’s deep social alienation. Although his neighbors and colleagues treat him well, his foreignness remains a constant vibration in the social interactions engendered by the university culture. Pnin, alone, divorced, has little to ask for from life.

But few scholars today are hermits and wish to live in a studio in the thoughtfully “furnished home for single college instructors.” They have social, cultural and religious needs. They have families, and they have spouses who also seek employment.

As colleges and universities work to increase diversity in hiring and course offerings, they don’t always realize that the small, welcoming communities they believe make up local town life are unsuited to or lack amenities for the faculty members whom they are hiring. Whether Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, black, brown, LGBTQ or otherwise, faculty members may not find a place of worship or a community of significant size in a small college town two hours from a larger city. They may face racism and prejudice. Even with the internet, being single with dating options many hours away can prove debilitating and depressing.

Further, faculty members with highly educated and qualified spouses are unlikely to find work in their chosen profession if they aren’t part of the university or medical institutions that dominate the professional landscape. Institutions in remote locations often try to hire spouses and partners, but the people who aren’t academics or who depend upon a large urban space for their professional life could find the town to be a job desert. And the spouse or partner who has a job that includes a significant amount of travel may have another set of challenges when the nearest major airport is hours away.

Expecting faculty members to live near the institution for nine months of the year apart from their families, maintaining two homes, is an unreasonable financial and emotional burden -- particularly with faculty members who have young or school-aged children. It also assumes that professional life must take center stage in a person’s identity, and it is often based on an illusion about a town’s intellectual community and the need for a daily (and weekend) presence to participate in it. Yet how often is a faculty member living alone actually invited out for dinner in the evening when everyone else in the department is married? Or what if the faculty member has young children? Even living locally, having to make a choice between appearing at the faculty picnic or attending a 4-year-old’s birthday party is a common crisis for many a junior faculty member.

But in an age when tenure-track positions are increasingly rare, newly hired faculty members often do not have the option to decline positions at institutions that may not suit them geographically. So if we really believe in hiring diversity, then we also need to recognize that faculty life situations are diverse, too -- and that a faculty member’s decision to commute from the large major city nearby or even another state several days a week isn’t a choice that should be punished.

Commuting is an extraordinary physical and financial challenge but is increasingly common in the complicated academic labor environment. We shouldn’t treat the faculty members who make these remarkable efforts to be present in both their work and home lives feel excluded, rejected and professionally hampered. Instead, we should recognize their deep commitment to the academy and see it as an effort to overcome extraordinary odds to succeed.

Further, expecting commuters to be present at work on the weekend pretends the work-life dilemma is particular to them. It isn’t. Academe has changed, and unlike in Nabokov’s Waindell, women with children are also faculty members, and men are also child rearing. We shouldn’t expect weekends to belong to the job for locals or commuters.

Those of us who work at colleges and universities can, and should, make accommodations to faculty members who chose to commute. We can help by providing travel stipends, arranging faculty schedules in ways that serve travel needs, allowing faculty members to teach online courses and providing flexibility in teaching -- such as overloading one semester and releasing another. We can offer part-time options for full-time, tenure-track faculty. But even more important, we need to change our attitude about the institutional culture and its historic model of Waindell, populated by white male Christian faculty members who are the breadwinners with stay-at-home caretaker wives.

If we want our institutions to look different, then we need to be sensitive to faculty life needs as part of our diversity training. We should judge commuters kindly and remember that the welcoming email over the summer might not be read as helpful. Rather, it might be terrifying for the new faculty member who suspects she’s about to disappoint her chair and department by living two hours away.

Bio

Rachel S. Harris is an associate professor of Israeli literature and culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has spent 10 years commuting to campus -- first from Chicago, then from Tampa, Fla. She is the author of Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema, among others, as well as the forthcoming Casting a Giant Shadow: The Transnational Shaping of Israeli Cinema, to be published by Indiana University Press in 2020.

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