'Occupying the Academy'

Editors discuss new book on diversity work within higher education.

November 2, 2012

For many in -- as well as outside of -- higher education, the 2008 election of Barack Obama seemed to mark a new era of progress toward equality. For college and university equity and diversity workers, in particular, it seemed that a nation led by a decisively elected black president (and one who had himself been a faculty member) might be newly open to and supportive of the work of furthering institutionalized diversity.

"Our initial logic went something like this," write Christine Clark, Kenneth J. Fasching-Varner, and Mark Brimhall-Vargas in the opening pages of their new volume, Occupying the Academy: Just How Important Is Diversity Work in Higher Education? (Rowman & Littlefield). "If a majority of American voters elected Obama, clearly this means: (a) that attitudes about race, and presumably other dimensions of diversity, are improving; and (b) equity/diversity workers will find it easier to engage those attitudes with less concern about being reproached or ignored."

As it turned out, they argue, "the Obama era was revealed as but another flashpoint in the continuing struggle for social justice."

Occupying the Academy comprises a variety of case studies of diversity work at different public colleges and university, illustrating a broad range of institutional attitudes toward diversity work -- from nominal support to outright hostility.

Inside Higher Ed conducted e-mail interviews with co-editors Clark, professor and senior scholar for multicultural education and founding vice president for diversity and inclusion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Fasching-Varner, Shirley B. Barton Professor and assistant professor in elementary education at Louisiana State University; and Brimhall-Vargas, associate director of the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance and a visiting scholar for multicultural education and organizational development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Q: Was this volume already in progress when the Occupy movement began? What prompted you to tie it to some of the ideas and terminology of that movement?

Brimhall-Vargas: Though we did not have the "occupy" language immediately in front of us, we were keenly aware that there was a problem in effectively institutionalizing diversity work in public higher education. Thus, when the Occupy movement started, we saw a lot of parallels between its strategy of "permanence" and the experiences of diversity workers in these higher education settings.  In many ways, the title was serendipity, but the book's subject and the Occupy movement were both long in coming.

Fasching-Varner: I remember being around the Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland groups on a visit to California in the thick of our process, and through discussions [I] came to realize that as much as we feel "occupied" by the academy we also have the opportunity to, and do, "occupy" the academy.  What we think, commit to, and do in the academy is a reflection of how we occupy the space at the same time that the policies and practices within institutions, with respect to diversity, visit upon us conflicts and tensions.  

Q: What does it mean to "occupy the academy" in the context of diversity work?

Brimhall-Vargas: I see this as the struggle for diversity workers to effectively make change in public higher education despite being a part of the system. The idea is that they are "there," but are also not completely afforded "space" to actually accomplish their goals. In that sense, they "occupy" public higher education instead of being organically integrated into it.

Clark: At first, I thought about us (as these workers) being "relegated" to occupier status -- marginalized in our work in higher education, limited by various dimensions of power or simply "tradition," thus, struggling to hold on to our budgets and to make inroads in the academy in terms of demographic diversity, policy change, curriculum transformation, etc.  But almost immediately after I had this thought, I also thought about us as proactive occupiers -- as fierce, determined, crystal-clear about the enormity of the task that faces us in doing this work in higher education and completely confident in our resolve to do it.

Ultimately, we -- editors and authors -- use the notion of "occupation" in both ways  in the book -- inadvertently and intentionally -- to communicate the idea that equity and diversity workers and work will continue to occupy the academy no matter what: we shall not be moved. What's important to note is that both notions of occupation keep us in the game in some way.  Accordingly, we argue that until equity and diversity are woven into the fabric of the academy, as well as society as a whole; the whole occupation phenomenon has to continue in some way or another -- the only "antidote" to occupation is systemic change.

Q: In what ways did President Obama's election and presidency affect equity and diversity work?

Fasching-Varner: There was great anticipation about what having a president of a different racial background might do to promote diversity and help us engage. The backlash, however, is that neoconservative and even neoliberal groups have created new master narratives about this time and placed great resistance toward diversity issues. For many there is a feeling like, "Well haven't we moved beyond diversity, we have a black president"; others, on the other hand, have been less passive-aggressive and more aggressive in saying, "Diversity is being piled on us and we don't like it."  

The upcoming election is very telling about where people stand relative to the president.  What were the motivations of those who voted for Obama but now are voting for Romney, and how do their narratives reveal something about the nature of diversity work? I think doing diversity work has become much more difficult now than it was four years ago because of people feeling like diversity has been achieved or resenting the presence of diversity.

Clark: Perhaps naïvely, we expected that following Obama's first term election our work would get easier, become more respected, be more well-funded, and be able to penetrate further in more substantive ways into the fabric of the academy. Because Obama clearly understood -- through his own experience, educational preparation, and varied work life -- and also clearly valued our equity and diversity work, we thought this would inevitably elevate the status of that work.  

And though we all clearly understand the persistence, insidiousness, and pervasiveness of racism, we still underestimated the way that racism, simply toward Obama being president, would so immediately manifest as backlash against anything he did in office no matter how "moderate" or even pro-big-business what he did was. Obama represents an equity/diversity reality that terrifies the "ole boys": that if they are put in a position to really have to compete, on a fair and level playing field with everyone else, they will not succeed. Through implicit and explicit association with Obama's blackness/this reality, anything equity and diversity workers have done in higher education since the late fall of 2008 has been met with corresponding backlash.

Q: In what ways are equity and diversity workers "under assault"? Why do you think this is the case?

Brimhall-Vargas:  Conventional higher education culture is such that people do not overtly oppose equity and diversity. Instead, offices dedicated to its work face problems that are largely invisible and hard to understand. They are often starved of resources or are constantly made to scramble for declining resources. This climate of instability makes it so that the workers dedicated to equity and diversity are always unsure of whether they will be around. Further, their mere presence on campus does not guarantee that they will have access to the places where meaningful change can happen. In other words, they may be on campus, but they may also be left out of the decision-making processes and structures that have a real chance of changing the campus composition and climate.

I'm not sure whether this exclusion is intentional or not. I only know that the effect is real. My suspicion is that equity and diversity offices have largely been an "add-on" experience on most campuses. Thus, by not being integrated into the fabric of the institution, these offices are not positioned to substantially change the systems and structures of the institution.

Clark: Equity and diversity workers whose efforts have been long successful in helping their institutions increase enrollment, raise rankings, augment funding, and build community partnerships, among other things, have become institutional "stepchildren" in the Cinderella sense -- in effect "closeted" until an "incident" of some sort happens, then let out and paraded around just long enough to effectively defend the institution against claims of insensitivity.

Q: What do you mean when you write that the book "question[s] the value of playing the game, and of sitting at the table, when no matter how well one plays or politely one sits, the results of the work are almost equally as fragile...." What alternatives might you propose?

Clark: In taking stock of the work that equity and diversity workers in higher education have done, it becomes clear that no matter our personality, approach, education, experience, etc., in doing the work, our success -- in concrete, measurable terms and/or based on subjective evaluations -- is not predictable.  Further, to the extent that we do well/the work is perceived as well-done (by those who supervise us, those who work with us, those who work for us, our peers in the work, and/or campus or community stakeholders), it is exceedingly hard to sustain over time, largely because of the real, imagined, or engineered politics embedded in/ascribed to/associated with the work. 

What we propose as an alternative is what we actualize with the book -- we want to open up the conversation about the work in an honest, but not defensive, way so that what we do/don't do, and what happens to us/the work can be examined, in a critically conscious manner, by our colleagues, by those who aspire to do the work, and by institutional leaders, among others. It is our hope that by not trying to paint an overly idealized picture of ourselves/the work in order to defend and/or "sell it," but also by not trying to "blame" the challenges we/the work faces on things wholly outside our purview/the purview of our work, that we will facilitate more sincere dialogue about it from which more thoughtful enactment of the work can ensue. In seeking to tell the truth about what has happened to us/the work from our perspectives, we invite engagement toward a different, better future for equity/diversity workers/work in higher education.

Q: You write that you "question whether or not political solutions can be achieved through research, including this present volume." With that in mind, how do you think real solutions may better be achieved?

Fasching-Varner: This is a tough question. Real solutions have been achieved — but they are solutions that favor already privileged groups. So I am not convinced that this type of volume will make already privileged groups walk away from their privilege and more equitably share in a vision for social justice and engagement. That being said, where marginalized voices can make gains is through being more collective in our resistance, and calling out the ways in which privilege manifests itself.

For us as diversity workers we are in a strange position because even though we are marginalized in many ways, we still have incredible opportunities to have a voice in higher education in ways that marginalized folks outside of the academy do not enjoy. So how can we as academics build bridges and use what voice we have in solidarity, like the Occupy movement intended, to work against privilege (even though we recognize that sweeping change is slow, if ever, to materialize)?

Brimhall-Vargas: We recognize that there is a "data problem" when it comes to equity and diversity. Leaders in public higher education often want to have ample amounts of data to substantiate that an equity or diversity problem exists (despite when problems are clear and blatantly obvious). Our experience suggests that providing this data (more of it, and in different varieties) does not actually compel change. Thus, having or producing data is not really the issue. It is often the willingness of leaders to accept the fact that a problem exists and that they are personally called upon as leaders to address it... or not. Alas, the "or not" option is exercised a great deal.

Again, we see the solution as raising awareness of the "process" of engaging these issues as opposed to simply discussing the equity and diversity "content" over and over.

Q: What do you hope the book will accomplish?

Brimhall-Vargas: We hope that the book prompts the dialogue we are seeking to have, because we believe sincere dialogue can make change. And, ultimately, we hope that this can create a transformative experience for those equity and diversity workers who tirelessly do this crucial work.

Fasching-Varner: I think that seeing cross-institutional case studies, without the names of the institutions, begins to reveal the ways in which what we experiences as diversity workers transcends contexts.  I hope that people see themselves and their institutions in the narratives, and begin to form alliances of resistance.  That is my one main hope for the book.


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