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Affirmative Inaction

Affirmative Inaction

July 21, 2006

Universities all over the country have been struggling in recent years to develop diversity plans and hiring doctrines to improve the position of minorities on campuses. I am most familiar with the plan recently issued in draft form by the University of Oregon, which has been working on the latest version of its diversity plan for a couple of years now. A 40-page comment draft has been issued. The plan, which discusses a wide variety of issues related to how non-white people fit into the largely paleface community of the university I know best, is surely similar to plans underway or issued at institutions all over the United States.

These plans don’t make much difference. The problem is less a lack of good will than a lack of connection to facts on the ground. Universities cannot remake the fundamental culture in which they exist, and that is a culture in which the availability of minority faculty and, to some extent, minority students, is decided years before a particular college or university can affect the situation by internal policies.

Diversity has become a word that must be spoken; those who don’t speak it in the right slightly breathless tone while looking both sorrowful and committed are unemployable. Because everyone speaks the word and almost no one does (or can) produce results, we are at risk, if I may use another phrase that used up its oxygen long ago, of seeing diversity mean as little as do Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity.

What does affirmative action mean today in faculty recruitment? A leaden process controlled not by departments but by human resources bureaucrats, with little discernible result. Universities need to stop treating diversity as an internal, mechanical process and start looking at the larger communities they serve for ways to improve academic opportunities for young people.

How many minority people earn Ph.D.s? Not many, and they are heavily concentrated in certain fields. In 2004, 36 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in education. Nationally, 15 percent of U.S. doctorates were in education. Another 20 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in fields in which the University of Oregon has no programs, such as agriculture, theology and engineering. Thus 56 percent of all African Americans who earn doctorates are not in Oregon's applicant pool no matter what the university does, except for the rare vacancy in education.  The same is true at other institutions without these fields -- that is, most institutions.

What about fields that most universities do have? How many blacks earned Ph.D.s in mathematics in the U.S. in 2004? Ten, in the entire country. In physics? Thirteen. Although some fields have a higher number of doctoral graduates, with such minuscule numbers coming out of the academic pipeline, no mid-level institution can compete with wealthier, more prestigious institutions whose diversity goals are similar. That doesn’t even take into account those graduates who might enter private industry from fields such as physics, chemistry or engineering.

In order to maintain their reputation, good universities hire Ph.D.s who earned their doctorates at the best programs in the U.S. (and the world, when possible). In most fields, this means a chunk of the Ivy League plus other top-rank universities such as Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, Wisconsin or Minnesota; maybe 20 to 30 schools all told.  For the most part, these freshly-printed Ph.D.s don’t want to work at mid-level schools, they want to work at one of the top 30 schools where they came from, but they need a job.

What happens when a mid-rank institution such as Oregon, Kansas State or Rice succeeds against the odds in hiring a new-minted Ph.D. of color? In many cases those earnest young assistant professors are in a parking orbit until they can try for what they really want: to go back to a top-tier institution where they get more pay, nicer offices, better toys, better students and more opportunity to honk their own horns. This is not wicked, it is simply human nature. When there are only a dozen new ones in some fields available each year to start with, let us cease pretending that all colleges should have one and that a college that doesn’t is doing something wrong.

Faculty at the great majority of schools are not really interested in color-coding their potential co-workers on a sepia-index wall chart anyway; they are interested in whether those co-workers are any good. Their departments don’t care that Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa or Reginald Shepherd are black; their co-workers care that they are three of the best poets writing in the U.S. today. I hope that nobody at Old Dominion thinks of Adolphus Hailstork as “the black composer in our music department;” they undoubtedly think of him as the composer who wrote “Sonata da Chiesa,” one of the best pieces by any composer in a hundred years.

Anyone who tried to recruit these people away on behalf of another school would, I trust, be discreetly shunted off in another direction and told to stop poaching. This is not because they are of color, it is because they are of quality. It is not faculty of color that are such an important example to students of all shades, it is good faculty of color. And there are not enough of them being made. We must stop whacking our colleges for failing to hire people who do not exist.

Anyone interested in actual improvement of the presence of good nonwhite faculty in our universities needs to take certain steps at their schools. Do not allow the hiring of more bureaucrats to gasp in predictable horror at the way things are. No more Assistant Vice-hand-holders in the bower of ethnic unhappiness. Forget all the false storefronts and unseemly fawnings that are the usual pewter trade beads of minority recruiting.

Start the laborious process of dragging recruitment out of the clinging vines of the H.R. people and back into the hands of departments. Accept the possibility that an imperfect process can lead to a perfect result. College leaders need the ability to go outside the standard hiring process to support and attract the best faculty, including minority faculty. They should also have the flexibility to flag potential scholars early in life and use university resources to assist them in their long-term goal of joining the professoriate.

Plan ahead a generation. Work ahead a generation. Figure out who of color in your local schools has the potential to be a good professor. Get rid of your highly paid and symbolic chief diversity officers. We all know that they accomplish little. This is not their fault; their jobs are inherently impossible. Respect can’t be legislated, it must be earned. Use that money to hire a brace of heat-seeking twenty-somethings to systematically find the most academically promising minority 10-year-olds in likely and unlikely places, and track and support them for a decade or more, as your university’s scholars-in-waiting. Consider advance long-term contracts with the best doctoral students. Be bold.

Let the word diversity lie fallow until something meaningful can grow from its good soil. Let the words affirmative action not be spoken until they mean action that is affirmative again.

Bio

Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier in the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard.

 

 

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