Why even our most progressive institutions have lousy race relations (essay)

With each new academic year come new racial incidents on campuses, watched closely by university administrators seeking to master the rules of response in order to cling to their jobs.

The fall 2015 unrest at the University of Missouri, which led to the resignation of the system president and one campus’s chancellor, and at Yale University, where protestors chastised an instructor about her comments on Halloween costumes, probably assisted Donald Trump’s improbable rise as a champion of the politically incorrect. Many Americans find it odd that privileged students express outrage at risqué Halloween costumes, not at terrorist attacks on their nation by notably intolerant jihadists.

No doubt some of the grassroots support for Trump reflects the alienation of rural white voters who, as J. D. Vance explains in Hillbilly Elegy, feel pitied and patronized by their nation’s political elites. Ironically, a similar alienation may explain why privileged college students of color at places like Yale seize any opportunity to express outrage. They feel patronized by their universities -- and for good reason. While institutions like the U.S. Army seem effective at bringing diverse young Americans together, higher education seems to spin them apart. So how did America’s most progressive institutions get race relations so very wrong?

I write as a right-leaning white man, but one with African-American friends and collaborators met while growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood and then spending 40-odd years in academe, teaching at a range of small and large, public and private institutions. In that time, I’ve read much and seen even more, including sensitive matters that few academics of any color address with clarity for fear of attacks.

Underlying the controversies at Yale, Missouri and, in a quieter way, at most of the 10 institutions of higher learning where I have taught, are real issues of privilege and alienation. When African-Americans complain that they are not taken seriously at colleges and universities, my fellow conservatives need to acknowledge the key reason why: African-Americans are not taken seriously at colleges and universities. Meanwhile, for their part, liberals need to acknowledge that diversity policies -- at least as actually practiced at most colleges and universities rather than in theory or public proclamation -- have walled off minorities from the centers of university life, making racial hierarchies all the steeper and inherently challenging situations still more challenging.

Way back in 1972, in Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, African-American economist Thomas Sowell wrote about the challenges facing African-American professors, who must teach and publish like everyone else but who also are drafted to serve as recruiters of and gurus to black students, as preventers of open racial conflict, as the authentic “black voices” on innumerable committees (a pretty awesome responsibility when you think about it), and in pervasive public relations roles as living proof that institutions of higher learning are diverse. As Stephen L. Carter pondered in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, the omnipresent racial consciousness in academe makes minority professors and students continually unsure of whether white-dominated institutions value their skills or their skin color. That insecurity results from white privilege in the purest sense, making HBCUs all the more appealing.

In the University but Not of It

My first knowledge of this came some 30 years back, while studying in a high-octane Ph.D. program. I was the only openly Republican student in the program, my best friend for a time was the only African-American student, and our basically decent colleagues never quite knew how to react to either of us. I was young and insecure (now middle-aged and crotchety), but then, so were my peers. Possibly, the prospect of my tattling to conservative state legislators, or worse still, my friend accusing someone of racism (the latter a real career killer), put some on their guard. Such insecurities are immeasurably more pronounced in today’s time of conservative bloggers, libertarian think tanks, politically correct trigger warnings and Orwellian microaggressions.

Of course, unlike my friend, I was never called out of class to have my picture taken for a university brochure or asked to represent “the black point of view.” My friend could not just be a doctoral student in a top 10 program -- which is hard enough. He was supposed to be the minority student, a token, not a person, someone to be handled with care. He ended up leaving academe.

I, too, experienced the feeling of being in the university but not of it. On the verge of flunking out, I was exiled off the 12th floor of the social sciences tower to the second floor to share an office with the graduate students in Africana studies, a department that apparently had extra space or insufficient clout to protest. The Africana students were bright but bitter, lamenting our status of occupying the only office in the building that did not even have a phone -- that was how much the university trusted us! Everyone knew no one from there would make dean any time soon. We were the ghetto of the university, although for me it was only temporary.

Unfortunately, some 30 years later, remarkably few presidents of colleges and universities are African-American -- only about 6 percent, according to the American Council on Education, even counting community colleges and HBCUs. I know fine scholars and teachers who might receive serious consideration for serious leadership posts at Research 1 universities -- were they white. As African-Americans, they get stuck on the black track Sowell lamented back in 1972.

Fast-forward a few decades, and I heard a chancellor casually suggesting that to support ethnic diversity, the university needed to enlarge majors like education, sociology and African-American studies -- not engineering, linguistics or Arabic. Nor did this chancellor (or any I university leader I have known) talk seriously about how to push K-12 schools to reduce the racial achievement gaps that hinder the efforts of higher education (and society generally) to desegregate.

Rather, his meaning was clear: you can’t expect those black folks to have the brains to handle regular majors, so to make the diversity numbers we would create refuges (ghettos?) within the university. This particular chancellor was a decent human being and a member of the left in good standing, someone who probably never voted Republican. (Republican chancellors may well be rarer than African-American chancellors.) Yet his views of the capabilities of minorities were indistinguishable from those of the most noxious segments of the Trump movement. Those views were on public display, but far more common are quiet references in hiring committees to the effect that you just can’t expect minorities, or rather certain minorities, to cut it in academic settings.

So while I am not a person of color, from lived experience in the academy I got it when, in the Schuette case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor opined that “race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’”

But here is what Justice Sotomayor and many others on the left do not get. True integration in any workplace, but particularly in hypercompetitive academe, only works when people have roughly equivalent skills. Most faculty members know this, and some make largely unsupported attempts to do something about the skills gaps across groups.

But, unfortunately, that is simply not how many administrators view the issue. They practice affirmative action by admitting African-American and occasionally Hispanic students with academic skills well below those of their white and (especially) Asian peers and then exiling those students (and sometimes faculty members) to the margins of the university -- to “special” majors, programs and even dorms. In other words, they set up expectations of white and Asian privilege, and African-American disadvantage, in ways that guarantee alienation and division, however much we deny or avoid it.

What Should be Done?

As Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Fall of the Faculty, some of our collective failure to manage diversity (and a host of other issues) reflects the fact that administrators, not professors, now dominate our universities. Higher education administrators often view diversity issues through the prisms of politics and public relations. Even though each group leans well to the left politically, approaches to diversity can divide college administrators and faculty members. In The Still Divided Academy, Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Woessner, and Matthew Woessner offer extensive survey data showing that while college and university administrators see no downside to affirmative action, their faculty members, who actually work with students and value academics, perceive trade-offs between diversity and student success.

This is a divide between those working directly with students and those focused on “the big picture,” for whom individual students are abstractions. For most faculty members, whatever their ideology, issues of diversity offer educational challenges: How do we serve all our students, including minorities, and use diversity to enhance rather than constrict intellectual exchange? In contrast, college and university administrators by and large care little if black students (or any students) learn. For the administrators who run colleges and universities, diversity offers political challenges: How do we keep minorities quiet and have sufficient numbers of them to look good to external funders? This means that minority activists at places like Yale, the University of Missouri and wherever the next racial incident occurs in a deep sense have it right: university leaders do not care about them save as public relations objects. That’s a recipe for alienation, and rebellion.

Perhaps universities don’t have to be this way. Some of the better work on managing diversity comes out of the military, such as Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler’s 1996 classic All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. This nuanced sociology suggests integration works best when those of different identities have roughly equal skills, face common challenges, get to know each other as individuals rather than as group representatives and cannot retreat to separate “safe spaces.” Grown-ups could structure the academic and social challenges of college in such ways. Putting more focus on academics would be a good start, unifying students around the common demands of course work. Going a step farther might mean de-emphasizing institutions of progressive privilege, like diversity programs, and even more powerful institutions of traditional privilege, like fraternities and sororities.

Unfortunately, however, the prospects for such bold, individual student foci on the part of large, bureaucratic institutions are not good. Perhaps those running colleges and universities deserve what they are getting.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

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Students protest during a football game between Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.
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Advice for Ph.D. graduates deciding to leave academe (essay)


Adriana Bankston offers reflections and advice to Ph.D.s about successfully leaving academe and pursuing other careers.

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Advice on how to establish productive collaborations with other academics (essay)

J. Sumerau describes a smart approach to establish productive collaborations.

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How to deal with parental leave and other pauses in research (essay)

Many faculty members remain uncertain about how parental leave and other gaps should be treated professionally, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra, who provide some advice for both job seekers and institutions.

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How we need to improve postdoctoral education (essay)

If higher education is underappreciated and under threat, then highest education -- postdoctoral fellowships -- may be even more so. Some observers have suggested that too many people are pursuing such advanced training without clearly related direction or the potential for job placements. But while some aspects of postdoctoral education may need adjusting, our country must appreciate the value of highest education and do more to ensure that it flourishes.

When I refer to highest education, I mean those most advanced studies in any field in higher education -- be it medieval history, international relations, heart failure cardiology, polymer nanoscience, biological anthropology, systems engineering, 19th-century French literature or ancient Taoism. This is not an elitist concept but rather a description and acknowledgment of the highest levels of training, specialization and educational attainment in any area of human endeavor. I use the term here to draw attention to an important -- and vulnerable -- element at the apex of our education system.

After obtaining highest education in various fields, people go on to faculty careers or other professions, continuing to learn and sharing the benefits of what they know and how they think. And those benefits are great, in the academy and beyond, given the experience and perspective accrued along the way. People who have obtained the highest education contribute to leadership in myriad fields and to the critical reasoning and discourse vital for a civil society.

That is not to say that advanced training is necessary for brilliant insights, breakthroughs and leadership. History is replete with individuals who have made extraordinary contributions and have great wisdom without formal education -- let alone higher education. And many people with advanced degrees have proceeded successfully without postdoctoral-level training. But postgraduate education allows for the larger-scale sharing, transfer and development of deep expertise in an academic or professional field. And in this age of interdisciplinary scholarship, deep doesn’t necessarily mean narrow -- such advanced studies may confer a broader, integrated perspective.

Most forms and levels of education rely, at their best, upon the close interaction between student and teacher. In highest education, the interaction between advanced students and highly expert faculty enhances the work of both, and through research or qualitative studies, advances human understanding. Their discoveries occur at the edge of what is known and what is unknown, and can involve specific observations and overarching or paradigm-shifting insights. Either way, areas of human endeavor move ahead, hopefully guided by ethical considerations, sometimes informing policy or creating whole new fields and industries.

Indeed, people with advanced, specialized training fill an important niche in the discovery, innovation and application of new knowledge. They also serve as stewards of acquired expertise and perspective within and across disciplines and fields. Those with postdocs in engineering can be highly sought after by Silicon Valley, Wall Street or academe. In medicine, they can lead top academic medical centers and help patients suffering with complex conditions. In the economic and social sciences, they can serve in a myriad of fields in industry, government or academe. In the arts and humanities, they can manage museums, orchestras and other nonprofit organizations. Some develop their own niches.

Not all postdocs succeed in their chosen areas, as with any area of human endeavor. That may be due to a range of issues unrelated to their training, or to work force needs and capacities that do not always match their aspirations. Thus, advanced training can be a risky investment, though if pursued for its inherent value, quite worthwhile -- and often in unanticipated ways. It can give students highly developed, transferable thinking skills that allow them to excel in a wide range of careers as well as to respond to emerging new needs for expertise -- for example, in specific sects of Islam or biomaterials science.

Today’s Challenges

Preparing people for successful trajectories at the fellowship or postdoc level presents considerable challenges, especially in a resource-constrained environment. It requires focusing explicit attention on the specific elements of education at this level.

But highest education often doesn’t get the attention and resources it requires and deserves. Because programs are usually smaller, they do not always receive dedicated budgetary support. Funding may be precarious, depending upon faculty grants, training grants or individual grants for students from the National Science Foundation and other organizations. A decrease in support from the National Institutes of Health, and the gap between tuition and rising institutional costs, puts particular pressure on fellowship programs.

Universities are increasingly aware of the need to secure sustainable sources of support, whether philanthropic or from other institutional sources, but options are limited. As a result, the right-sizing of programs is crucial. The pursuit of a fellowship because a student doesn’t know what else he or she wants to do, or because a faculty position is not available, should be discouraged. Overly prolonged or multiple fellowships are not helpful, either, unless there is continued advancement and specialized, multidisciplinary training. And while success on the job market should not be the sole criterion for academic pursuits, the overproduction of advanced trainees in a given field can be counterproductive.

Fellowships and fellows themselves face certain challenges. Salaries for advanced trainees are frequently inadequate, considering the nature of the work and the life stage of the trainees. (Families are often being started). Postdocs and fellows can be exploited by faculty members and others in their departments. They may feel pressured into doing supportive work without adequate mentorship or growth. Finally, many postdocs can be relatively isolated in laboratories or divisions of departments, without a common voice, experience or infrastructure.

New Programs

To address such challenges, many research universities are developing or enhancing programs and policies specifically aimed at the fellowship level of education. They are taking the model from that of ad-hoc apprenticeships to one of carefully considered didactic and experiential learning, optimized for this stage of educational development.

Institutions are also creating structured, social, peer-oriented activities for postdocs that such advanced students often miss. The number of trainees in any one area may be small, but the number of trainees at similar levels in related or unrelated areas is often large. Bringing people together has enormous benefits for morale, networking and transdisciplinary collaboration.

An example of such developments can be found at Dartmouth College, which offers a broad array of resources, initiatives, events and services for fellows. A new School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, with its own budget, provides an administrative home for postdocs and graduate students across departments, and integrates with Dartmouth’s graduate professional schools. Some of its many benefits include:

  • It synthesizes goals and policies across programs and disciplines and reduces administrative red tape without interfering with the core instruction and mentorship that happens within academic departments.
  • It facilitates interdisciplinary study and helps to make sure elements of the scholar’s trajectory do not fall between departmental cracks.
  • It provides workshops and instruction in relevant areas, such as ethics, writing, online courses, correspondence, grant preparation, CV preparation, and academic and nonacademic job searches. It also offers courses in interviewing, communication and teaching skills.
  • It facilitates an independent development plan based upon an individual’s interests and skills, to help define and achieve long-term career goals. Similarly, it facilitates research-performance progress reports that faculty members fill out for trainees.
  • It connects fellows with cross-cutting academic initiatives addressing pressing societal and global problems.
  • It provides a central place where postdocs in various fields can congregate.

In addition, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning prepares fellows to incorporate contemporary, experiential educational methods and provides resources to share best practices in processes such as teaching-assistant orientation. It offers individual and group consultations in instructional design, science education outreach and other areas, and it sponsors a teaching series as well as career fairs and travel grants. Other workshops address collaborative learning techniques, teaching philosophy, syllabus design, digital learning, diversity in the classroom, learning styles and academic computing.

Postdocs themselves run the Dartmouth Postdoctoral Association, which organizes and provides talks, social events, research days, career development resources, networking and job information sessions. It also addresses specific issues facing postdocs, with links to the National Postdoctoral Association, which addresses postdoc concerns on the national level. Postdocs have access to Dartmouth athletic, health and wellness programs, as well as other campus facilities and services, and are being incorporated into new housing communities.

Another recent Dartmouth initiative to enhance the interdisciplinary intellectual community is the creation of the Society of Fellows. It provides three years of support for outstanding postdocs, who come together with senior faculty fellows and visiting fellows. The rising scholars pursue their own research while serving as lecturers or teachers and mentors in the departments and programs they join. They participate in society-sponsored symposia and events and receive pedagogical training, in addition to the resources offered to all postdoctoral fellows across the various schools. Dartmouth also offers Academic Diversity Fellowships for underrepresented minority postdocs or those studying areas underrepresented in academe.

These examples from Dartmouth illustrate the trend at leading universities and provide an evolving set of mutually enhancing programmatic innovations that specifically and effectively address the needs of today’s postdoctoral fellows. They also provide explicit mechanisms for beneficial integration with graduate and undergraduate programs and students. Carefully constructed integration need not preclude a strong focus on undergraduate education as well.

Other universities should develop programs along these lines. Some additional administrative infrastructure is needed to adequately support such developments, but need not be excessive. Core faculty leadership and staff are important for oversight, coordination, facilitation and advancement of cross-departmental and cross-school initiatives. More educational research is also needed to provide evidence-based guidelines and best practices for such program development. This will help to optimize impact and to demonstrate value.

Drawing upon educational experiences as a student, trainee, faculty member and educational administrator across a number of fields and levels, I have found that it is possible to create advanced programs that are transdisciplinary yet deep, organized yet creative, and rigorous yet caring. Our students and society deserve no less. With current economic pressures and attacks on facts, evidence and expertise, it is even more imperative to do so.

Moreover, as postdoctoral highest education starts to get the attention it deserves, it doesn’t need to detract attention or resources from other types of education, which are equally important. Educational options are not mutually exclusive and can build upon and complement each other. We must aim for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to all educational offerings, based on their needs, preferences, situation and dreams. That includes K-12, special, community, vocational, liberal arts, STEM and other forms of education.

But let us not forget the value of highest education for those who seek it and for our society. Everyone benefits from the specialists it produces across all domains of human inquiry and endeavor.

David Silbersweig is chairman of the department of psychiatry and co-director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry and an academic dean at Harvard Medical School.

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Students at Penn remove portrait of Shakespeare

Students at Penn set off debate by replacing image of the Bard in English department building with a photo of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet.

Historians Issue Statement on Civil Liberties

Hundreds of historians have issued a joint statement on the need to be vigilant about civil liberties.

"As scholars of United States history and related fields, we have experienced concern and alarm as we went from a divisive campaign season to the election of Donald Trump as our president-elect. On the eve of a new administration whose key players have traded in hateful rhetoric and emboldened the harassment of various targets, we urge Americans to be vigilant against a mass violation of civil rights and liberties that could result if such troubling developments continue unchecked," says the statement. "Looking back on World War II and the Cold War, we recognize how easily the rights of people have been suspended during times of great uncertainty. A key lesson of such ordeals has been to never again repeat these mistakes, and so we issue a call to recognize and act upon the critical links between historical knowledge, informed citizenship and the protection of civil and human rights."

The full statement may be found here.

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Exploring CiteScore, Elsevier's new journal impact metrics

Elsevier explains the thought process behind CiteScore, its new journal impact metrics. Critics worry about potential conflicts of interest.

Professor Leaves California Due to Threats

The professor of psychology who was secretly videotaped talking about Donald Trump has left the state of California following a series of physical threats, The Orange County Register reported. Hundreds of people demonstrated at Orange Coast College for and against Olga Perez Stable Cox, the professor, this week, as her faculty union said her classes will be covered by someone else through the end of the semester. “Someone emailed her a picture of her house, with her address,” Rob Schneiderman, president of the campus's faculty union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, told the Register. Another email read, “You want communism, go to Cuba … try to bring it to America and we’ll put a [expletive] bullet in your face,” the newspaper reported.

A videotape of Cox saying in her human sexuality class after the election that Trump’s victory was an “act of terrorism” was shared on the campus’s College Republicans’ Facebook page last week and promptly went viral. Cox did not respond to a request for comment, but Schneiderman has said she was answering a question from a student. The context of Cox’s comments is not clear from the video itself. Two students in Cox’s class told the Register this week that Cox also asked students who voted for Trump to identify themselves. “She tried to get everyone who voted for Donald Trump to stand up and show the rest of the class who to watch out for and protect yourself from,” said student Tanner Webb. Schneiderman disputed the account, saying that Cox told the class some people would be happy with the election results, and asked students to stand up if they wished, after one student did so without prompting.

Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California and an attorney who is representing the Orange Coast College Republicans, has previously said he wanted Cox to apologize but now says singling out Trump supporters is grounds for possible dismissal. “That’s a deal breaker for me,” he told the Register. The college is investigating the matter.

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A scholar examines some of the ethical dilemmas of academe (essay)

If we as faculty members can’t be honest among ourselves, Steven Conn asks, will we be surprised if our professional autonomy gets taken away by administrators or boards of trustees or state legislators?

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