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Doing Faculty Diversity Differently

For faculty of color to accept a job at an isolated college often means a sort of social suicide, writes Ulises Ali Mejias, who offers a possible solution.

October 20, 2020
 
 
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I recently sat down to participate in a meeting about diversity at the small and remote state college where I teach. Like all other administrative gatherings at my institution these days, the meeting was held via videoconference. The agenda would probably sound familiar to many: yes, we have made great strides in attracting students from culturally diverse backgrounds. (When I started teaching at the college more than a decade ago, this population represented about 15 percent of the student body; today, it is close to 30 percent.) But, alas, as is the case nationally, this success is not mirrored in terms of hiring and retaining a faculty as diverse as the student population.

I won’t make the case here for why it is important to balance a diverse curriculum with a diverse faculty. Rather, I want to suggest how we can do some things differently. But first, I want to share some brief anecdotal reflections.

Having served on plenty of search committees, including many which considered faculty of color as final candidates, I can tell you that the problem is not the interview process. Young, smart, newly minted faculty members of color arrive at our remote college and impress everyone with their research agendas and teaching skills. Sure, they might not be dazzled by the salary, but they get good vibes from those of us in the department (who happen to be on our best behavior). For example, we tell them that, if hired, they would have a direct input in redesigning and diversifying our curriculum. More important, they like the possibility of teaching a diverse student body from a similar class background as theirs, as opposed to the prospect of teaching mostly privileged students at a predominantly white college.

Then we make an offer, and at that point I see the candidates do the math in their heads: How far away is home? How close is the nearest airport? How many times during the semester would they be able to get away to visit their families? Some of them actually discuss this with me, perhaps sensing that as a faculty member of color I’ve gone through the same calculations.

But this process is an indication of something very important. While a sense of community is important to everybody, it is crucial to many people of color, who depend on their communities for support, safety and belonging. Without such support structures, or even much in the way of a diverse town culture, they fear feeling isolated.

Still, some faculty of color do accept the job offer, even if the math is not in their favor. But unfortunately, what they often realize upon arriving is that these jobs come with a very real cost that often remains invisible to administrators and colleagues. To ask folks to abandon their deep communal connections and move to places where there is little to make up for the loss turns out to be asking a lot. Many of them are gone within a year -- sometimes, after one semester. Those who stay manage to survive perhaps by relocating to other communities that are a bit more diverse, even if it means exhausting commutes (as in my case).

This story has many variables, and I don’t mean to suggest that the reasons that people stay or leave are always the same. But the tragedy in all of this is that, for faculty of color, to accept a job at an isolated college often means a sort of social suicide.

Which brings me to my proposal: colleges should consider diversifying their faculty by hiring at least some faculty members of color to teach virtually, without requiring them to be physically on campus for most of the year. That would be a great way to diversify faculty, especially for small “middle-of-nowhere” institutions which have always had problems with attracting and retaining faculty of color. As such, colleges could make it possible for those professors to remain connected to their home networks, while also building and strengthening new networks at their institutions.

Paradoxically, this proposal only makes sense in the wake of COVID-19, which has opened up the possibility for colleges, along with everyone else, to realize that work and workplace are no longer as dependent on each other as we once imagined. Last semester proved to be a large experiment in that regard. The results may not have been as positive as one would have liked, but it proved that it can be done, and the experiment continues this term.

Yes, I realize that for many instructors and essential workers, showing up at the workplace continues to be a demand. And I also acknowledge that we must continue to question and challenge the move to online and remote teaching, especially given the inequalities in terms of access that it reinforces. At the same time, whether we like it or not, online and remote teaching have become much more accepted.

A year ago, colleagues and administrators would have quickly dismissed the idea of having faculty members who are not on the campus. Some would have said, “Fine, online teaching can be effective, if done well. But what about the things that happen beyond the classroom? What about the faculty’s participation in department meetings, or committees, or Faculty Assembly? Or what about the opportunities for social interaction for students outside the classroom, including advising?”

Guess what? Each one of those activities is now happening via videoconferencing or other synchronous or asynchronous media. Things might go back to “normal” next year, but at least the idea has been planted that it’s OK for faculty members to join these events through a mediated presence.

Furthermore, faculty members of color who teach remotely need not be completely absent from the physical campus. If safety allows, they could spend a couple of weeks in the classroom at the start of the semester or during the summer, interacting with students and establishing strong relationships that could continue online for the rest of the term. This way, they could remain embedded in their communities while teaching at colleges hundreds of miles away, developing strong links with those communities as well.

The world is changing -- for the worse in many cases. We must continue to try to make it safe and easy for everyone to work, get access to health care and obtain an education. But for that, we also need to question some old assumptions in order to make changes that are positive for our campus communities. As institutions become more comfortable with pedagogical models that allow instructors to teach remotely, we should revisit expectations about the importance of being on campus, especially when it comes to faculty members of color. If the choice is between campus presence and low diversity, or virtual presence and higher diversity, the choice should be clear.

Bio

Ulises Ali Mejias is professor of communication studies and director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York, Oswego. His most recent book, co-authored with Nick Couldry, is The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism (Stanford University Press).

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