Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Diversity" in Academia: How the Ivory Tower Stays White

Academia wants diversity without diverse people. 

One of the peculiarities of academia is that it preaches diversity while at the same time locking its doors to people of color. This problem has become more apparent in recent years, with the academic job market crashing just as new cohorts of non-white PhD Candidates are beginning to seek tenure-track positions. This has not been helped by the fact that universities have attempted to address the issue of job scarcity with solutions that perpetuate academia's lack of diversity. Indeed, in attempting to address the lack of available tenure-track positions, universities have barred people of color from the Ivory Tower and secured its status as a white institution.

One example might be the growth of "diversity" programs adopted by several PhD-granting institutionsI put diversity in quotes because they are not speaking about race or gender diversity, but career diversity. These programs attempt to re-purpose PhD programs, making them less about preparing students for academia and more about funneling them towards jobs outside of the academy.

There are many ironies to this. The first is that it seems unwise to task programs originally designed to prepare people for academia with the contradictory goal of pushing them into the "real world," if only because none of the people running such programs have adequate experience outside of the academy.

The second—and more troubling—irony lies within the naming scheme, which commodifies the term "diversity." This has been a growing trend of late, with "diversity" statements becoming more common on a variety of applications as universities seek to become more "inclusive." These diversity statements are problematic for three reasons: 1) they force people of color to perform their otherness for a chance at receiving more equitable treatment, 2) they typically sidestep the issue of race and gender in general by asking applicants how they "understand" issues of diversity, rather than how they themselves experience them, and 3) they allow institutions to claim that they are becoming more progressive when, in reality, no real change is occurring.

Thus, the term "career diversity" is upsetting because it seeks to commodify the experiences of people of color—to commodify the term "diversity"—in order to sell a program that, in effect, bars people of color from academia.

How does it accomplish that? Simply put, these career diversity programs target graduate programs ranked outside of the top-10 (the top-10 usually consisting of Ivy League or Ivy League equivalent institutions). And these are programs which, like my own, often contain a higher percentage of people of color.

This gets us to the heart of the matter: career diversity programs are designed to re-direct people, often of color and from institutions outside of the top-10, to jobs outside of the academy. Meanwhile, white men and women from the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, and Princetons of the world continue to receive the vast majority of tenure-track positions.

This gets back to my discussion on the commodification of diversity. My suspicion is that they are using the term "diversity" to fool marginalized graduate students into associating such programs with "diversity" as it is traditionally defined: diversity of race, gender, or sexuality. This seems to be the case, given that these programs are implemented in lower-ranked schools with graduate cohorts containing larger percentages of men and women of color (this is related to another related problem with academia—the assumption that higher-ranked schools automatically produce better scholars. The truth is far more complicated of course—people in such programs tend to have a number of systemic advantages allowing them to attend in the first place, usually related to having money or having parents who are already part of academia). 

This misleading naming scheme has the subtle effect of pointing white graduate students towards the academy while simultaneously pushing graduate students of color out the door. Ironically then, if graduate students of color choose to take advantage of these "diversity programs," they will ensure that academia becomes far less diverse.

Articles on this topic typically side-step the issue of diversity in academia by pointing to how white women now make up a far larger proportion of tenured professors than they did previously, or by using statements like "underrepresented minorities have achieved three times the rate of growth" in the academy as compared to white faculty members in recent years.

Including white women in the Ivory Tower is a start (and is indeed better than faculties consisting of predominantly white men), but like second-wave feminism and its tendency to exclude women of color, it is only a start. And to say that people of color have achieved "three times the rate of growth" is not saying much, especially if our rate of growth was tiny to begin with. And at any rate, the data demonstrates that regardless of any increase in "rate of growth," the vast majority of faculty members continue to be white and male, with white women edging them out only in the field of education. 

I have no idea if there is a solution to this problem. I only wish to demonstrate that it is still a problem, and to show that universities might be unknowingly contributing to the problem by the very nature of their "diversity" programs.

The problem is complicated by the fact that the Ivory Tower desires extremely well-qualified people. It just so happens that these well-qualified people typically come from a privileged pool of applicants who have received their PhD from an Ivy League school or an Ivy League equivalent. And for reasons systemic and otherwise, these people tend to be white and from wealthier demographics.

A problem that is as self-perpetuating as this one, and one that must be tackled by the very people who benefit from the problem, cannot be solved by a single article. But perhaps we can take a decent first step towards progress by ensuring that we do not discourage graduate students of color from pursuing a job in academia so early in their careers.

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