Un-diversifying the Professoriate

The department clearly understood the importance of Bahng's path-breaking work; they welcomed the intellectual "diversity" she provided. Yet even with this recognition by specialists, tenure was denied by the higher-ups.
05/17/2016 06:55 pm ET Updated May 18, 2017
Studio shot of crumpled document
Studio shot of crumpled document

Over the years, college administrators have evolved a predictable rhetoric when it comes to diversifying the faculty. When you think of it, it seems non-controversial--who would be against diversity, after all? "Diversity" has been a buzzword for decades--it simply percolated into the academy from the corporate and investment world.

But significant problems occur when the world of the university and the world of the corporation share a common vocabulary--we assume they should have at base different goals. "Diversity" in corporations is supposed to enhance performance and efficiency, and ultimately to generate profit via various means. On the other hand "diversity" in the university, as affirmed the US Supreme Court with regard to college admissions, is meant to enhance the educational experience by bringing new kinds of knowledge, perspectives, and experiences into the classroom. We should therefore see the advancement of knowledge--not profit--as the underlying rationale for diversity in education. Similarly one would expect other corporate buzzwords like "innovation" and "disruption" to mean something different in the academy--something in line with advancing new ways of thinking and challenging received and entrenched knowledge.

Yet efforts to hire diverse faculty are often hamstrung by a basic conservatism in academic departments, which often hides under the mask of quality control. New kinds of scholarship are often dismissed as "trendy," or untested, again covering over a tendency in departments to simply reproduce themselves as the self-same. This strange brand of identity politics is well-established in academia.

But what about a case such as that of Professor Aimee Bahng, whose record of publication, conference activity, and teaching was deemed more than sufficient evidence for her to be tenured, according to her department at Dartmouth College? The English department there in fact voted unanimously to promote and tenure Bahng. What was lost in the translation of her "value" up the hierarchy, to the President and Provost?

At the very least, as Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth says, this denial of tenure raises serious issues of faculty governance:

The issue of faculty governance at Dartmouth is a heated one, and it extends to broader issues than [this] tenure case -- though that has been a trigger for many of the broader discussions we're having now -- and though it is widely perceived as unjust and shortsighted.

But issues of faculty governance have a specific importance when it comes to issues of hiring and retaining a diverse faculty.

Inside Higher Education's article on the Bahng case notes:

Orleck and others on campus say Bahng's case is similar to several others in recent years, in which department votes for tenure and unanimous recommendations for tenure by outside reviewers are overruled by deans or the Committee Advisory to the President. A number allegedly have been faculty members of color who were respected by their colleagues and students. One such case is that of Derrick White, now a visiting associate professor of history. White did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his name and failed tenure bid last year -- despite the unanimous vote of his departmental peers and outside reviewers -- have been mentioned in many of the conversations about Bahng.

In October 2014, Provost Carolyn Dever issued a powerful statement for diversity. In it she declared unambiguously:

As Provost, I aspire to transform Dartmouth into the destination of choice for the world's best underrepresented faculty in all our disciplines, by recruiting them to join a vibrant, open, welcoming, spirited, well-resourced, student-centered scholarly community representing the highest standards and the best academic values.

I want to underscore the fact that under the leadership of many of us, our colleagues have been working hard to develop diversity initiatives for many years.

The thing that really bothers me about this slide is the fact that we as a faculty are flat-lined. We haven't improved our representation of minority faculty and international faculty in any significant or meaningful way from the early part of the century.

If we accept these and other statements coming from the administration as sincere, we can only infer that somehow the value and merit that was evident to specialists in Bahng's field was lost on the administration. This fact deserves careful scrutiny, because it points to issues that go far beyond Dartmouth.

While universities point to the difficulty of hiring diverse faculty when they are criticized by those arguing for more minorities and people of color on the faculty, what happens when such faculty are hired after this difficult process, and then un-hired--that is, denied tenure? Certainly many other scholars are denied tenure in all sorts of fields, but given the difficulty of hiring diverse faculty, and the importance administrators like Dever place on increasing diversity, it is more than strange that she and her other top-level administrators would impose their values as administrators over those of a group of senior, tenured faculty in the department of English who are authorities in the field in question, and whose opinion was at least in part determined by the customary external letters of evaluation.

The department clearly understood the importance of Bahng's path-breaking work; they welcomed the intellectual "diversity" she provided. Yet even with this recognition by specialists, tenure was denied by the higher-ups. What then is the difference between what the administration means by "diversity" and what the department and others mean by it? How might this divergence signal exactly the separation of the corporate world and the university mentioned above?

This disturbing trend of denying tenure to women and minorities at disproportionate rates vis-à-vis white males is revealed in Jane Junn's study at the University of Southern California. Junn found that of 106 tenure cases, heard between 1998 and 2012 at USC, 92 percent of white males were tenured, whereas only 55 percent of women and minority scholars were.

We should key in on one word from Dever's statement: "under-represented." For that group does not include Asian Americans. That designation is in fact controversial. The assumption is that Asian Americans have made it into the mainstream. The problem with this assumption is that the term "Asian American" lumps together an immensely heterogeneous set of populations from East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines, with very different histories and socioeconomic situations. But instead of supporting the work of scholars like Bahng, work that helps illuminate these key issues, universities are either not hiring or not tenuring far too many skilled and talented scholars.

At Dartmouth and its peer institutions, the percentage of Asian American faculty -- especially tenured faculty -- is radically out of step with national trends. At Dartmouth, 85 percent of tenured faculty are white, while less than five percent are Asian American: by far the worst compared to peer institutions where this data is available. Meanwhile, Asian Americans make up nearly 20 percent of Dartmouth's 2015 entering class, and are the racial group most likely to pay full tuition.

Another statistic: of the nearly two thousand classes taught at Yale, only two deal with Asian American studies.

Asian Americans and others are both raising serious questions regarding the un-hiring of diverse faculty and also pressing for significant change on campus, and they are doing it in ways that align with and support the demands from other groups on campus. This has been the way ethnic studies has been and continues to be advanced as a multi-racial, multi-coalitional struggle.

It is time for places like Dartmouth to give serious thought as to their conscious and unconscious biases. For no matter what kinds of advances they may make in hiring a diverse faculty, little good comes from that if they allow themselves to un-hire those same faculty against the recommendations of their tenured faculty. Besides the damage this does to individual careers, such un-hirings have the effect of replicating structures of power and authority, as few minorities make it into leadership positions that might lead to real change. Furthermore, in keeps in place what is essentially a denial of academic freedom, as minority scholars feel they must stick close to a conservative, validated mode of research and teaching. If administrators at Dartmouth and other universities and colleges continue to override their own faculty experts, all their attestations of commitment to diversity ring hollow.