Black History Month and Beyond

I served for a number of years as an associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and one of the things we struggled with was the culture of demographic sameness that academia often creates. Faculty tend to have contacts in their circles for long periods of time, which can be a good thing in terms of stability, of course, but if you’re trying to innovate and diversify, this virtue of stability can be a major impediment, leading to stagnation. It can also result in an institution’s loosing touch with its students and the community within which it exists: undergraduate students cycle through fairly quickly, while faculty stay for long periods of time, so as the country changes and the students change, the institution can get stuck in the past.

One of the things we tried was to mandate that all new job applicants provide a statement on diversity and inclusion as part of their job application materials. This was as much about encouraging a new, more “in-touch” cohort of incoming faculty as it was about getting those faculty already in place to consider their own assumptions and behavior more carefully.

Our idea was to give departments a lot of leeway in exactly what they ask for and how they evaluate what they get. They could, for instance, focus on inclusion in the classroom or lab, or on research, or just ask about a candidate’s plans for the future. The main thing is that they should discuss this among themselves and come to a shared understanding of (a) their own internal values, which includes as a discipline (e.g., anthropology is going to be very different from dance), and (b) how they will evaluate the statements they receive (not simply, “I think this looks good,” or “the person says nothing about hierarchy so it’s not a good statement”). These sorts of statements have become common at a number of institutions, not just in higher ed: just do an internet search for “how to write a diversity statement,” and you’ll find many examples.

But there has been occasional pushback. A former Harvard dean tweeted this some time ago, which people are still talking about:

As a dean of a major academic institution, I could not have said this. But I will now. Requiring such statements in applications for appointments and promotions is an affront to academic freedom, and diminishes the true value of diversity, equity of inclusion by trivializing it.

Jeffrey Flier (@jflier)

I am not positive what Flier means by trivializing in this case. Perhaps he has in mind a kind of lip service. If so, then I can’t help but agree with that part of his criticism, by which I mean if an institution doesn’t really mean it and is only creating such a policy out of a perceived need to appear to be doing something, then that is indeed trivial. That is not why we instituted our policy, and I hope not why others have done so either. But ensuring the seriousness and effectiveness of whatever one does also has to be part of the process, or else you’re liable to get exactly the opposite of the result you hoped for, as people see you didn’t really mean it and check out one by one.

The “affront to academic freedom” part is more complicated and has to do with how one defines the institutional mission. It strikes me that the main question is whether fostering inclusivity via diversity of various kinds is understood as core to the mission or not. I could imagine a Quaker or other religious institution, or one founded as part of a broad social infrastructure for addressing social inequality, defining itself and its mission with a central social justice aspect. In such a case, it would be natural to ask candidates to tell you about their teaching, their research, and also how they foster appreciation for others’ perspectives and backgrounds, which could be thought of as a community imperative, a national (democratic) one, or one that encourages healthy social mobility for everyone. Some might also see this as a moral question that has to do with redressing past wrongs. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and can certainly co-exist and reinforce one another.

But something else is assumed when one pulls out the “academic freedom” card. In such cases, diversity, equity, and inclusion are clearly imagined as outside of the core mission of the institution. They might be thought of as peripheral to it, maybe even a positive byproduct, a potential social good that comes from people learning together. There’s a good deal of research on the benefits of fostering diversity in higher ed (as well as in business and the military for that matter), but that is about how one best educates, not the desired outcomes. An analogy with the military might help, where the core mission (defense), questions of effectiveness, and potential byproducts have slightly sharper outlines: it would be unusual to expect those who join the army to state their commitments to diversity as a condition of service, but in achieving their mission, they need to be able to form cohesive internal units, work together, and so on, which is about effectiveness. Beyond this, there’s good research to indicate that such service has had a positive effect on helping nations to create a cohesive social fabric, as people learn about other areas of the country, other people’s experiences and backgrounds, ways of expressing themselves (a national language), and so on, which is about a positive byproduct.

Separating the commitment to diversity and respect for the experiences and perspectives of others from the mission of the institution is the only way I can see getting to this “academic freedom” argument, which allows someone to think that when an institution expects such a commitment from its employees, it is somehow infringing on such freedom. But what a silly distinction to make if you are thinking of the health of the institution! Do you really want to hire people who are not committed to such values? Or, what might be worse, to hire people who refuse to tell you that they are committed to such values? Why in the world would you? Personnel issues are already among the most difficult an administrator faces. Why would you hire jerks (this is a technical term among administrators) to make your work even harder?

Whether or not a commitment to diversity is part of the core mission is a decision the institution has to make. At some places, like Harvard, which was not constructed with such ideas in mind (probably the opposite, in fact), the possibility of seeing it like Flier does seems more likely to me. It’s a school that arose from elite culture for the training of elites. Obviously, times have changed, and many people from outside such circles have both studied and taught at Harvard in recent decades. But institutions have weight, and institutions of higher ed are famously unchanging, as I noted above. There are other kinds of institutions, some of which arose in the U.S. with a core mission at least partly, and sometimes more than partly, rooted in the desire to effect democratic principles, fair treatment, and social mobility.

I suspect that the sorts of hiring and training regimes that encourage such values to thrive and be reflected in people’s behavior in all their interactions, not just with those above them in the hierarchy and not just on certain special days of the year (e.g., Black History Month, which starts in the U.S. tomorrow) will continue to be important for students as they choose the schools they want to attend, and for faculty as they choose what sorts of institutions they want to be part of and what sorts of values they want to live by.