Diversity: Meeting Norms - Or Eliminating Barriers?

What is diversity?

People talk about it all the time. We say we want to increase diversity. We want to have more diversity on our faculty or in our workforce. We want to manage diversity for success. We have diversity programs and diversity training and diversity workshops. So we must know what diversity is, right?

Isn't diversity what those Other people have?

You know, sort of like a disease. Everybody but white males has Diversity, and if we get more of those Others, we can catch some Diversity. (Though we may have to Lower Our Standards to get the Diversity.)

I have never been a proponent of the view of diversity that has it residing in or on the individual bodies of white women or women or men of color. You don't possess diversity by virtue of being disabled, or by being gay, or by being from a lower socioeconomic class. I have actually heard people, educated people in universities, talk about the need to "get more diverse individuals in here", as if one black body somehow carried around a certain amount of diversity that was larger than any amount of diversity a white body could carry. Well, of course, a white body doesn't carry any diversity, does it?

Diversity, as a descriptor, is a characteristic of a group, not of an individual. Individuals are not diverse; groups may be more or less diverse, more or less homogeneous, depending upon their makeup.

So what are diversity initiatives in higher education about? Or, what should they be about? Some people think it's just about race, and it bothers them. Thomas Benton recently complained about this in the Chronicle:

...what I see is that race has become a proxy for all the forms of diversity that elite institutions can't, or don't want to, include.

I think most Americans of all races would agree that individuals of talent, who work hard but lack inherited privileges deserve some help, even if they do not belong to preferred minority groups. Any effort to truly diversify an educational setting has to take many variables into account, particularly class, or it will, in the end, become a magnifier of social inequality and a source of inter-group antagonism.

But perhaps that is the real purpose of higher education as it is currently organized, or at least that is how it looks to growing numbers of excluded people. And that's what people are voting against in states such as California and Michigan. It's about class.

What's bothering Benton is this: he's a white male who came from a lower socioeconomic group; to have achieved his present position as a professor is truly an outstanding accomplishment. He doesn't like being included under the banner of "white male privilege" because he knows he had to overcome the obstacles and bias of class to attain his success. Why are you talking about race, he asks, when what you should be talking about is class? Those African Americans who are having problems achieving are hampered more by their class than by their race.

Well, what's wrong with this argument? Doesn't it make sense? Why shouldn't we be more concerned with helping poor whites measure up than we are with how economically privileged blacks are doing?

Besides constructing diversity as a zero-sum game, there's a fundamental error in this conception of what diversity is all about. Rather than take it on myself, I'm going to quote David S. Owen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of Diversity Programs for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Louisville. Professor Owen's remarks originally appeared in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he has given me permission to repeat them here. Owen is responding to Benton's article, and argues that while class is definitely a part of diversity, Benton misunderstands what diversity initiatives are all about.

While the author recognizes that social locations -- defined by race, class, and language, among others -- are "serious barriers" to access and success in higher education, he fundamentally conceives of diversity as a recognition that some individuals are different from the norm (white, male, middle-class, Christian, etc.). The presumption here is that those who have the normed identities are not affected by social structural barriers. This makes such identities relatively invisible, so that diversity is about people who are located outside of the norm, denying that those with normed identities are advantaged by them.

This problematic framing of the matter leads to a further misunderstanding concerning what it is that diversity programs and initiatives seek to achieve. The author argues that the list of barriers ought to be expanded beyond race, and that we should "help" those who face the barriers so that they can succeed in college.

But diversity is not about helping those who face barriers because they do not fit the norm; it is fundamentally about restructuring the social system so that the barriers are eliminated. ... Indeed, this confusion about the meaning of diversity has led many institutions to use the language of inclusion and equity, not that of diversity, to name their efforts.

Once one understands diversity not as a celebration of difference, but as a demand for substantive inclusion and equity, then the apparent conflict between race and class evaporates. For when our efforts are focused on identifying and dismantling the structural barriers to inclusion and equity, all such structures deserve our attention. To be sure, some are more deeply embedded in our social history, perhaps because they were once established and supported in the law or explicit policy. But certainly race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religious practice are central social identities that systemically advantage or disadvantage individuals, and each deserves the attention of our diversity efforts.

Now there's a definition of diversity initiative I can get behind. This is a much more radical understanding of what diversity is about. I think the opponents of diversity, like Roger Clegg and his Orwellian Center for Equal Opportunity understand this, and this is why they have put up such an organized, nationwide fight against diversity initiatives and programs. They know that it isn't just about bringing in a few token Others and dressing them up like white males. They know it's about fundamentally changing the rules of the game.

In another post, I'll talk about the business case for diversity.

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Nice post, Zuska! What you laid out above hits on two things that about diversity that drive me insane. First, the manner in which many predominantly white institutions of higher education conceptualize diversity not only grants white privilege to its white members, but creates an environment that serves and protects the dominant position that whiteness has. In such a systems, diversity initiatives become reactive strategies. What we need are PROactive strategies which dismantle the system of privilege and dominance that is embedded in the American culture. Owen is right on par- we need need a restructuring of the social system.

The other point about diversity that drives me insane is how problematic the term diversity is. In my opinion, diversity has become the catch-all phrase that is the current buzzword of higher education. The term diversity has the potential to encompass so much meaning and have great depth, but is used (not always, but a lot) by folks who have a very shallow understanding of how different aspects of identity relate and interact with American culture, history, and politics. I am just plain fed up with folks that claim to "get it" and really have no clue the depth and meaning the term diversity has.

Zuska (and others), if you haven't already read it, I would reccomend a very interested read: Omi and Winant's 1994 book: Racial Formation in the United States. It's a seminal work on how race is given meaning in the US (and defined as a cutural phenomenon whose definition is arbitrary and changes meaning over time) through the intersection of politics and history. It's a great read (though a bit dense) for anyone interested in racial theory.

By transgressinge… (not verified) on 08 Feb 2007 #permalink

'Diversity' -- and I've been watching it in action for a good 25 years -- is about finding ways to get around hiring and promoting people based on merit. For example, my current university, under pressure to increase 'diversity' -- and that meant very precisely women and members of certain, but not all, racial and ethnic minorities - instituted a program whereby one third of the faculty were identified and hired, without any sort of open search - on the basis of race or gender. My own department was encouraged to pursue such hires. In fact, we were sent a large book of recent Ph.D. graduates who were minority, and told to pick ourselves some people from the list.

You can dress it up in all the fancy language you like, Zuska. The pig is still a pig, and it's called discrimination.

Gerard, if I had a dollar for everytime I've heard more or less exactly what you've just said come out of someone's mouth, Mr. Zuska and I could retire to a Caribbean island. If even one-tenth of the people who tell sob stories like yours were speaking the truth, the universities would be teeming with women engineers and African American scientists. But they aren't, are they? So just exactly where are all these unqualified Others that have been rammed down everybody's throat?

I know where they aren't. They aren't at the UNL chemistry department. Y'all can congratulate yourselves for withstanding whatever horrible pressure you felt to diversify because UNL chemistry is still 96% male (27/28 faculty, as counted on the department web page http://www.chem.unl.edu/faculty/ ). Not only that, but 75% white male, by the looks of it! Good work! You have zero female assistant professors, in contrast to 2002's national average of 21.5%; let's not even talk about proportional representation with the rate of female PhD production from 1993-2002, which was 31.3%. (See http://www.now.org/issues/diverse/diversity_report.pdf for statistics.) You appear to have no African-Americans or Hispanic professors, though I can't be absolutely certain. I think your department has demonstrated a remarkable ability to defend itself against the horrors of diversity.

I know, I know. Even one woman in a room is an awful lot, isn't it? Feels like they're swarming around you. Taking over. Threatening...western civilization as we know it!

I've been watching 'promoting and hiring people based on merit' in action myself for the past 25 years. And what that usually means is 'hiring someone who looks a lot like me' where 'me' is generally white and male. Or Asian, because as we all know they are the model minority and much less distressing to be around than those Other types. I doubt if you'd recognize a qualifed female or minority candidate unless they walked into your office holding the Nobel Prize - and even then you'd probably suspect favoritism.

If I were an outstanding young female or minority chemist, I know where I wouldn't want to go to start my career. Maybe there's more than one reason why UNL chemistry is so white and male.

Gerard, if I had a dollar for everytime I've heard more or less exactly what you've just said come out of someone's mouth, Mr. Zuska and I could retire to a Caribbean island. If even one-tenth of the people who tell sob stories like yours were speaking the truth, the universities would be teeming with women engineers and African American scientists. But they aren't, are they? So just exactly where are all these unqualified Others that have been rammed down everybody's throat?
Sure, if you don't like what's said, call the speaker a liar.
Not only do we (and the Department of Justice) have documents from my University verifying what I just posted, but we know the names of the people hired under the no-search opportunity hire program, and what Department they're in.
I happen to be married to the only woman in my Department, so I am somewhat familiar with the way things are there. As I noted, we haven't done reverse discrimination in my Department, and we have suffered as a result. When we have made offers to qualified underrepresented candidates, we've gotten outbid, usually by better schools. That's what happens when you have a limited pool and other people are using preferences, while you aren't. Sure, we have a few sexist pigs in our Department too, but they're not in the majority.

I doubt if you'd recognize a qualifed female or minority candidate unless they walked into your office holding the Nobel Prize - and even then you'd probably suspect favoritism.
Ad hominems are a sure sign of a weak case.

Sounds like a ham-fisted implementation of a program to increase diversity over there at your school. Maybe the candidates from the underrepresented groups can smell the hostility coming from the faculty and choose to gravitate towards environments more likely to be supportive.

Ignoring the task of achieving diversity, I have a definition of what a diverse school/department looks like:

The primary factors for selecting new faculty are based on academic merits and the primary factors for whether a person accepts a job are based on academic issues.

What would this mean? It means when a faculy is interviewing candidates, they aren't handicapping anyone based on nonacademic factors. When someone decides whether to take a job they see enough similar people and a support network and no internal discrimination that these factors don't play a role in accepting the job. Just like the quote in the original post, it's possible to have a diverse department with all white males, but that's probably hard.

Taking Gerard's comments at face value, perhaps they've met the first goal, but with a few sexist pigs and less cultural or other connections with non-white males, good "Other" applicants can't look at UNL chem on just the academic merits and can find a better place to go. That means they've failed on diversity.

How to achieve diversity is a bit harder. I'm a bit interested in the Johns Hopkins approach http://www.jhuaa.org/VISION/2006Cover.pdf
Where they see the problem less in terms of affirmative action programs and more in terms of not having the benefits and support structure to attract a diverse population and also not having enough leaders who support diversity. While setting percent goals, they plan to achieve their goals through asking the default question of "why wasn't a woman chosen" for every leadership position. The focus on leadership position goes from the Deans to janitorial staff leaders. Having to justify the status quo will make people look wider and harder and their choices without forcing anything.

Gerard: since I'm not a chemist, since I've never been employed by the chemistry department at Kansas State University, and since I do not at this time work for Kansas State University, it's hardly appropriate to describe them as "my department" and I surely cannot be expected to speak for them in any authoritative manner. I do know that they are not, at this time, one of the partner departments in K-State's ADVANCE program, so they are unfortunately not benefitting from participation as a full partner department. However, they are certainly able to participate in ADVANCE projects and programs, and indeed at least one faculty member has joined as a participating faculty (see http://www.k-state.edu/advance/ParticipatingFaculty/participating%20fac… ). Chemistry is also a participating department with the K-State Women in Engineering and Science Program. I believe they also have faculty who participate in summer workshops for middle and high school girls, designed to encourage the next generation of scientists and engineers. It's been years since I was at K-State, so things may have changed, but when I was there I know that the idea of "grow your own" future faculty and taking the view of the long haul was considered important as one piece of the diversity puzzle. That is, you can't just think about "where am I going to get me some non-white males?" You have to also think about "what are we doing to make sure that our department is contributing to diversify the pool of available candidates?" So I'm guessing that chemistry at K-State is at least taking steps to address diversity issues in their department. But if you really wanted to know I suppose you'd have to ask someone who works there. Or give the folks at the ADVANCE office a call and ask them what kinds of successful strategies they've had in working with the chemistry department. Perhaps you'll get some tips for your own department.