Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Ask the Blogosphere: Stuck in a Monoculture with You

I need the internet’s help to figure out this one.

I received a very anxious question last week that required some back-and-forth for me to understand, and for which I still don’t have an answer. The correspondent apparently works at a college that is self-consciously dominated by a particular identity (race/ethnicity/gender) group (he didn’t say which one, but not his own), to the point that there’s a pretty obvious glass ceiling. Some fairly dreadful performers from within the group are essentially bulletproof. Very highly placed administrators at this college, who are (of course) in the preferred group, make no bones about promoting their own. (This includes the President.) Illegal Interview questions are standard, and favoritism in hiring and promotions is so rampant as to be simply second nature. His complaints of unfairness have fallen on deaf ears; among other reasons, the HR office is captive to the ingroup. What to do?

It’s a complicated problem.

When I suggested leaving, he responded that he’s comfortably tenured there, and has personal reasons to want to stay in the area.

I admit I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the idea of identity-based colleges, be they racial, religious, or gendered; pathogens thrive in monocultures, and building in a blind spot from the beginning strikes me as a high-risk enterprise. I don’t think anybody could argue that higher ed in America didn’t benefit substantially from coeduation or integration. That said, these colleges exist, and they raise the issue of treatment of employees who don’t fit the defined (preferred?) group.

My correspondent is flirting with the idea of some sort of whistle-blowing – he has mentioned an anonymous letter to the state’s Governor, which strikes me as a nuclear option. Other than leaving, sucking it up, or provoking a political storm, is there a better option? I’m stumped, so I’m counting on the collective wisdom of the blogosphere to come up with something better.

How common is this problem? Why should an institution with such practices be tax exempt?
I don't know, and that's a good question.
I think this has very little to do with how a university indentifies. There are several major southern universities, one of which I've worked out, that still have student bodies that are >95% white (the faculties are even more homongenous, natch).
But if a university does identify itself as monocultural, I think that would increase the likelihood of the problem. After all, they're just "following their mission," whatever it may be, and may therefore be more likely to feel insulated from the need to promote different kinds of folks.

I would guess that a college that was monocultural by default rather than design would not have as defined a sense of mission towards their in-group and would therefore be more likely to respond to accusations of unfair practices. They'd have one less rhetorical prop for their defense, at the very least.
It seems to me that since he has tenure, he can ask some questions.

He can also find some like minded colleagues, especially junior colleagues (mentoring them if necessary), and work together.

He needs to get himself elected to the committees where he thinks he can help make a difference (hiring committees, for example).

The changes will be small, but they might actually happen.

A nuclear option type approach often results in more backlash than real change, or so it seems to me. And from what you've said, it sounds to me like he doesn't want to have the personal discomfort of starting a major war on campus. So small changes where he thinks they might be most important or effective will at least be something.
Sick cultures don't change from the inside, in my experience. I think his choices are to either suck it up (and maybe help a few friends out with his own status) or deploy the nuclear option.
I have to agree - suck it up or go for the nuclear option. However, I don't think the governor's office is the way to go. Go for the muck-raking journalist, the appropriate FEDERAL agency, the IRS even but not an elected official who may be counting on the votes from this same in-group in the next election.

I work at a private university but now feel fortunate that our problem is credential creep. Oh yeah, and a new president who thinks that the only way to address gender issues is to provide a lactation room. ; )
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