Thursday, January 25, 2007
Affirmative Action and Ambivalence
One of the bargains I made with myself when I started blogging was that in exchange for the hassle of pseudonymity and its attendant elisions, I would allow myself to be intellectually honest. Sometimes that takes the form of asking open-ended questions of the blogosphere, because I haven't figured something out. Sometimes it involves rude truths, as in my periodic rants against the American health care system or President Bush. And sometimes it involves admitting ambivalence on a hot-button issue. I've written before of my real ambivalence on illegal immigration. This one is about affirmative action.
Honestly, one of the luxuries of working at an open-admissions college is that you're spared the tedious, tiresome, tendentious posturing over affirmative action in admissions. We don't need to set aside seats for any given group – we take everybody! Multiply-disadvantaged exemplar of the subaltern? Welcome! Pasty McWhiteboy? Welcome! Come one, come all. If we need to add seats, we just add them. The debate over affirmative action in admissions is simply moot, since the basic premise of the debate – that there is a limited and finite number of seats far below total demand – doesn't hold.
From this angle, in fact, the animating principle of affirmative action in admissions strikes me as staggeringly elitist. It's only relevant at the fairly small number of colleges and universities that actually turn applicants away. The more exclusive the institution, the more relevant affirmative action becomes; at the vast majority of colleges in America – that is, community colleges and lower-tier four-year colleges – it's simply beside the point. Although the MLA and the Chronicle and the judicial branch and Fox News love to jaw on about affirmative action, it's really a live question only in a fairly small number of places. For the rest of us, the very terms of debate are false. When the press and the professional associations cast this as the central issue facing higher education, they're implying that most of American higher education doesn't matter. To which I say, fuck you. We matter a great deal.
Sadly, we can't be nearly as open in our hiring as we are in our admissions. In hiring, the assumption of scarcity actually holds. In the evergreen disciplines, we get far more applicants than we can possibly hire, even after the initial bozo filter screening. Hiring usually comes down to choosing from among several highly-qualified people; put differently, it involves turning down several highly-qualified people at every round. This is where questions of diversity, affirmative action, inbreeding, the proper administration role in hiring, and so on, become relevant. Hell, they're unavoidable.
And here's where I get ambivalent. I'm absolutely convinced that departmental inbreeding is a major issue, made so very much worse by the flies-in-amber rate of turnover of tenured faculty without a mandatory retirement age. Left to their own devices, I've seen departments try to engage in a sick sort of asexual reproduction, in which they try to hire slightly dimmer versions of themselves, insisting that nobody trained in the last, say, twenty years is any good. I've brought down the heavy hand of administration in a few searches when the inbreeding was particularly obvious and absurd, and I make no apology for that. I argued for diversity, which, to my mind, meant bringing in people who bring something new to the table. Without new perspectives, groupthink elevates to gospel, and improvement becomes impossible.
To the extent that the move to diversify dovetails with the goals of affirmative action, great. And there are certainly times when it does. But in the political battles, 'diversity' has come to be understood as a code word for 'affirmative action,' which it shouldn't be. In fact, there are times when the two conflict.
Age is the most obvious example. The federal laws on age discrimination assume that age discrimination takes place only against people over 40. People over 40 are legally a 'protected class,' meaning that they're eligible to trigger the stricter scrutiny of a discrimination claim when they believe themselves wronged. In much of private industry, this assumption is probably fairly accurate. In academia, it's often dead wrong. I've seen too many cases of departments writing off newly-minted Ph.D.'s as 'too green,' instead going with less-qualified candidates closer to the department's median age. But affirmative action for the young would be classified as age discrimination, even when the standards they've had to meet to get hired have been demonstrably harder.
Gender is a tricky case. If an English department is mostly female, but the college faculty as a whole still tilts male, is hiring another woman for the English department really striking a blow for diversity? I say no, but the law says yes. To my mind, diversity is about 'casting against type.' Bringing the first or second woman into a male-dominated department satisfies both affirmative action and diversity; making an already female-dominated department even more so satisfies the former but not the latter. (The same is true in reverse. Hiring a man to a nursing department fits my definition of diversity, even if it flagrantly violates affirmative action as it's usually understood.)
Race is even trickier, since it's increasingly harder to isolate or define. I had a colleague at Proprietary U whose father was Costa Rican and mother Japanese. So was she Asian (not covered) or Latina (covered)? (To make matters more complicated, she looked white.) I've started to see the inevitable, and utterly disheartening, arguments over whether Barack Obama is 'black enough.' Ugh. Given the rapid increases in intermarriage, I just don't see these categories holding cleanly enough to form the basis of decisions that could be defended in court.
Some folks are trying to shift the debate to class. Class has been one of my pet obsessions for years. All I'll say to that is once Americans get good at defining class, which first involves admitting its existence, we can have that conversation. Until then, it's a pipe dream. As hard as race is to define, class is that much harder.
Some conservatives have argued that liberal or leftist domination of academia entitles conservatives to special preference. This strikes me as a truly horrible idea, since once you've been hired to fill a certain ideological slot, your thinking has been done for you. If academic freedom means anything at all, it should mean the freedom to follow your inquiries where they lead you, even if you wind up being surprised. This is even worse than the other kinds of preference, since this cuts to the core of the job itself. If I'm hired to a poli sci department to be the token conservative and I become disenchanted with Bush, is my job in trouble? What if you don't fit cleanly in any given political camp? What if you do, but the prospect of a loyalty oath to that camp is itself offensive? To me, this is a non-starter.
The new perspectives I refer to are generational, or geographic, or stylistic, or even religious. (I'm a HUGE proponent of bringing non-believers to the staffs of religious colleges. Keep everybody honest. When groupthink is actually written into your college mission statement, you have a SERIOUS problem.) Sometimes it's a matter of balancing personalities – if a given department is chockablock with outsize personalities prone to battle, I'm much more interested in a levelheaded peacemaker than I am in any racial or gender category.
To me, the strongest argument for affirmative action is that it can be necessary to break the inbreeding of the old boy network. Sometimes that's true. But it seems to me that the logic of breaking inbreeding doesn't necessarily track cleanly with affirmative action as it's usually practiced. So I'm ambivalent.
Diversity, yes. Affirmative action, sometimes. More opportunities for everybody so we can get past zero-sum bickering, absolutely.
The faculty issue is really tough. When we last hired someone in my discipline (3+ years ago), the committee almost refused to consider new PhDs. Part of the justification was that we needed a history or research productivity for accreditation purposes, but it was mostly being risk-averse. Mid-career people, with a track record, are easier to predict. New PhDs might bring you fame--or they might completely crap out--and you don't have much of a predictive basis (that's doubly true for us, because we don't get applications from the top graduate programs). And this risk-aversion is in addition to trying to hire mini-mes. (Ultimately, we hired two mid-career people, one Indian and one Chinese.)
One tries to do the best one can, and hopes for the best.
As an adult in academe, my basic confusion still holds. In an institution supposedly based in merit and ideas, the diversity should be about diversifying *ideas,* not our outward appearances. To the extent that outward appearance or background may affect perspective, I get it. But using *only* a label to judge diversity of ideas (particularly in faculty hires where you have a solid record of a person's intellectual perspective), still strikes me as unbelievably stupid.
Actually, in my experience anyone who has had their PhD for a while and has not been in regular appointment since that time is discriminated against. The assumption being that you weren't good enough to get a tenure-track job (instead you were paying your bills by doing whatever work was available) so you have been out of the loop too long. The new PhD is a better risk: lower salary, fresh ideas, a lot of publication to come...
But my experience is just that, mine. As you say, anonymity allows complete honesty, so I be honest, albeit anonymous. One of the reasons I only occasionally read your blog and when I do find it annoying is that you seem to feel that you can speak for all of higher ed or (when speaking with "specialized knowledge") for all CCs. Case in point: your consistent rant against older faculty. There may be good cause in YOUR experience to question the motives of older faculty, to believe that they will only hire "mini-mes" and that there is a bias against younger faculty. Doc's experience affirms that in part. My experience does not. Quite the opposite. While my departments have sought to fill a vacancy with someone in the same general area (replace an Asian historian with another Asian historian) they have *always*, in my experience of MANY search committees, have considered heavily younger faculty and new approaches and ideas that they can bring to the subject. They of course consider collegiality as well, but never "we need another Dr. Ralph."
One final note, you say, "When the press and the professional associations cast this as the central issue facing higher education, they're implying that most of American higher education doesn't matter. To which I say, fuck you. We matter a great deal."
Can you give me some statistics that would tell me that "We" (meaning "you," meaning what? Community colleges?) represent "most of American higher education"? Last time I checked every state university and college and every private 4 year college and university were concerned with the issue of affirmative action in admissions. The number of students enrolled in those institutions are likely pretty large and we would need to compare "apples to apples." Full time students, etc. Because many state unis (and many privates as well) have even more part time students who would be akin to those at CCs. I personally believe that CCs have an important role to play in American higher ed, but I think your hubris is taking you to hyperbole...
Recent studies indicate that 46% of all undergraduates are at Community Colleges. Thus, DD is correct to assert that CCs represent a significant portion of higher ed.
Additionally, MOST 4-year institutions are nearly open admissions. Many of the SLACs are really worried about falling enrollment, as are many R-1 and R-2 schools. Schools worried about not filling their chairs aren't making the hard decision to admit X student over Y due to race, gender or class. As a result, DD was correct on that level as well.
Finally, as someone who has sat on a few hiring committees late in the hiring season, perhaps you aren't being selected because of a clear attitude problem. I can't tell you how many people I've seen interview who talked down to us as a CC faculty. Funny, they didn't get hired... hmmm.
The assumption, of course, is that anon 1 was complaining about not "being selected" for a position.
A careful, or even not so careful (but not careless) reading of Anon 1 would draw one to conclude that that poster is someone who is on a faculty, and has participated in a number of hiring committees. In fact, upon further reflection, since anon 1's experience seems to be out of phase with DD's experience (and thus not representative of what DD and anon2 refer to as "the majority of colleges" then one could most likely assume that anon 1 is a member of the elite, the R1 schools.
One might even conclude that anon 1 has never even considered applying at a community college.
All that said, I want to point out that bluster aside, anon 2 has failed to provide statistics, as requested, to support the assertions. In fact, restating that "MOST 4-year institutions are nearly open admissions" does not make it true.
Going back to the original post (but not the overall theme of the post) I was surprised at the Dean's assertion that there are a "fairly small number of colleges and universities that actually turn applicants away."
That particular assertion, which by the dean's own wording excludes CC's, strikes me as counter to my experience both as faculty and as parent. While my children have all been accepted to every school to which they applied, each of the schools published statistics that showed acceptance and admissions to be somewhere between 20 and 40% of the applications received.
So, I am actually academically and intellectually curious as to the sources of data for such claims. While Carl Sagan would say that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" I think we as academics would all agree that "claims require proof."
Anon 1's asking for that is not beyond the pale.
If you truly believe this, you should be a huge fan of quotas for more conservatives among college faculty. Because liberal groupthink is a pretty powerful presence among colleges across the county, and has been written into the mission statements of many (in form of speech codes).
The outcome I've seen in my own institution of the push for more diversity is this: every search committee must bring at least one female candidate for an interview (double points if she's not white!). She will without fail come with the title "feminist" or "womanist"--you know, feminist theologian, feminist new testament scholar, womanist historian of religion--and she will, without fail in my narrow experience, be passed over in favor of a white man whose work just seemed more...rigorous.
you raise an interesting point about religious colleges. I wonder, though, if they wouldn't resist the accusation of groupthink, instead asserting their need to hire people who are prepared to form students in a particular way. From one perspective, they're just perpetuating their own groupthink among the students, but what if they think that's their mission? What if the students (and their parents) think that's their mission? That's going to make a non-believer--even a modestly different believer, honestly--a tough sell. My point is, I, for one, am not in agreement with your average religiously affiliated school--and I mean the kind likely to require me to sign a doctrinal statement--as to what constitutes a college education. That shuts conversation down in a hurry.
last thing, in response to intelligent evolver, I agree very much that sometimes there is the convenient appearance of diversity where no real diversity of ideas exists. It's one of the reasons I think class should be on the table.
"nearly 80 percent of the nation's postsecondary students attend nonselective four-year and community colleges." By my reckoning, 80 percent is most of American higher education.
Is that an extraordinary claim? Nope. It's pretty pedestrian, actually. If you don't believe me, skip the "America's top colleges" lists and just look to the lists of every accredited college in the fifty states. See how many you've ever heard of. It's amazing how many colleges are out there, and how few of them have any kind of admissions requirement beyond a high school diploma or GED.
keyser -- I oppose speech codes for the same reason I oppose other forms of groupthink.
last anonymous -- yeah, those postcards are annoying. Don't jump to the conclusion that they're dispositive, though; I had to fill out one of those for this job and got it. As to being punished for being conservative, I'll just say I've never seen it. Has it ever happened anywhere? I can't prove it hasn't, but I can say I've never seen it. I say, take shots at the jobs you want. Don't rule yourself out pre-emptively. And good luck!
Note, I never said it was an extraordinary claim. I used that quote to make a more "pedestrian" comment about claims require support.
Thanks, by the way, for providing a source for an (unsupported) claim about 80% attending non-selective schools. Of course, the numbers attending, and the number of schools that are non-selective, are not necessarily equivalent. Such a statement would require an understanding of enrollment numbers.
I was disappointed to see that the claim about 80% in the Stanford story was stated as fact without substantiation, either. (Not a problem, assuming the actual research cited a source, but the story doesn't link to the research. Oh well.)
I did find it interesting what you didn't include from that story. For instance:
* "less than half of those students graduate."
* "45 percent of undergraduates in America attend community colleges... For these students, as well as those who attend nonselective four-year colleges, the real issue is...whether they can pass a placement exam to exempt them from remedial courses."
* "They also are not told by anyone—including colleges themselves—that there will be a placement test once they get there, much less what the exam consists of." (NOTE: Stanford's press ends sentences with prepositions)
My point in these highlights? Nothing, really. Just other interesting tid-bits from that news story.
Now, to go back to the affirmative action thread, I have a question. What if any measures can be taken to create parity across *all* disciplines? Or, is that not even a goal?
On a purely anecdotal level, I notice a tremendous difference in terms of gender composition between departments. To cite one example, of the English Departments in which I teach, two are very close to 60% female, and one is nearly 70%. And while they are sorely lacking in African-American faculty members, there's a significant presence amongst other minorities.
And just to be clear, I'm not commenting on the quality or nature of their work. As far as I know and can tell, it's all very good, very relevant, very important, and so on. My question is solely about numbers.
As far as hiring goes, I think that diversity should be focused on the departmental/School level. The university numbers are important overall, but not as important as diversity in the smaller settings. And that diversity should be all-inclusive.
I am in a women-dominated field (a nice thing for a lesbian administrator, no doubt!), and we actually have had discussions about "needing more men in the department." Admittedly, coming from my MA program in white-male-dominated-field, it feels strange. And yet, it does make a difference.
My biggest gripe is that everyone should recruit GROUPS of diversity, especially when the home dept is VERY homogeneous. As one who has been the lone lesbian on more than one faculty, it is a drag. And my friends who have been the lone black woman on the white faculty, the lone person-in-my-research-area in the we-do-X dept., etc. decry the same thing. I think diversity, in multiple, helps to show that all women/blacks/lesbians/whatever are not alike. And it gives us a chance for connection and support--not the assurance, but the chance. And that is all I am asking for...
Nice study of trends in admissions. It may be a little older, but it is still germane. And, lo and behold, DD is RIGHT!
Shout out to ya from the hinterlands, DD!!
The part I challenged is the notion that the vast majority of schools are apparently "open admissions" and thus accepting all applicants. I believe the number notionally reported was 80%?
In reading the report you referenced I read, quite quickly, that:
* "Between 1985 and 1999, the average number of applications per enrolled first time, first-year student increased dramatically, and thus yield rates—the proportion of accepted applicants who enroll at any given institution—decreased dramatically."
* "The four-year institutions were predominantly selective (70 to 78 percent). In 2000, slightly more four-year private (20 percent) than four-year public (13 percent) institutions were classified as competitive." (NOTE: Selective was defined as "majority" [but not all] who meet criteria are admitted, and "competitive" was defined as "only a limited number" are admitted.)
The only school category that showed an 80% rate for open admissions were the Community Colleges. So, while the Dean's charge that, since CC's make up the majority of colleges in America may support his claim, if we look at four year schools of all stripes we find a somewhat different result.
Perhaps DD and anon 1 were correct.
The question of whether diversity should be measured at the level of the department/program or the institution as a whole is a tricky one. HR departments like to go with the institution as a whole, since it gives a single reportable number (our faculty is x% female, etc.), but that can lead to unhealthy clustering. If we could do it administratively, I'd like to vary the weight of preference in any given area according to how bad the uniformity is (and in what direction). More women in engineering? Absolutely. More men in early childhood ed? Makes sense to me. Once something like critical mass has been hit, do away with preferences. A dean can dream...
But it does happen, apparently. See today's IHE article:
Virginia State University has agreed to pay $600,000 to Jean R. Cobbs, whom it fired as a tenured professor in 2005 and whose claims against the university have been backed by several academic groups.
Cobbs and her supporters have said that she was dismissed for her political views (she is an outspoken black Republican at a historically black college where her views place her in a distinct minority) and for backing other professors (of a range of political views) in disputes with the Virginia State administration.
Full story: here
Excuse me?! Could a man ever get away with saying, "I am in a women-dominated field (a nice thing for a heterosexual man, no doubt!)"? What exactly are you saying? Odds of a good date are better for you in your field? You like the view? I am stunned by this parenthetical comment.
As a lesbian academic, and a feminist, I have found it difficult to be in more male-dominated fields. Being a leader in a woman-dominated field means that I don't have apologize for my strong feminist woman stance. There are a lot more strong women working with me, and the men are used to strong women leaders.
I have never thought much about the view, or who I can date. I am in a long-term relationship and I never did think it wise to poach the office for date prospects.
And Pseudonymous, I believe you misread the report and DD. DD did not say that 80% were "open admissions," and, as correctly quote the report, only about 20% of 4-year schools are competitive (meaning that they turn people away who meet the standards). The group the report discusses, and you are incorrectly lumping with competitive schools, are selective, which means if an applicant meets some basic requirements re: GPA, SAT, or whatever, he/she is IN! These schools do not turn applicants who meet the criteria away (until they meet their enrollment numbers). My school is like that. Therefore, Affirmative Action questions regarding enrollment are not at issue.
DD's whole point was that only people in the highest category, which in this report is Competitive, are even wrestling with the issue of who to keep in and who to keep out.
Phew. Guess I should get back to ogling the women in my department and beating horses.
That would make sense, if the conservative movement were not so violently anti-intellectual. As it stands, though, inviting conservatives into academia amounts to violating core principles (commitment to truth from facts, the idealization of the life of the mind) in a way that makes it impossible to do so.
When the conservative movement is not run by theocrats, racists, class warriors, and know-nothing ideologues, we can have a conversation about including them in academia as a group. Until then, academia will be hostile territory, and rightly so.
In all honestly, I hope not -- the President has made his disdain for higher education and the scientific process beyond clear, and someone who shares his views is likely a terrible fit for an academic job.
Not that I'd dismiss a conservative -- especially an outright Bush supporter -- out of hand if they showed up, just that I would be concerned that they would be the kind of whiny, reality-denying entitled jerk that academia is supposed to provide the counterweight to.
In addition, people compartmentalize well, but I would also honestly be concerned by the intellectual capacity of anyone who is in the minority of Americans that still support the President.
Yup. I will accept that about half (46%) of students attend 2 yr schools (or community colleges). I will even accept that, as identified in the report, nearly 80% of those schools (that are "public") have open admissions. But the only way you can reach the 80% and have the statement cover 4 year schools is to actually lump those schools in with the 2 yr schools. If you look at just 4 year schools, you will find that 91% and 92% (public/private) are either selective or competitive.
I have pulled the excerpt from the table contained on page 15:
Year Number Open Selective Competitive
1979 333 20 70 10
1985 413 15 72 12
1992 366 11 75 13
2000 305 9 78 13
1979 648 8 77 13
1985 827 10 74 15
1992 784 9 76 15
2000 652 7 72 20
LesboProf makes an interesting argument that "selective" means they accept everyone until they are full. Perhaps that is the case--I have not taken the time to read through the 196 pages of the report. I will say though that the comment I was referencing, and challenging, specifically referred to "...attend nonselective four-year and community colleges."
I would assume non-selective means that these schools would not be considered to be in the "selective" category.