Monday, October 04, 2010


Opposition to Affirmative Action

Twice in the last year, I’ve heard some statements on campus against affirmative action that have helped me understand some of the opposition to it.

(Disclosure: though my politics aren’t conservative, my appearance is. Since I rarely talk politics at work, some people incorrectly assume from my appearance that I’m a conservative, and they tell me things that they might not otherwise. It’s an odd position to be in, but there it is.)

In two different searches over the past year, I’ve heard incumbent full-time faculty voice strong resistance to the college’s affirmative action procedures. When I asked why, the answers were the same in both cases:

“This is really [favorite long-time adjunct]’s job. I’d hate to see her/him lose out just because s/he’s white.”


If a college is in a relatively white part of the country -- unthinkable, I know, but bear with me -- then its adjunct pool will likely reflect that. If diversifying the faculty is an institutional priority, that will often require bringing people in from the outside. In this market, that means passing over some long-serving adjuncts.

Given a scarcity of jobs -- which is itself a function of a scarcity of dollars -- I don’t see how to get around this. A job that goes to candidate A does not go to candidate B. If we were to give the next few batches of jobs entirely to incumbent adjuncts, we’d actually lose ground on racial diversity.

My response to those disarmingly candid statements was to object to the idea that any search is a foregone conclusion. Nobody is owed a job. The premise that Jennifer stands to get cheated is false, only because there’s no guarantee that Jennifer would win anyway. If you don’t own something, it can’t be stolen from you. If she’s truly the standout that you say she is, she’ll win a fair fight anyway. If she isn’t, then I don’t see the argument.

Admittedly, that’s a bit evasive -- affirmative action won’t reverse a blowout, but it could tip a squeaker -- but it’s also true.

I had expected the opposition to be based on the usual arguments from meritocracy -- let the best candidate win, period. But it wasn’t. It was based on knowing someone who would stand to lose. I’m unpersuaded by that position, but it’s not really reducible to straight-up racism or naivete. And it’s not entirely false -- any given search is zero-sum, and any preference for one candidate is by definition a strike against another.

To me, the decisive point is that employment is not primarily for the benefit of the employee. It’s primarily for the benefit of the employer. If the employer needs to diversify its staff, then that’s what it needs to do. It hires to solve problems it has identified. One could take issue with the usefulness or desirability of diversity, but that’s not the argument I’ve heard.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an elegant way to address this particular objection on your campus?

DD, you wrote "(t)o me, the decisive point is that employment is not primarily for the benefit of the employee. It’s primarily for the benefit of the employer."

I've a friend who has worked in both education and private sector (non-education) who says the same thing: in education, the business exists for the benefit of the employees, but in the real world, the business exists the benefit of the employer.

That may be one of the many reasons K-20 education is taking heat these days.
If affirmative action "could tip a squeaker," then it doesn't matter if Jennifer "win a fair fight anyway," because it is not a fair fight.
We also owe it to all of our students to provide a qualified AND diverse staff.

The academic job market usually means moving is involved - squatter's rights don't apply. We sometimes forget how many of our neighbors have moved because their jobs in the private sector demanded it. That's not to mention our neighbors who have been fired or let go in the last two years despite the fact that they were performing above expectations.
DD, it's funny to hear how people tell you things thinking you are a conservative, because it's just the opposite for me. When people hear I'm faculty they automatically assume I like to make fun of conservatives. Ironically, when I offered to volunteer for a local republican candidate they ignored me--did they think I was a spy?
Well, if the organization's diversity hiring policies are working properly, shouldn't the adjuncting hirings reflect that as well? in which case shouldn't (in theory) "favourite long-time adjunct" stand a good chance of not being white to begin with?
I think the only elegant way to address the problem is to have a no-kidding, straight-faced, believable list of benefits that racial diversity among the faculty brings to the campus.

Nobody objects if you biased your hiring decisions towards bringing in smarter instructors, or those who have a record of good teaching performance elsewhere. People object to diversity-driven hiring decisions because nobody (that I know) really believes the reasons given for doing it.

But I'm sure you know that already.

There is no way around it. You cannot "address" the objection any way other than to give good, logical reasoning that even non-koolaid drinkers will accept.
To play devil's advocate:

"Nobody objects if you biased your hiring decisions towards bringing in smarter instructors, or those who have a record of good teaching performance elsewhere."

Both of those are indicators that the person in question will do a good job. A person's race -- which word I've always felt a bit of a misnomer, but to continue in the common parlance -- a person's race is not an indicator of whether or not they'll do a good job. They're not the same at all, and even someone who understands the necessity for AA like myself can see that.

If we're going to defend AA we need to do it logically, and that means talking about the socio-economic biases against people of colour in our society that hinders their hiring in the first place, not trying to compare hiring biases in favour of the smart and proficient.

Here's the theory (as I understand it) behind the "tip a squeaker" thing: when we say it could "tip a squeaker" what we mean is that a hiring team of predominantly white men could see two non-equal candidates as equal because they have (like it or not, as an integral part of growing up white and male) an implicit bias against the candidate who is a PoC. To put it bluntly, the theory is that if the PoC is an only marginally better candidate, an all-white hiring committee is going to see the two as equal, and AA is meant to correct that.

Is it going to be fair all the time? Not on your life. Is it necessary in our society? Hell yes.
I've thought a lot about the issue of Affirmative Action over the years, and I can understand some of the arguments people have on both sides of the issue. Ultimately individuals tend to be concerned about either making up for past inequality or about ensuring that the "most qualified" person gets the job. Ultimately, the two groups on either side of the issue never seem to be able to effectively communicate, as they're views on this subject are rooted in deeply divergent fundamental assumptions and views - both of which have validity. From these two perspectives, no matter which way an organization goes on the issue, a large group of people feel that an injustice has been perpetrated.

As I've been working on my master's degree in leadership during the past year, I've encountered what I feel is the most compelling argument for favoring diversity in organizations. Time and time again, the authors of my textbooks and the journal articles that I read try to articulate the practical, organizational benefit in having a diverse organization and team. Diversity is the soil in which true innovation can grow. Without diversity, organizations can, knowingly or uknowingly, become trapped in very myopic views of themselves and the world around them and can miss out on opportunities for growth and success.

The authors are quick to point out two important things about diversity that individuals often do not think about. First, when considering diversity, it shouldn't be constrained to race or gender but should also include education, culture, and life experience. The idea is to bring individuals to the table who have divergent value sets and ways of viewing the world. Second, diversity causes conflict. Without a doubt. But that conflict is not only good, but necessary for an organization to arrive at the optimal course of action, because in that conflict, as long as it occurs in a healthy and respectful manner, individuals are forced to examine and articulate their viewpoints clearly and they become aware of potential obstacles or challenges. The problems is, we all naturaly feel most comfortble with those who look like us and think like us, and many of us, myself included, hate conflict and are bad at confrontation.

Ultimately, however, I feel it's an issue of education and perspective. People need to be helped to understand why organizations in a very practical and tangible way benefit from diversity, and they also need to be helped to think of the long-term benefits to the overall organization instead of their own short-term personal gains.
Vellum @5:52: In a word, no.

Adjunct pools, at least out here in the provinces, tend to be made up of locals--in the case of my institution, they are mostly people who got their MAs from the institution, or one of a handful of other schools within a two hour drive. 85% of the population of northern Utah is white; the other 15% is largely Latino/a, who for various reasons tend not to go to college, much less grad school, and much less grad school in English or other "non-practical" disciplines. No one is going to move to a small town in northern Utah to take an adjunct position paying peanuts per section. So: our lecturers and adjuncts are, I believe, entirely white.

Tenure-track jobs, on the other hand, are filled through highly competitive national searches, so diversity hires are likely to happen only in those searches.
"If diversifying the faculty is an institutional priority..."

"If she’s truly the standout that you say she is, she’ll win a fair fight anyway."

Then I guess it all depends on how many "race points" the external candidate receives, doesn't it? Jennifer's qualifications have to significantly outweigh those of the PoC, or she's screwed, isn't she? If she's only marginally better on her merits, she's still better, but she loses out because she's white, doesn't she?

And if people are being discriminated for or against because of their color or gender, is it really a fair fight?

Second, if Jennifer would be hired in a heartbeat based on her merits and qualifications, and the only reason you're not hiring her outright is "because she's not black," then you have a problem. She's a known quantity, and you're taking a huge risk with an external hire. You have to know that. So presumably (in a truly "fair" fight) Jennifer lacks a qualification that you are seeking for this position, and to paraphrase Lee Ryan, you have to be able to articulate what that shortcoming is. And if you do hire a minority for that role, you sure as @#$%@ better make sure that new hire has said quality, or you'll be in a real political pickle with your faculty.

This brings us full circle back to the introductory comment that says "the administration has determined that filling this position with a minority is a priority." And Lee Ryan's right -- you have to have good reasons why, or your credibility is shot.
For me, there two somewhat separate issues: Affirmative Action Ethics and Adjunct Faculty Entitlement. I think it is important to separate them, because the latter should be an easy one - nobody is entitled to a faculty position because they have, "paid their dues". We should all work toward disabusing our faculty of the notion that there is such a thing as Adjunct Faculty Entitlement.

As for Affirmative Action, it is hard to explain to an individual that s/he didn't get a job because of AA. Affirmative Action policies are indeed promulgated for the 'greater good' of an institution, but it still feels unfair at the individual level. This is why so many AA arguments occur - the antagonists are almost always arguing apples and oranges; 'greater good' versus individual unfairness.

I recently took a beating on a tenure-track hire - the committee chose a minority candidate over an adjunct with many years experience. In reality, the fact that the chosen candidate was a person of color, was incidental to the decision. As for the long-standing adjunct, I'm sure every department has someone like him; good enough to be assigned to teach classes, but not good enough to win a tenure-track position. The point is that the hiring decision was an easy one, but I and the committee remain accused of making an affirmative action hire over a better-qualified internal candidate. I had a frank discussion with the unsuccessful candidate over his shortcomings (a discussion that I am sure HR would have been horrified over), but to no avail - he is convinced that he was passed over because of his skin color.
If she's only marginally better on her merits, she's still better, but she loses out because she's white, doesn't she?

And if people are being discriminated for or against because of their color or gender, is it really a fair fight?

I got to participate in interviews and the follow up discussion for an entry level position in industry. There were 3 candidates that were all about the same in the things that could easily be measured.

The lead interviewer was a part time farmer and grew up on a farm. The other interviewer also grew up on a farm.

Candidates A and B both grew up on farms. So it was decided they’d know how to work hard and be better versed in using machinery. Candidate C was eliminated.

So we debated A and B and then went with B. A’s high school was something in a mall and B had worked at a Grocery Store. The lead interviewer used to do that and said it was a crappy job so B deserved a break.

So in that case the deciding factors in a squeaker were
1. Grew up on a Farm
2. Worked in the Piggly Wiggly

They were all white guys so there was nothing racial going on. It was just the decision makers liked farm boys with backgrounds similar to their own. All of the measureable criteria were too close to call and all interviewed about the same. So it was a squeaker. We could easily have just pulled names from a hat. But instead we decided this way. Is this any less fair than “well, we’ve got 20 white guys and 1 black dude, how about someone darker and less male?”

"To put it bluntly, the theory is that if the PoC is an only marginally better candidate, an all-white hiring committee is going to see the two as equal, and AA is meant to correct that."

I have never heard that theory before, and I do not believe it.

The primary justification for AA is that the institution/corporation/ entity as a whole will benefit from having a racial makeup (almost always) that reflects the "community" - which can mean students, customers, or the actual community. I.e., it's considered to be bad if the police force in a city with a 25% minority population is 95% white. Or if a corporation with a lot of minority clients is largely white. Or - in this particular example - if an educational institution with a lot of minority students has few minority instructors to serve as role models.

To obtain the beneficial number of minority hires, the hiring entity bends the hiring criteria in such a way that less qualified minority hires can come in - there is no intellectually honest way to sugarcoat that. But the benefit to the institution is (at least in theory) that a slightly less qualified hire who is a minority will result in overall greater utility to the institution than a slightly more qualified hire who is not.

To quantify by making up numbers - white candidate A has academic qualifications that are 100. His benefit to the institution is 100. White candidate B has academic qualifications that are 95. His benefit to the institution is 95. Minority candidate C has academic qualifications that are 96. Her academic qualifications add 96 to the institution, but her minority status adds and additional 6 points of benefit, so her score is 102 and she is the best candidate for the institution, even if not the best qualified.

This, basically, is the theory of AA, and as such it is logically consistent. Although actually quantifying the benefit that a minority brings to an institution is completely subjective, of course. And while "tipping a squeaker" is perhaps the ideal (suggesting, as it does, that very little weight was giving to the minority candidate), in some cases the process is more like kneecapping the guard.
@Shane in Utah.

I see your point about the low pay of adjuncts pretty much dictating the local nature of the workforce. That sucks, by the way :(

@Peter W.

You've never heard of affirmative action as being a means of combating latent but ineradicable racial bias against minorities?

Well, okay then. But I have.
Actually a great article about it can be found here:

It's from 2006, by Jerry Kang and Mahzarin R. Banaji, From UCLA and Harvard, respectively. In it, among other things, they discuss the idea that past- and future-looking rationales for AA pale in comparison to the present-based rationale, that is, overcoming implicit bias.
Let's try that again:

(I had to break the link in half, sorry about last time)
Has anyone noticed that, in most institutions, the position once known as "Affirmative Action Officer" is know called "Legal and Compliance Officer."

One person who has held both titles (and is now retired) suggested a reason why: Very often, a college is hiring a minority candidate to protect itself against legal actions rather than to make the institution's faculty and staff more diverse.

So much for the ostensible purpose of "Affirmative Action."
Anonymous 1:45PM:

In the hiring committees I've been on, I've never been explicitly told that we need to hire a minority. I;ve only been told that in a "tie" situation, the tie should go to the minority. And while we'll had some griping about a hire only being hired because they are a minority, the fact remains that the committee felt that the minority candidate was either a) better qualified, or b) equal to other candidates. Now maybe the equal case is still "unfair", but I can't see how the white candidate has much of a complaint when the person hired has objectively the same qualifications. And these weren't all the broad of qualifications - we really did try to objectively discriminate between candidates - it just isn't always possible given the CV fo rmat of applications and the limited budgets of hiring committees.
Here's what I would consider empirical reasons:

1) Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio)

Among black children, the results indicate that having a black teacher for a year was associated with a statistically significant 3 to 5 percentile-point increase in math scores. On the reading test, the scores of black pupils with black teachers were 3 to 6 percentile points higher. Meanwhile, white pupils of both genders placed with a white teacher scored 4 to 5 percentile points higher in math. In reading, white boys had scores 2 to 6 points higher when learning from a teacher of their own race, but for white girls, no significant differences could be detected.

2) With respect to women, there's a paper published by NBER that did actual random assignment at the Air Force Academy and found that when women are teaching women in STEM disciplines and with no other changes (same exams, collectively graded) the achievement gap between men and women closed by raising women's scores, not lowering men's.

The underlying claim to both of these seems to be: when there's someone at the front of the class that looks like you you do better.
"If a college is in a relatively white part of the country -- unthinkable, I know, but bear with me . . ."

What does that mean? "unthinkable"?

Dean Dad - are you suggesting that colleges in a white majority area don't exist? or that in a white majority area the folks are too stupid to go to college? Please explain.

As far as AA goes, if it is wrong to use race or gender in disqualifying a job candidate then it is equally wrong to use it as a qualification for hiring someone.

Race and gender do not and should not be considered in hiring someone.

True diversity in academia does NOT exist - a true diversity would encourage diverse IDEAS. Instead many in academia want to look like a Benetton ad - everyone a different skin color but wearing the same (ideologically liberal) clothes!
Charles - Not to speak for Dean Dad, but I'm pretty sure that was sarcasm (i.e., I'm pretty sure Dean Dad was suggesting that it's common for colleges to be in "relatively white area[s]".
If diversity is so important, why not start by hiring some "diverse" adjuncts? Why not let them work their way up the hierarchy like everyone else?

If a candidate for a tenure-track position is a long-time adjunct and has done a satisfactory job, then that candidate should get the position. Period. They've paid their dues. To pull the rug out from under them for any outsider is grossly unfair.
Thanks MRW - Dean Dad, my apologies for taking your comment the wrong way.
@ Vellum - Thanks for posting the article; I found it fairly interesting. However, to slightly rephrase my previous comment, as someone whose responsibilities previously included hiring, neither I nor any of my colleagues ever considered AA to be an remedy for implicit bias; the only rationale was that AA,when used appropriately, had benefits for the institution as a whole. Similarly, AA as remedy for implicit bias was never discussed in any seminars we attended concerning hiring. This was 5 or so years ago, however.

Although I'm not sure how much things have actually changed in the world - the article itself states "We believe that new facts recently discovered in the mind and behavioral sciences can potentially transform both lay and expert conceptions of affirmative action."

So I don't that they are describing "the theory" behind AA (if there is such a thing); I think what they are describing is new evidence that would support AA. Most of the stuff I read now, though, still speaks in terms of the value of AA to the institution. And in upholding Michigan's use of racial preferences in admission, the US S.Ct. (in Grutter v. Bollinger) clearly stated that these preferences were constitutionally allowable because of the "educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
@Peter W.

Yes, actually, when I posted it I reread it myself -- it does look like it's a fairly recent development in the theory behind AA. But to me it's the one that makes the most sense. I suppose hiring members of minority groups in order to help the student body see a role model has its defenders, but it does carry with it the problem that you're not hiring based on qualifications (which, as evidenced by some of the comments here, makes certain people very upset). Using AA to correct for implicit bias, on the other hand, makes up for the fact that, like it or not, basically because evolution made us this way, deep down we're all just a little bit racist. Admitting the problem is the first step, right? :)
The one thing you're not saying is that you're not hiring one candidate because s/he is not (fill in the blank with whatever diverse category you like). Can you use race or religion or ethnicity or place of origin as a factor in making a hiring decision? Can you take two equally qualified and educated applicants and choose one based on race, etc?
@Vellum -

I would agree that using AA to correct for implicit bias is completely appropriate, as it would have the effect, basically, of removing racial bias in hiring.

I do see a couple of difficulties with applying this rationale, though. The first would be what you do if a white candidate is interviewed by a minority hiring manager - do you give the white candidate a bump due to implicit bias by the minority hiring manager? (This is not an uncommon situation, actually).

I worked for a black elected official for several years; I was initially interviewed by two people in the department where I would be working, and in the second interview I was interviewed by the elected official, who had ultimate hiring authority, but who also *almost always* went along with the what the first interviewers recommended.

The second difficult issue is with university admissions, which, if made completely color blind, would not give the institution the diversity it wants - this was the situation in Michigan in the Grutter case...where I have a hard time with any rationale except for the "diversity is good" rationale as actually being applicable.
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