Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Thoughts on 'Diversity'

I’m a diversity officer’s worst nightmare. I’m married, with biological children. I’m white, heterosexual, male, right-handed, from the East Coast, and left-liberal in the way that liberal-arts academics tend to be. Nobody who hires me can check off any boxes on affirmative action forms.

And yet, I’m one of the few of my kind around here.

Logically, those can’t both be true. How can The Majority be so small?

The answer, of course, is that the categories we usually count in ‘diversity’ initiatives don’t begin to capture the diversity of actual human experience. In fact, their omissions can be quite glaring.

For example, my current employer is located in an extremely Republican county, with an overwhelmingly Catholic workforce. Neither political nor religious preferences are counted, though, so my secular/Unitarian Democrat status, while certainly adding to the intellectual diversity of the place, flies below the radar.

More interestingly, almost nobody on faculty or in administration has young children. Many of the more senior faculty have adult children, which is to be expected, but nearly nobody else here has kids under, say, 10. We recently lost one of our few young full-time professors when her first child was born; after trying for a few weeks, she decided that balancing full-time faculty with mothering a young child was too much, so she quit to stay home. I don’t blame her a bit – hell, my wife is doing the same thing – but it does tend to homogenize the folks who stay.

Oddly, we’ve lost several young faculty in the last few weeks. I suspect that cost-of-living is the hidden killer; salaries here go up 3-4% per year, while property values have been rising 20-30% per year for several years. Entry-level people are simply priced out of the county. (In fact, I recently met with the leader of a local philanthropic organization that deals with affordable housing, and discovered, to my bemused horror, that an assistant professor here, living alone, would qualify for ‘moderate income’ housing. Stay in school, kids!).

Where are the faculty brats?

The major issue, obviously, is the overall lack of young faculty. With the recent departures, we now have fewer than 10 full-time faculty under 40. Among those, the only one I knew to have children just left. None of the others, to my knowledge, has kids. In administration, I know one other person (a director of a campus center) with young children. This at a college that enrolls (many thousands of) students.

I have to chuckle whenever the Chronicle of Higher Education runs a piece bemoaning the sexism of the academy, using as evidence the fact that the tenure clock ticks synchronously with the biological clock. From that (true) observation, we are supposed to conclude that women faculty need extra time to get tenure.

I say that’s half right. Parents of young children need extra time. Not all women want to be parents, and many men do. And from what I’ve seen, men in their 20’s and 30’s simply can’t slough off housework the way men used to – women simply wouldn’t allow it, even if we tried.

The even larger point, really, is that there was supposed to be a reciprocal change in home and work. When women started moving into the workforce in large numbers, and men started (belatedly and halfheartedly at first, I’ll admit) doing more at home, the more sophisticated thinkers argued that it was time to make work more family-friendly. The old 40-hour week was based on the model of a husband working and a wife staying home. With the wife working, we’d obviously have to recalibrate work hours, right?


It hasn’t happened, of course, and we’re beginning to see the fallout of that failure. (Arlie Russell Hochschild has written several excellent books on this topic, The Time Bind being my personal favorite.) In order to get benefits (read: health insurance), you have to count as full-time. Employers’ insistence on this point is rational, in the sense that health benefits are hellaciously expensive and rapidly rising, so keeping a largely contingent workforce is necessary to keep costs in line. Employees, then, who have two-job relationships, find their parenting time squeezed beyond reason. Add to that the factors unique to higher education (the extended poverty of grad school, the terrible national job market, and the aforementioned tenure clock), and many of those intent on being parents simply chuck it all. Either they just don’t have kids, or they leave higher ed.

Imagine what national single-payer health care might do to make
employers more willing to hire, to redefine 'full-time' along more
family friendly lines, to allow parents to spend time with children and not starve...

Conservatives like to bleat about how evil liberals dominate higher education in America. They’re wrong and basically silly, but there is something of a cultural divide between college faculty and the rest of the country. I’d wager that much of that divide is based on the almost-complete absence of young parents from college faculty. To the extent that that means that higher ed is unusually open to gays and lesbians, that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but wonder what the almost complete absence of talk about sippy cups, Sesame Street, and carseats means for the cultural climate of the place. Certainly, it drives distance between college faculty and the rest of the country.

When was the last time you saw a minivan in a faculty parking lot?

I’m glad that issues of racial and gender diversity are getting their due. I’m just concerned that reducing ‘diversity’ to those easily-counted variables is missing a fundamental point. In becoming more representative of the population in a few ways, we’re becoming much, much less so in others.