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.