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Exterior of the Princeton University Chapel. (Source: elekh, on Wikimedia Commons.)

Want Diversity? Fix the Pipeline

Where calls for increased diversity in academia fall painfully short

Nikita Bogdanov
Jul 14 · 6 min read

On July 4th, 2020, faculty at Princeton University began circulating a letter calling on the administration to “acknowledge and give priority” to a series of demands aimed at counteracting or dismantling the “[a]nti-Blackness . . . foundational to America,” which at Princeton “has a visible bearing upon [the university’s] campus makeup and its hiring practices.” As of June 12th, the letter has attracted just over 400 signatures, including 26 graduate students, 58 lecturers, and 215 of Princeton’s 1,289 full-time, part-time, and visiting professors.

Held up in various media outlets as proof positive of the continued self-destructive politicization of academia, or else thoroughly denounced for the same, the Faculty Letter is troubling as well if not even more so because of the shortsightedness of the vision of social change it endorses. For by focusing primarily on how the university can better serve existing faculty, right now, by asserting that the circumstance of chief concern is the undervaluation or paucity or attrition of current professors of color, the letter’s signatories suggest rather myopically that the (perceived) inequities at issue both stem from within the university and are addressable in their entirety by it. This despite the letter’s sweeping assertion that anti-blackness is baked into the fibre of America and nearly inextricable from Princeton itself.

Put differently, the Faculty Letter focuses almost entirely on what happens when minority students make it to academia, as professors, ignoring the trials and tribulations that can make their path there so difficult to begin with. It’s problematic, however, not because the solution it offers is plainly a partial one but because its rhetorical stance is such as to make the reader believe that it solves everything. Put plainly, it’s either dishonest or woefully incomplete.

So what exactly does the letter miss? It overlooks the fact that, at least in large part, the lack of diversity in higher education is the product of constrained supply. Whatever problems there may be among current faculty, that is, Princeton, to fill its professorships, ultimately depends on doctoral programs, themselves dependent on undergraduate programs, themselves dependent on secondary schools, themselves dependent on primary schools. Speaking for the moment just about numbers, then, addressing the apparent shortage of faculty of color with a supply-chain mindset makes clear that it’s plainly absurd for faculty to call upon the university to hire or, by providing additional financial benefits, retain more faculty of color without at the same time demanding the adoption of measures designed to increase the supply of qualified students of color.

More specifically, if signatories are truly committed to the causes the Faculty Letter outlines, one would think that, rather than stopping decidedly short of it, they would consider redirecting their own and the university’s financial resources to support social services organizations and, among others, the custodians, security officers, food workers, maintenance staff, and groundskeepers that, while they keep the university running, are most likely overwhelming non-white and almost certainly paid a pittance. (See, for example, here.) For the fate of academia, and the success of diversity programs in general, is tied closely to the fate our public services and public institutions deliver upon the great and increasing number of children born to minority families across the United States.

Put differently, it can come as no surprise that there aren’t too many faculty of color when there also aren’t that many high school graduates of color—when the achievement gap between white students and black students is chasmic. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of excellent research that describes just how we can work to close such achievement gaps.

Unfortunately for those who’ve already graduated high school, inequality is hard to shake, meaning that, at the post-secondary level, it’s quite likely that minority students continue to face unique hurdles, hurdles that weed them out of the profession before they even get a chance to become a part of it. For instance, I suspect that minority students face financial burdens at higher rates than do others, burdens associated with having few financial resources or with having outstanding financial obligations to their families or to debtors. If correct, given how little graduate students and postdocs are paid, it’s again little surprise that academia isn’t more diverse. Put simply, only the rich can afford to be poor—and not too many students of color come from rich families or are independently wealthy.

(To its credit, the Faculty Letter at the very least addresses the importance of mentorship, both for students and for young scholars, another factor I suspect is key to attracting and retaining disadvantaged students at the post-secondary level.)

With all of that in mind, a program for social change or cultural revolution that fails to address these realities, that fails to address the inequalities that from birth put minority students at a competitive disadvantage and that haunt them into their adult years, is for all intents and purposes futile, an exercise in moral outrage and rhetorical flare divorced from causal reality and practical (policy) solutions. It’s also an excellent example of the kind of counterproductive shadow boxing Richard Rorty surely has in mind when he writes in Achieving Our Country that, “[b]ecause the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names” [emphasis mine].

Here, I can’t help but mention that, with an endowment of over $24 billion, and with professors earning an average of $213,769 per year—enough to place each professor, even without consideration of their spouse’s income, into the 92nd income percentile—it’s hard to imagine a convincing financial argument against the kinds of redistributive programs I hint at above.

What’s more, if we’re talking about overall impact, who’s to say that Princeton is the best place for the limited number of faculty of color currently in academia? For, if faculty of color are the bearers of some magical essence inaccessible to all others, as the Faculty Letter and the milieu of which it is certainly a byproduct regularly intimate, then why not disperse them throughout the United States, say, to the least diverse institutions? Or, are we to understand that the signatories of this letter, in addition to demanding that certain faculty at this prestigious institution receive even more benefits than they do already, are in fact committed to hoarding the apparently scant number of faculty of color out there, all under the aegis of social justice?

In fine, if truly a call to action, the Faculty Letter lacks the perspective required to make of its demands a principled stand against inequity in all of its associated forms, mistaking what is at best but a step in the right direction for a monumental and definitive leap. On the other hand, it’s perfectly alright if Princeton professors want to advocate for themselves, to improve their working conditions or the working conditions of their colleagues. But if that’s their game, there’s little reason to couch their demands in such sweeping moral terms.

As it stands, then, the Faculty Letter seems little more than a virtue-signaling band wagon, rhetorically charged but internally incoherent—or else an example of those who already have dictating unapologetically to the rest of us that they can’t possibly have enough.

(By the way, much like Walter Benn Michaels, I find it terribly troubling that we devote so much energy to discussing race and so little to discussing class. Although I’ve limited my conjectures to the former category here, for alignment with the Faculty Letter, there’s every reason to run similar arguments for socioeconomic status.)

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