Letter to the Editor – Roelofs’ Initiative: Discrimination

Michael Johnston - Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science; Division Director, Social Science

Dean-Provost Roelofs’ effort to emphasize diversity over subfield specialization in the hiring of new faculty ought to be of concern to all who care about the future of Colgate University. At the level of stated purpose, language, and symbolism the idea would appear to be a modest change made in pursuit of noble goals. Unfortunately, however, the new policy is a major change that will reduce Colgate’s ability to provide the depth and breadth of intellectual offerings to which “the nation’s liberal arts university” ought to aspire.

Students and parents should ask whether the policy will, in the name of the overall demographic composition of the faculty, result in important subfields and courses going untaught while others are increasingly staffed by faculty teaching in fields outside, or marginal to, their own expertise. Candidates applying for Colgate faculty appointments should be concerned that the skills and abilities they bring to the table will not be given full and fair consideration. Most of all, those who want to see a more diverse faculty and campus community – and I place myself front and center in the first row of that group – should worry that by setting up a false and needless tradeoff between diversity and excellence, the Roelofs initiative will undermine both.

Over the course of the past year, several audiences have been told by the Dean/Provost that during the 2005-06 hiring season Colgate was “zero-for-eleven” in terms of diversity appointments and tenure-track searches. The implication has been that something has gone wrong with our search procedures, and that significant departures are needed. That argument fails, however, in two ways. First, in that hiring season there were eight hires of beginning tenure-track teaching faculty, not eleven (the latter figure includes hires of people into faculty rank but not into entry-level tenure-stream faculty positions), and in those eight searches two offers were made to African-American candidates. The full picture is nothing to cheer about, but neither is it so dire as to show that the system is broken.

Second, let us not forget that current procedures have enabled us to build a very strong faculty under challenging circumstances: stiff competition for promising scholar-teachers of all backgrounds, limited resources, the five-course teaching load and a location that is a plus for some but not for all. Surely the overall strength of the faculty must be our first and foremost consideration. That a more diverse faculty might be even stronger overall is a view I not only share but strongly endorse. But remember that when a department or program searches for a new colleague we are not hiring a generic item called “a professor”.

We are venturing into a highly competitive personnel market in which both domains of inquiry, and candidates’ skills, are highly differentiated. Not staffing a major subfield quickly creates, and reveals to both prospective students and faculty members, visible gaps in our offerings. Covering those subfields by staffing courses with existing faculty who have not trained and done scholarly work in those areas is to choose deliberately to put a weaker faculty out in front of our students and out in front of the world. Less often discussed, but also important, are the rights and interests of job candidates. Individuals who apply for faculty jobs at Colgate have worked to amass excellent undergraduate records, to succeed in demanding graduate programs and to prepare themselves to contribute at the frontiers of their disciplines and subfields for many years to come. The Roelofs initiative tells many of those candidates that because of their race/gender/ethnic/cultural backgrounds, their preparation and expertise will not be given full weight and consideration on the merits. That sort of discrimination, when it was used to entrench a white male faculty, was dead wrong. It remains dead wrong today.

The threat to diversity itself is a bit more subtle but equally worrisome. The new policy sets up a tradeoff between diversity and excellence that is fundamentally false and politically na’ve. Over thirty years’ work as a full-time faculty member at two universities (and for shorter times in other countries) has made it clear to me that excellence comes in all colors, sizes, and shapes. Let me add here a point that will not be shared by all: by “excellence” I mean sheer ability and expertise, not “perspective”. One’s demographic background, by itself, rarely confers insight on much of anything; the issue, instead, is whether a person can get the job done at a high level of excellence. I have never seen any evidence that finding excellent colleagues who don’t look like me requires us to search for anything but the best. Any policy that sets up excellence and diversity as a tradeoff will immediately stigmatize colleagues hired from “diverse” backgrounds. Further, it will hand ammunition – needlessly – to critics who argue that Colgate and institutions like it are compromising basic quality in pursuit of a political agenda.

Diversity itself, and all who support and embody it, will be more vulnerable in the world that the Dean proposes to create. Two final issues remain as imponderables. First, will Colgate make an honest statement to the world that we will henceforth value personal background over subfield expertise? Or will we continue to state, as we do now, that “Colgate will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, creed, national origin (including ancestry), citizenship status, physical or mental disability (including AIDS), age, marital status, sexual orientation, status as disabled veteran or veteran of the Vietnam era…” even though it is now proposed that we do precisely that? Second, will “diversity” be defined and pursued in its broadest and most inclusive senses, or in narrower ways? There is no way to answer either question without watching the administration very carefully over the years to come. All of us concerned for the future of Colgate University, and about a fair and just society, should get ready to do just that.