Friday, April 20, 2007

Tackling thorny issues in education

This article disturbs me a little bit. The quick version: Colgate, like most colleges, wants a more diverse faculty but is having trouble getting it. Their solution: make diversity more important than subspeciality when hiring. I haven't decided if that's a great idea or not, but I've seen worse. What bothers me more is the thinking that gets Colgate to this point. And I think most colleges are thinking this way, so it's a systemic problem. Colgate is getting called out, perhaps unfairly, because they made the news.

Colgate has gotten to a 20% minority and 40% female faculty. This actually isn't bad, relative to some other institutions. But they seem to have a revolving door: "As a small liberal arts university in a rural setting, Colgate has a hard time holding on to minority professors — and so needs to keep hiring them as well as trying to encourage more of them to make their careers at the university." Now I have no reason to believe Colgate has an unfriendly campus culture. Almost everyone has trouble holding on to minority faculty. (Women are a different issue, which I'll come back to in a minute.) Colgate may be interested in encouraging them to stay long-term, but this particular policy only affects hiring. Which means they are saying, in essence, they're accepting that their institution is going to be very diverse, but only at the assistant professor level. Most of the senior folks are still going to be overwhelmingly white and mostly male. You don't have to be a college president to know that the senior faculty have a lot more power than the junior.

But why can't colleges hold on to minorities? It's simple supply and demand. Everyone wants to be diverse - which means either reflecting the population or, in cases of historically black colleges, reflecting their student body. (Yes, there are anti-diversity individuals out there, but in general the institutional position is in favor of diversity.) And not a large enough fraction of PhD are going to minorities to fulfill that demand. As long as this is the case, the "diversity problem" is insoluble.

The problem is a pipeline one. In higher ed we try to fix a lot of problems at the tail end - in faculty hiring in this case, or in remediation for underprepared undergraduates - when the problems actually begin long before then. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't work from this end, but that is at best ameliorative. Increasing minority faculty is a long-term proposition, starting when students get on campus. Who is choosing what kind of majors? Who is encouraged to go to grad school? It even starts before college, and this is where it leaves the hands of colleges and becomes the responsibility of our K-12 system, although some would argue that colleges have outreach responsibilities. If minorities have an edge in being hired, they have a disadvantage in making it to the point where they are qualified to even apply.

I said women were different because PhDs are close to parity gender-wise. This varies widely by field; education is heavily female, political science heavily male. (Unlike most social sciences, poli sci remains an outlier.) Here the problem is closer to a hiring one and in some ways more complicated - more women decide to take lower-level jobs in favor of their spouses' careers, academia's busiest years coincide with childbearing ones, and there are vestiges of sexism just as there are of racism. But in most fields, the progress toward a racially and ethnically diverse faculty is much less than the progress toward a more equitably gendered faculty.

Colgate, at least, is seriously tackling the issue, but at best it will succeed only in winning a larger slice of the pie for itself, rendering other institutions less diverse. This is a systemic problem, and what we need is a larger pie.

No comments: