Well, I just finished reading the Chronicle Review’s “Being a Black Academic in America.” Sadly, it was unsurprising. The many stories told in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere, that focus on biases in the classroom, on campuses, in yearbooks, and invited speakers all tell us that we are nowhere near achieving equity in higher education. The faculty members who tell their stories in this issue, report issues that have been reported so many times that I can feel nothing but shame that we haven’t figured it out yet.
Indeed, I’ve been in conversations about these issues with students for over 20 years. The perception that affirmative action is an unfair or unearned advantage has been voiced by students (and some faculty) in subtle and unsubtle ways as long as I’ve been in higher education. They confuse the terms equality and equity, and get lost in the false logic of merit. To be clear, merit can only be considered in context. Simple indicators of hard work and talent must be scaled to the starting blocks in that race to secure a seat at the table (or in the classroom). So, if you start with no money, attend a poorly funded K-12 school, and have parents who did not attend college, and then you manage an average score on an SAT, well you deserve to have that score raised to meet the average scores of those who had SAT prep tests, pre-schools, and honors programs. That might be the start of some kind of equity, and trust me, that student has demonstrated talent and a strong work ethic.
But of course that’s just economic equity. The fact that the advantages and disadvantages are distributed along racial lines is the deep and enduring shame of it all. That’s where we seem to be getting really lost in our merit logic. We don’t like the idea of a person getting a score adjustment along racial lines, even though the economic disadvantages are disproportionately distributed along those lines. Our belief in a system that only rewards hard work is so strong that we just don’t can’t see the different placements of the starting blocks. And then we fail to make progress.
The stories in The Chronicle detail the difficulty of being a faculty member under these conditions. Every person interviewed reported the ways in which they have received messages about their “unearned” place in the academy. Whether as students or as faculty members in predominantly white colleges (which describes most colleges), the uniformity of the narratives was clear…biased behavior is alive and well. We are not paying attention to the ways in which we are replicating the systemic racism in the culture of higher education. We are not mindful of the ways bias manifests itself in student evaluations. We are not attentive to the (lack of) diversity in our curriculum. We have not attended to our committee structures (elected and appointed) and how they may be excluding voices. We have not examined our assumptions about how the unspoken expectations for success in higher education may be obscuring those pathways for those new to the world of higher education, simply by being unspoken.
What we really haven’t begun to address is the intertwining of class, power, and race in all that we do in higher education. We have a push and pull between our commitment to access and our notions of excellence. We want to be the pathway to an equitable society, but we fail to notice that we have defined excellence in terms that represent the views of those already in power. We are frequently getting stuck in our own faulty merit logic, assuming that since we are all products of Ph.D. programs, we all have access to the same knowledge. But it isn’t that simple. We aren’t seeing the staggered placement of our starting blocks.
And even saying all of this causes me discomfort, because I don’t want to suggest that faculty of color need special accommodations to succeed. Like all faculty, they are smart and talented and have earned their place in higher education. Like all faculty, opportunities to study a topic deeply and enlighten students are the tasks they have set for themselves. But something isn’t going right, so questions must be asked.
It made me sad to read the Chronicle Review this morning. I can see just how difficult it is going to be to make real change and I am sorry to have been so ineffective so far. But I am listening and trying to find a path forward. I have been calling for curricular change, but it is time for me to think bigger and plan the overhaul in our practices that is really required. I’m not sure what my next steps are, but I do know that there will be next steps in short order.