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March 12, 2012

Can A College President Be "Diverse"?

"Meet the new boss," the Chronicle of Higher Education begins its article today (March 12) on the American Council of Education's latest survey on "The American College President 2012," and continues: "Same as the old boss."

By "same," of course, the Chronicle didn't mean that most college presidents share common religious, political, or cultural views, or come from the same social class or part of the country. It meant that they were still (after all these years!) not "diverse," were a presumably fungible bunch of old white men.

Reading from the same script, Inside Higher Ed begins its article with the "sobering" (in the word of ACE president Molly Corbett Broad) observation that the "American college president's office overwhelmingly remains a haven for white men -- but increasingly, those white men are over 60." It goes on to report, however, that at least there is a silver lining to this gray-haired cloud: "A potential upside," Broad said, is "'the opportunity it will present to make gains in furthering diversity,' which she said the survey showed remains a 'significant challenge' for higher education."

With the Supreme Court about to take another look at affirmative action when it hears Fisher v. Texas next fall, it's about time higher education leaders got their story straight about exactly what "diversity" is and requires. Always insisting that it has nothing to do with quotas or proportional representation, they usually tell us that a good education requires students to be exposed to different values, experiences, cultures, etc. (though usually skipping over the racialist assumption that skin color is a valid proxy for those things).

But if "diversity" does not demand something like proportional representation, why does Inside Higher Ed feel the need to emphasize that "[t]he proportion of college presidents who are members of minority groups continues to lag badly their representation in the overall population"? Why does the Chronicle lament the "reduction in the percentage of minority presidents"?

Clearly, the Chronicle regards college presidents as representatives of their racial and ethnic groups. Otherwise why would it be concerned to report the "drop in minority representation," even though "colleges are increasingly paying outside consultants to help select their presidents." These consultants, however, seem as confused about "diversity" as their clients.

"The use of search firms does not necessarily correlate with an increase in diversity placement," said Ms. [Lucy Apthorp] Leske, vice president, partner, and a director of Witt/Kieffer's education and not-for-profit practice. It's the search committee "and the search firm together that have to commit to diverse pools of candidates," she said.

But should they commit to "diverse pools of candidates" or pools of diverse candidates? This "diversity" business is indeed complicated, and one can almost sympathize with confused boards scratching their heads and turning to "diversity" consultants to solve their problems.

In fact, however, even the exact nature of the problem of not having a "diverse" president is not clear. For that matter, once a "diverse" candidate is hired, does he or she remain "diverse"? How, that is, can one person, even a college president, even be "diverse," especially since he or she is seen as the representative of one racial or ethnic group?

Take Juliet V. Garcia who has been president of the University of Texas at Brownsville for twenty years and who says "that she and other Hispanic presidents have worked to groom a new generation of minority leaders." These future leaders may make a pool of candidates diverse (or do they, lumped together, make a "diverse pool of candidates"?), but once they become presidents will they still be "diverse"? President Garcia, for example, seems to see herself as primarily Hispanic. She is disheartened, she says, to see the numbers of minority presidents "backsliding," but she "added that she is hopeful some of the highly charged political rhetoric aimed at Hispanics during an immigration debate over many years is not to blame for the decline. Instead of looking for diversity, perhaps the pendulum has swung back to protecting the gates. That's my most cynical perspective."

That sounds more like the rhetoric of an ethnic activist than a "diverse" higher education statesperson, especially since all the "highly charged political rhetoric" I'm aware of in the immigration debate has been aimed at illegal immigrants, not "Hispanics." The most heated criticism, in fact, has not even been aimed at the illegals themselves but their enablers, American politicians who refuse to protect the borders.

Nothing surprising here, since in practice "diversity" -- whether used to justify racial discrimination in admitting freshmen or hiring presidents -- is difficult to distinguish from a racial and ethnic spoils system.


ADDENDUM

The Chronicle article also discussed the difficulty of increasing the number of women presidents. President Garcia, who I mentioned had led the Brownsville campus of the University of Texas for 20 years, "said she suspects women with children are less willing to pull up stakes in pursuit of a more prestigious position in academe." She presumably knows whereof she speaks, since, "[w]hile she expresses no regrets about staying in Brownsville, where she grew up, Ms. GarcĂ­a acknowledges that she and her husband of 42 years gave that some thought."

According to the 2010 census, Brownsville, Texas, is 93.2% Hispanic. At least in theory diversity hires are hired to provide "diversity." Who would provide more "diversity" to the University of Texas at Brownsville, a Hispanic from Brownsville or almost anyone else from anywhere else?

"Diversity," as usual, has nothing to do with diversity.

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John S. Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

Comments (1)

Alex McHugh:

Great post! Never understood why superficial diversity is valued so highly even to the point of coming at a cost to diversity of opinions/beliefs/views. Ridiculous.

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