Blogs > Cliopatria > The "Diversity Commissars"

Jul 29, 2004 3:08 pm

The "Diversity Commissars"

An unintended side effect of working at Brooklyn College, an institution run by a provost who believes that, as"teaching is a political act," our job should be to train"global citizens" (figures the provost has described as"sensitized to issues of race, class, and gender"): I've been exposed, over the last few years, to a variety of bizarre schemes, regarding both personnel and curricular matters.

The latest, on which I wrote an op-ed last week, concerned the college's institution of what some on campus have termed"diversity commissars"--a requirement that all search committees include minority faculty, and when departmental minorities are unwilling or unavailable to serve, minorities from outside the department be brought in, regardless of academic expertise. At a school where a quarter of the hires over the last eight years have been minorities, the reason for this new procedure was never articulated.

Looked at practically, the policy is downright absurd. A committee evaluating applicants for a professorship in particle physics, for instance, could conceivably be ordered to include an Inuit who specializes in Eskimo environmentalism instead of a non-minority faculty member with a physics Ph.D. from MIT. Moreover, given the increasing reluctance of today’s Americans to identify themselves exclusively with any ethnic group, would even the most qualified minority faculty member necessarily be ready to sit as a “diversity commissar”? And would there be a generational cutoff for official status as an African-American or Latino?

Yesterday's New York Sun brought the following reply from the provost, Roberta Matthews:

Robert David Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, should look at the whole record before he attacks Brooklyn College [Diversity Comes to CUNY,Opinion, July 21, 2004]. Since 1999, we have hired 147 new faculty members, Professor Johnson among them. Like him, they were trained at some of the best universities in the world, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Oxford. While many are at the beginning of their careers, not a few have already achieved such distinctive honors as the Pulitzer Prize novelist Michael Cunningham and journalist Paul Moses, who joined us in 2001 and the MacArthur Award painter Elizabeth Murray, in 2003.Rather than embrace any hiring scheme untested or otherwise Brooklyn College seeks the best candidate for the position. The long-term results are evidenced by the consistent excellence of the students we graduate.

The reply raises the question of why, if the college has consistently been hiring such stellar people, it chose to change its hiring procedures. Or perhaps Matthews believes that the college's new policy of requiring white male applicants--and only white male applicants--to demonstrate a" commitment to furthering diversity" is consistent with seeking"the best candidate for the position." History professor Margaret King addressed that point in today's Sun:

Over the last three years at Brooklyn College, I have heard amazing things — that highly qualified young scholars should step aside so as not to demoralize less capable colleagues, for instance, or that patently incompetent job candidates should be hired because their ebullient personalities qualify them as great teachers. I have seen senior professors “mob” and bully vulnerable untenured juniors. I was there when Cathy Trower explained why Asians are not minorities except when it is useful for them to be minorities, and why white males must be, effectively, brainwashed so as to promote — regardless of considerations of merit — only those of other genders or skin colors — a difficult point to me, the mother of two sons, who happen to be white. I was not aware that such behavior was to be tolerated in academe, yet at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where I teach,it is not only tolerated but rewarded. But perhaps the advent of “diversity commissars” will arouse those in charge to stop the nonsense now.

CUNY Trustee Kay Pesile, in a letter to the Sun, wondered why the college would need new lines giving such hiring criteria. That's an interesting question.

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More Comments:

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/29/2004

We're already into politically incorrect territory. Many Inuit prefer 'Inuit'(naturally), which like in many Native American cultures, is their own name for themselves meaning simply 'the people' -- are we indulging their ethnic sense of superiority in using that name? Some Inuit don't take to 'Eskimo', as it is believed to be from the Cree, for 'eaters of raw flesh'. That's some catch, that Catch-22. I think Johnson is sensitive to that, in that he uses both terms.

But that's not the main point. An Eskimo or Inuit, I would guess on Johnson's view, is not any less qualified than a PhD in physics from MIT on "certain issues". Rather an Eskimo or Inuit in the field of study of Eskimo environmentalism is not, by reason of his Inuithood, more qualified than a non-minority PhD in physics from MIT to evaluate candidates for a professorship in particle physics. I agree with Johnson on that, if I read him correctly.

chris l pettit - 7/29/2004

What exactly makes and Eskimo any less qualified than a PHd in Physics from MIT on certain issues? I for one know plenty of professors and lawyers who got degrees from so called "higher institutions" that are more ideological, bigoted, undereducated, and misinformed than those coming from so-called "third tier" institutions. Likewise if you want to say that an "a" student is automatically brighter than a "c" student. I would think that it would all come down to the committee, the issues needing to be decided, and the personal intelligence and candacy of the candidates.

While I do not agree with the general broad brush used by the institution, and do not think that you necessarily meant to portray your views in such a way (I am hoping you only were pointing out the paucity in hers), I would hope that, no matter what instiuttion a degree came from, or what a person's grades were, they were considered on how good of a fit they would be to that insitution in that time and space. I for one would never want to work for anyone who would make a decision on my hiring based mainly upon my ethnicity, cultural preferences, grades or where my degrees came from. This marrow minded approach to hiring, especially in academia, seems to explain much of the paucity that exists in our insitutions of higher learning today.


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