Diversity and Privilege

We need to understand how privilege works before we can make diversity work.
Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Tetreault

Efforts to diversify university faculties began almost forty years ago. Since then, the number of white women faculty and faculty of color on U.S. campuses has grown slowly but steadily. At the same time, the explanatory framework for this shift—what we call the “terms of inclusion”—has changed profoundly. “Diversity” and “excellence” were once widely seen as opposites, in that diversity was perceived as a threat to, or a watering down of, excellence. Yet in many quarters today, diversity and excellence are understood to be mutually reinforcing. Excellence, it is said, rests on diversity. How has this change occurred?

In January 2000, we set out to examine efforts over the past four decades to diversify the faculty of three universities—Rutgers University–Newark, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan. This journey—documented in our 2007 book, Privilege and Diversity in the Academy—showed us that the long-standing use of the term “excellence” in opposition to “diversity” has reflected less a commitment to academic quality than an enactment of academic privilege; that is, it reflected the power of established elites to control the norms of the academic enterprise to keep new people, new topics, and new methodologies at bay. Privilege, in its root meaning, pertains to a law—in this case often silent and unseen— that works for or against individuals and groups. We have learned that to bring a genuine range of experience and perspective to American campuses, not only must the goals of diversity and excellence be conjoined, but the operations of privilege must also be deliberately excavated and challenged.

The structures and practices that have maintained the group advantage of white men, and the challenges mounted by newcomers over time, can be understood only by taking a historical, institutional, and comparative approach. In comparing specific institutions whose policies are embedded within particular campus cultures, we found differences and commonalities. Most important, we learned that the institutions have moved through distinct phases, or stages of development.

The patterns of white male advantage in the “cold war university” go back to the period just following World War II. “Affirmative action” policies then heavily favored whites and men—especially the GI Bill, which fueled the nation’s largest-ever higher education expansion. Cold war economic and social policies also fostered the growth of research universities, including Stanford and Michigan, devoted to large-scale projects staffed by a burgeoning professorial elite.

The race and gender exclusivity of this elite group rigidified ideas about the “ideal” faculty member. For example, at the University of Michigan, when qualified women showed up after World War II, usually as spouses, the university, which had not observed its nepotism rules in the 1930s, issued a new regulation in the 1949–50 academic year that barred related persons from employment in the same department, except in emergencies and then for only a term or two. As the faculty grew at unprecedented rates, women and men of color were rarely appointed. When James Gibbs, an anthropologist and the first tenured African American at Stanford University, arrived in 1966, minority faculty members were a tiny fraction of the professoriate. “There were three of us . . . we couldn’t even fill up a card table!” he recalled.

First Phase

The student sit-ins, federal legislation, and sex discrimination suits of the civil rights and women’s movements were the first clear challenge to these race and sex discrimination policies, constituting the initial phase of diversification. A few exceptional men of color and women joined university faculties. Data on sex and race became available for institutional analysis, enabling women and people of color to see themselves as a “class,” and universities developed affirmative action policies and provided hiring incentives. But in the academic departments where actual hiring decisions occurred, resistance to having more than a few women colleagues or faculty of color remained deep. Newcomers complained of their isolation and pressure to conform. In a February 17, 2006, article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, law professor Kenji Yoshino argued that even today, faculty members “need not be straight white male ablebodied Protestants. They need only act like straight white male ablebodied Protestants. That, of course, is progress. But it is not equality.”

New Questions

As the number of newcomers grew slowly over the 1970s and early 1980s, they began to question scholarly norms. African American studies, women’s studies, and ethnic studies programs became centers of scholarship with new standards, methodologies, and research topics; this scholarship gradually began to affect the mainstream disciplines. Women and minority faculty also steered the curriculum toward multicultural approaches.

At the same time, university and departmental attention shifted from affirmative action initiatives and discrimination complaints to debates about the legitimacy of feminist and multicultural research. For example, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman was granted tenure in 1983 after filing a grievance asserting that she had been discriminated against because of her research on women, which had been characterized as a “passing fad” and an expression of “other loyalties.”

Allies among white men emerged. Terrence McDonald, a historian and dean of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, described to us how his new colleagues taught him about the theory and practice of race and gender. “It has had a huge impact on my teaching and my own work. It is at the core of everything now,” he said.

A Major Shift

The transformative idea that diversity can constitute excellence, rather than subvert it, is perhaps the most important shift that we marked. To our knowledge, this idea first took root at Michigan in the late 1980s after campuswide reflection and planning. As James Duderstadt, Michigan’s president from 1988 to 1996, put it, “Excellence and diversity are not only complementary but will be tightly linked in the multicultural society characterizing our nation and the world in the future.” Michigan leaders implemented programs making this link explicit, inaugurating a new campus culture. They established the Target of Opportunity Program to increase the number of minority, and later white women, faculty in all ranks. They also recruited senior faculty members from elsewhere to provide leadership in shaping recruitment and retention practices. Their efforts paid off. They established a critical mass of women and minority male faculty members in many departments and programs. They adopted more flexible university-wide policies to balance work and family responsibilities. They restructured tenure and promotion policies. And they ensured  attention in all these efforts to women of color in particular.

More recently, Rutgers University– Newark and Stanford also began to consider the intersection of excellence and diversity as integral to their scholarly mission. Rutgers is recruiting a diverse faculty to work in interdisciplinary research groups addressing deeply entrenched problems of the urban environment. Newark, New Jersey, long a site of community service activities, has become a setting for scholarly projects that are now central to the university’s intellectual mission. According to provost (and historian) Steven Diner, “The city has extraordinary resources for teaching and research. . . . That is the competitive advantage of an urban university.”

At Stanford, the Diversity Action Council, chaired by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, concluded that the university’s most important task is to recruit faculty who are working on issues of diversity, making diversity a central feature of “excellence.” Rosaldo, appointed in 1970, was a member of one of the first cohorts of minority faculty members at Stanford. (He now teaches at New York University.) According to Stanford provost John Etchemendy, a diverse community of scholars advances research frontiers “further and faster.” Diversity, he explained to us, “allows for new shapes, textures, and imaginings of knowledge; it encourages the kind of innovation and insight that is essential to the creation of knowledge.”

Next Frontier

Despite the intellectual transformations produced thus far, more remains to be done. The next frontier in this journey is to uncover and elaborate on ongoing operations of privilege— that is, the unquestioned, below-the surface identification of excellence with whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and social class advantage. We heard discussions on all three campuses about the silent laws that work for and against specific groups of people in the social and political context of the university.

Hazel Markus of Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity described a move from a “fairness” justification for hiring minority faculty to a “role model” justification and then to a different understanding—that all faculty members, not just people of color, represent distinctive outlooks. “It is seen as kind of fair that everybody should have a chance to be a professor,” she said. “People see it would be good for Latinas to see a Latina up in front of the classroom. But [it is harder] to see how, because of your race, ethnicity, gender, [or] cultural background, you have engaged with a set of contexts and have likely developed a [unique] set of perspectives . . . because of how you have been positioned. It is a really hard idea.”

This acknowledgment of the importance of a faculty member’s position establishes a climate that encourages a move beyond “tellable” tales to “untellable” ones. Such tales speak overtly to the workings of privilege, because if only “tellable” tales are circulated, the privileged are not forced to be accountable. These discussions are often painful. Elizabeth Cole, a psychologist at Michigan, remarked that even with a critical mass of faculty of color, “It is hard to escape being in the fray. . . . To think that just bringing in people who are different would fix everything seamlessly seems ridiculous.” A colleague observed, “When the white male gentry looks at the large number of women, the large number of qualitative researchers, the size of the faculty of color, [it does not] think this quite matches the standards of what a top-ranked department should look like.” Mark Chesler, professor emeritus of sociology, described the “micro-aggressions” against newcomers, “the multiple ways that race [or] ethnicity, gender, and class separately and together affect their lives inside and outside the classroom.”

Another discourse concerns the persistence of gender privilege. Several times we observed that some minority men—“big men of color on campus,” as some said—are part of the star system in ways that women of color are not. Similarly, Nadine Hubbs, a musicologist, said that while she admired her gay male colleagues who are out, “For various purposes in this world, a white man is a white man. There is a certain phenomenon of ascribing gay, including genderqueer, men with a weird kind of ‘shaman’ status— fetishized and commodified and problematic, to be sure. Queer identities always play out as gendered identities, which stand unequal in relation to privilege. It’s true in the culture and in the academy.” (“Genderqueer” is a term for gender identities other than man or woman.)

Yet another emerging discourse notes the extent to which class matters. Some white men may have gender and race privilege but class origins that can cause them to identify with faculty who wonder occasionally if they really belong at the university or think that other people may wonder that. One African American woman we interviewed who has degrees from Wesleyan University and the University of Chicago said she often feels her class difference. Coming from a low-income background, she believes her colleagues have frames of reference she cannot begin to imagine.

Educated by their minority and female colleagues, some white male presidents, provosts, and deans have come to see their own group privilege and worked to open the academy to others. Yet we were recently challenged by one president of color, who had this response to our book: “If you’re a black university president, it doesn’t matter. If they don’t want to change, they don’t.”

Challenges Ahead

The current phase of excavating privilege calls for deeper shifts in ideas about what counts as scholarship and faculty achievement, accompanied by changes in university structures. At Michigan, there is a proposal to give faculty more flexibility in the time allowed to achieve tenure because of new variations and complexities in individual research trajectories. In an important challenge to departmental and disciplinary boundaries, Michigan now permits faculty to move half of their tenure line to another unit. According to Sidonie Smith, chair of the Department of English Language and Literature, faculty and administrators concluded that in a great university, “people were going to find their intellectual interest converging with those of people in other units.”

Former Michigan provost Nancy Cantor explained the relationship between diversity and this new interdisciplinarity at Michigan: “Diversity really is intellectual and social diversity, and that is what interdisciplinarity does. You look at a question or an issue from multiple lenses, jargons, disciplines. It is a more exciting environment if people from different life experiences come together. . . . The interdisciplinary conversation we had was a major challenge to privilege, because privilege is often rendered in these institutions through the perceived wisdom of leaders in the disciplines.”

Despite all the gains that have been achieved, there is trouble in paradise. The conceptualization of change involved in interdisciplinary recruitment and academic units is fraught with tensions and challenges. Departments such as women’s studies and ethnic studies support scholarly frontiers where new research methodologies can be tried out and new topics introduced. They are places where research that engages activist political agendas may find a home. Yet, at the same time, these programs must prove that their members’ scholarship meets the same academic standards required by other departments. Some may perceive these standards as too narrow and exclusionary, while others see them as appropriately “rigorous.”

The University of Michigan’s denial of tenure to a Native American scholar in American culture and women’s studies provides a powerful recent example of these tensions. Michigan had the most hospitable interdisciplinary structures we found among the universities we studied. But even though the American culture program supported her case, women’s studies turned her down, a decision supported by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

We did not review her case— indeed, we could not, because it is a matter internal to the university— so it is impossible to argue “both sides” of this issue. Despite that limitation, our research on the three campuses suggests some questions to ask in contentious tenure cases. What is the history of a unit in relation to tenuring women and men of color? How diverse is the present department? What do successful and unsuccessful cases illuminate about privilege and diversity? Do established senior faculty members control the norms of the academic enterprise in such away as to nurture new people, topics,  and methodologies? Are there any persisting assumptions that work for and against specific groups of people in the social and political context of the university? Does the university have guidelines for rewarding public scholarship or for determining what constitutes excellence at tenure time?

Without the stories we heard on the three campuses we studied, we would not have been able to see how faculty diversification efforts have moved over time from affirmative action approaches that pit diversity against excellence to the identification of diversity with excellence—to the beginnings, in some places, of an understanding about how multiple perspectives across disciplines can restructure the university of the future and transform the lives and scholarship of faculty. A truly diverse faculty, moving beyond the “perceived wisdoms of privilege,” will construct a university very different from the one we now have.

Frances A. Maher is professor emerita of education at Wheaton College (Mass.) and visiting scholar at Brandeis University’s Center for Research on Women. Mary Kay Tetreault is provost emerita at Portland State University. Maher’s e-mail address is [email protected]; Tetreault’s is [email protected].