How Diversity Rhetoric Obscures Structural Inequities in Higher Education

Silver-tongued administrators and pissed-off professors.
By Cathryn Bailey


As a feminist philosopher who has traveled between departments and in and out of university administration, I am a poster child for academic displacement and, by my own reckoning, an ambiguous story of both failure and success. Looking back on my career trajectory, I now see how liberal notions of free speech and responsibility have shaped my understanding of academia, especially the diversity service work that has occupied so much of my time and attention over the decades. Due in no small part to the mixed institutional messages I have received, I have often been left feeling both anger at and appreciation for the universities where I have worked. My deep ambivalence, I have come to understand, is an almost predictable consequence of the contradictory values and impulses underlying contemporary higher education.

Precarity and Solidarity

When I was a PhD student in the mid-1990s, there were relatively few women of any race, and almost no men of color, in my field of philosophy (unfortunately, little has changed in the intervening years). I expected to have difficulty finding a tenure-track job, but I had a sense of its being achievable, a confidence based in part, I am sure, on white privilege. These days, the systematic downsizing of the professoriate and the glut of liberal arts PhDs competing for jobs has led to hopelessness and resignation among graduate students. Women and men of color, as well as white men, must navigate the increasingly uncertain waters of graduate school as debt mounts and tales of adjunct woe proliferate. The reality is bleak: so few jobs available for PhD graduates, far fewer of them tenure-track positions. And although about as many women as men are earning degrees, just 37.5 percent of the tenured faculty are women, and women of color are only 8 percent, according to data from the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

For good reason, skepticism about academic job prospects is now part of the very culture and ethos of liberal arts graduate schools and, predictably, many graduate students and adjuncts are savvy about the exploitation of their labor. An entire genre of blogs, and even professional services such as coaching, have emerged from graduate student anxiety and dissatisfaction. As adjunct instructor Veronica Rose Popp noted in an article in Bust, “adjuncts are sometimes homeless, on food stamps, work for 25 years without recognition, or starve all summer.” The experience of becoming an academic these days, it seems, includes embracing deep suspicion about and frustration toward the profession.

The recent expressions of academic labor solidarity across employee groups suggest that even relatively privileged academics—and I include myself in this group—increasingly understand how the status and fates of all of us who work in higher education are entwined. And given the current climate, it is surely reasonable to expect tenured professors to continue being replaced by part-time instructors. The academic labor question is revealed to be a class issue shaped by factors such as gender and race, as noted, for example, in the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2016 statement of solidarity with contingent faculty. It has perhaps never before been more obvious that the fissures that underlie the academic labor crisis are connected to broader concerns about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

There is no room, then, for pretending that anyone is facing these problems solely, or even primarily, as an individual, though much cultural, institutional, and disciplinary rhetoric still pushes us to think in individualistic terms. It is perhaps when the class politics underlying academic employment are most naked that institutional propaganda about individual behavior, often couched in terms of civility, is most prevalent. Employment pressure, for example, makes faculty members ever more reluctant to speak openly about supposedly controversial matters or issues that test the bounds of “civility.”

Administrative Diversity Efforts

My own stint in administration—as a department chair, and then as an associate dean of a college of arts and sciences at a public university—deepened my disillusionment about meaningful administrative responses to social justice challenges in higher education. References to diversity, multiculturalism, and equity were frequently uttered with hand-wringing earnestness, precisely the sort of “civil discourse” that universities prize. It was rare to meet an administrator who did not speak glowingly of diversity and just as rare to see this notion enacted as more than a mere slogan. It is no wonder that Sarah Ahmed warns us in her 2012 book On Being Included “to be cautious about the appealing nature of diversity . . . and the ease of its incorporation by institutions.”

The bureaucratic approach I have observed is captured by a few examples, such as when campus leaders extol the virtues of attracting and retaining a diverse faculty yet offer incentives such as salary counteroffers or partner hires to white male faculty members in traditionally male disciplines. Search committees required to do implicit-bias training nevertheless select disproportionately high numbers of white cisgender heterosexual men for tenure-track lines. Systematic disparities in compensation are tolerated and rationalized while nonsubstantive, often vacuous, verbal expressions of appreciation shower down. Although salary-equity studies and pay-equity committees emerge with zealous administrative support, the staggeringly slow pace and lack of rational, systematic remedies yield little more than frustration.

While today’s large universities may be no worse on this score than most other sizable institutions, the rhetoric of colleges and universities often stands in sickeningly stark contrast to campus reality. More administrators are now expected to have the silver-tongued political skill to soothe aggrieved marginalized faculty and students, many of whom are quite savvy about diversity issues. Yet how much scrutiny is there of administrators’ substantive diversity achievements? Even as faculty, staff, and students may participate in administrative diversity initiatives in good faith, we know that these efforts often result in nothing more than a check mark on a dean’s or a provost’s strategic plan. Unfortunately, the pretty words may be meant more to assuage and keep the institutional machinery chugging along than to catalyze real change.

It is perhaps no accident, then, that so much university diversity talk conveniently leverages the feel-good language of communalism even as it also expediently relies on individualist notions of responsibility. Rhetoric swings predictably between the “we” and the singular “you,” which helps disguise the systemic nature of the problems. “Our” campus community is set forth as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. A communal “we” takes credit for the mythic image of the university viewbook as an inviting Benetton ad. Yet when faculty members or students raise complaints—even those that point to long-standing patterns of discrimination or abuse—they are likely to be framed and handled merely in the very particular terms of individual rights and victimization.

This elision between the communal and the individual can function as a cover-up in which even ethical, well-intentioned faculty members and administrators become complicit. As Linfield College professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt argued in an article in Inside Higher Ed, no matter how fluent your diversity rhetoric, you are part of the problem if “you work in a position of power in a predominantly white institution, and while you claim to be working for social justice, you do nothing to change the white supremacist power structures within your departments, committees, and institutional decision-making process.” When we accept and participate in an institution’s discourse of diversity in primarily individualist terms, it allows administrators to feel effective and righteous despite the lack of real institutional accountability.

And to be clear, it isn’t as if, in 2020 and beyond, university administrations can’t be expected to know better. Credible analyses of, and recommendations for, addressing the systematic nature of the diversity challenge are available. For example, JoAnn Moody’s Faculty Diversity: Removing the Barriers has been widely consumed by university administrators for years. Still, I have seen little evidence that administrators heed that book’s expert advice. For example, Moody urges administrators to anticipate “typical myths and forms of resistance that arise during efforts to diversify,” many of which, I notice, are rooted in liberal individualist assumptions: the belief in supposed color-blindness, abuses of the concept of a “good fit” when hiring, the claim that international faculty sufficiently fulfill diversity goals, and the reflexive retreat behind worries that diversity efforts will violate laws. I have heard administrators amplify every one of these assumptions. Not only is the rhetoric failing to achieve real institutional change, but the excuses for shortcomings remain steeped in liberal individualist assumptions about personal merit that fit neatly in the “civil discourse” playbook.

Highly publicized university diversity initiatives often serve as an end in themselves, with many administrators now hired and advanced, in no small part, for their rhetorical prowess in this “sensitive” area. While we may have been disgusted by the verbally inept, racist, and sexist administrators of years past, we now face cadres of ineffectual bureaucrats who are disarmingly fluent in acceptably benign diversity discourses. More than once I have naively been heartened by the compelling speech of an eloquent administrator—especially one who apparently grasps the systematic nature of the problems we face—only to be disappointed when no action follows.

At other times, administrators who sing the praises of diversity goals, initiatives, and strategic objectives frame structural inequities as being only about particular individuals. A quite specific complaint by a faculty member of color—for example, that his diversity-focused sabbatical proposal has been unfairly dismissed—may be met with feel-good assurances from a dean or vice provost echoing the institutional diversity statement. Such polite responses effectively close down discussion. What response is available when the dean warmly replies that “the University of X values everyone”? Institutional accountability becomes clouded over in a puff of rhetorical rainbow smoke that disguises the constraints faced by actual individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, who are struggling to thrive. In its attempt to sidestep blame, avoid controversy, and appease aggrieved constituents, the administration’s “civil” and “reasonable” conduct upholds the status quo’s inequities.

Rethinking Personal Responsibility

Even though many progressive teacher-scholars are critical of liberal notions of freedom and responsibility in our intellectual work—I certainly am—we often revert to “common sense” understandings when we evaluate our professional pasts and plan our futures. Given how the academy itself is steeped in and sustained by neoliberal assumptions, we are often left feeling complicit in our own professional victimization. The institution’s practiced ease in shifting between individualist and communal rhetorical frameworks, the “I” and the “we,” can further obscure our sense of where blame and responsibility might properly lie, or whether such terms are really even useful in the realities we must negotiate. This dynamic plays out painfully, for example, when an individual faculty member is called to task for being “inappropriate” or “too angry” on social media with no account given of the institutional and social factors that surround the speech act and that may need addressing.

The agonizing choices marginalized academics face with respect to diversity rhetoric and service work illustrate the problem. From a liberal perspective, we are, of course, free to accept or decline service work, but institutional pressure, not to mention the tug of one’s own conscience, complicates the matter. We want to support our students and our besieged communities; as critical race scholar Karen Pyke explains, “It is easy to regard an ‘invitation’ to serve on a high-status committee with senior colleagues as an ‘honor,’ making it impossible to say no.” The liberal model, according to which meaningful choice is typically defined simply as noncoerced consent, fails us when we consider the pressures that justice-minded faculty routinely face.

When early in my career I took on LGBTQ service work, some senior colleagues concerned about my progress toward tenure were critical. “Why didn’t you just say ‘no’?” they asked. I found it difficult to explain that, as one of only a few out lesbian faculty or staff members on campus, I felt a compelling sense of responsibility to the LGBTQ campus community, even though I knew that to decline might better serve my rational, individual self-interest. Further, I wondered what message I would be sending to higher-ups if I failed to participate in their latest diversity project. The worst part may have been that, pressured by the institution and confronted by colleagues wedded to liberal notions of consent, I was left to question my own judgment. Was I crazy for agreeing to do diversity work that might not count for anything in the tenure game, even though it would please administrators eager to pad their diversity portfolios?

When we step outside the liberal framework, though, choices to engage in diversity service work are revealed in fuller complexity and require us to think in relational terms. A relational and holistic framework does not dictate one correct course of action, but it permits me to make sense of saying no to diversity service work in order to better focus on, for example, my health, my family, or my tenure file. A more contextual, relational framework ought not to be construed as somehow privileging others’ wishes and needs over my own. I try to keep this point in mind when I consider the experience of a graduate student of color who was once very active in diversity service work on her campus. The work “had fantastic highs,” she wrote in an anonymous article for Inside Higher Ed, but, unfortunately, “the lows of service outweighed the highs.” Service work came to dominate her time and, more insidiously, her identity. “My hypervisibility as a brown body and as a symbol of ‘those activist grad students’ came with the twist of feeling invisible as a whole person, or even as a scholar,” she wrote.

A narrowly liberal, individualistic framework can easily distort our sense of personal identity and success, leaving us feeling alternatively heroic and like dupes of the institution. In the landscape of contemporary liberal individualism, separate, self-motivated players each are thought to advance under their own steam and, therefore, to succeed or fail almost solely by virtue of their own personal talents and hard work. And what counts as professional progress, too, is, in liberal fashion, usually framed in linear and hierarchical terms. One’s success is defined by an uninterrupted ascent up the food chain—from graduate student to assistant professor and so on—and by whatever monetary benefits accompany this rise. To the degree, then, that I have internalized this liberal mythology, it is difficult for me to escape feelings of personal shame when I fail. (And, to be clear, such failure is often visible for all to see; one’s publications are counted by one’s colleagues and found wanting, one’s promotion is delayed, or one’s sabbatical is denied.) While the institution will certainly be happy to take credit for a faculty member’s achievements, be they in teaching, scholarship, or diversity service, she will most likely be called to account for herself as an individual when she falls short.

The university’s flexibility in shifting between the individual and communal perspectives is, perhaps, especially ironic given how many liberal arts scholars explicitly critique the ideology of liberal individualism, as I do here. How is it that this discourse continues to hold sway over our institutions and perhaps even over our self-understandings? Certainly, the fact that I don’t explicitly subscribe to the tenets of liberal individualism does not keep them from figuring into my self-reflections or my evaluations of my colleagues and students. One of the greatest perversions of higher education may be that, in an arena in which we most need to maintain some sense of intellectual independence, we can be coopted by an implicit reinscription of bourgeois notions of freedom and responsibility.

The sheer ubiquity of the liberal individualist model in US higher education makes it tempting simply to turn and focus on the particular groups or individuals we feel have impeded our success instead of appreciating that the dividing lines between and among us are not so clear. And while the impulse to hold other individuals responsible is surely a healthy one—this is an area in which liberal individualism excels—it is dangerous to relate to our institutions primarily from a perspective of individual victimhood, especially when these same institutions are supposed to be entrusted to resolve our grievances. Just as we should often be suspicious when our institutions frame our concerns as faculty members solely in terms of individual circumstances, we should stay aware of the broader institutional forces that focus narrowly on particular administrative responses. While we may quite rightly call attention to a particular administrator’s ham-handed response, we must not lose sight of the institutional context that empowers and abets him, as in the appalling case of Michigan State’s Larry Nassar.

It is no wonder that so many academics have a love-hate relationship with their jobs. Though I have benefited in countless ways from my privilege as a white person, I have also endured both mundane and eyebrow-raising sexism and homophobia. I have felt judged and dismissed by students, colleagues, and administrators on grounds that I have found arbitrary and offensive, though these were almost never demonstrably actionable transgressions. And I am hardly unique in having endured administrative attempts to manage my anger and disappointment through the sort of rhetorical platitudes and impotent bureaucratic interventions described above. Perhaps worst of all, I have been quite clear that my expressions of outrage were to be held carefully in check, that the very qualities that marked me as an acceptable academic—coolheaded reasonableness and ivory-tower composure and objectivity—would be called into question if my mask should slip.

Yet these same institutions have also supported, encouraged, and enabled me. A detractor in one situation can, in fact, be one’s champion in other circumstances. Neither our institutions nor the individuals who inhabit them are simply good or bad. So although being an administrator has left me with a bitter taste, I cannot deny either my own complicity with the bureaucracy I inhabited or the genuine value of some of my contributions. Surely, part of why I was permitted to be an administrator in the first place is because I was perceived to be a lesbian feminist scholar amenable to domestication. And whatever small gains I was able to facilitate on behalf of diversity and equity in that role—and there were some—became possible only because of my perceived value as a token. Knowing how to keep my mouth shut, how to dress, speak, and comport myself, according to the script of institutional civility, was a price I paid and believed I had to pay in order to succeed in my administrative roles.

I cannot, then, now look back and feel straightforwardly righteous anger at disappointments I have experienced at the hands of my discipline or home institutions. In such diffuse contexts, what is the definition and value of blame? Seen from outside the liberal framework, blame can sometimes appear to be a juridical notion of limited usefulness, whether I am directing it at myself or at others. And, again, I feel compelled to pause at the question of my own complicity. As a token radical lesbian feminist administrator—though that label certainly does not exhaust the identity I occupied—to what extent was my very presence a kind of apologia, be it on the graduation platform, sitting at the provost’s conference table, or serving on yet another diversity committee? If I am going to blame my institution for what I have suffered, then should I find space, too, to take some responsibility myself for my own disappointment? How, in this complicated context, can I make sense of my own inclination and right to complain at all?

Such questions gain urgency when we consider that marginalized academics have long blamed ourselves and lived in fear of having our complaints dismissed or trivialized. As feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff reminds us, many women “who do have the courage to complain and even to attempt remedial action about very serious problems in the academy are vilified not just as whiners but as hysterics, whores, and/or general incompetents.” Our institutions may insist that we report our grievances to the proper authorities, but who is surprised when we are reluctant to follow through? Isn’t the primary function of such offices to preserve the credibility of the institution? In short, despite the fact that many ethical individuals staff university equity and diversity offices—I know firsthand that countless people of integrity are engaged in this difficult work—the system itself seems to be designed to neutralize complaints against it.

I am certainly not suggesting that individual behavior and attitudes don’t matter. We experience life only in particularity, both good and bad, and it is at this level that remedies are felt. But I wonder if I haven’t sometimes focused so much on particular individuals’ apparently bad behavior—including, sometimes, my own—because doing so has made the problem seem more manageable and because my institution has encouraged it. Just as white people in the United States are so often supported in conceiving of racism solely as a failure of “bad” individuals, rather than as insidiously systematic, so, too, marginalized academics may sometimes be encouraged to focus too narrowly on the sins of particular noxious colleagues. A healthier alternative may be for us to be more vigilant in recognizing the ways that bureaucratic diversity rhetoric’s commitment to liberal individualism is precisely what hampers our achievement of meaningful change.

Cathryn Bailey is professor of gender and women’s studies at Western Michigan University. Her email address is [email protected].