As I’ve written in the past, when it comes to increasing diversity, higher education institutions don’t have a pipeline problem so much as a recognizing excellence that looks different from the status quo problem, combined with a lack of commitment to making the institution welcoming for diverse views problem.
This tension is multiplied at elite institutions where the prevailing ethos is that whatever they’re doing is excellent just as it is. For example, Harvard and Yale, I’m certain, have a sincere desire to bring more faculty from underrepresented groups into the fold, but those folks had better assimilate into the status quo if they want to stick around.
Elite institutions and diversity are almost inherently incompatible. By its nature, elite must be exclusive, and diversitys this. Given the historic role of white supremacy in the establishment and continuance of most of our elite legacy institutions, you’re going to run into some serious turbulence if you strive for actual diversity.
This is not limited to elite higher education institutions. The New York Times is currently in the midst of a major succession, with Joseph Kahn being named the new executive editor to replace the departing Dean Baquet. The choice is widely viewed as an affirmation of a status quo when it comes to political coverage in the Times presenting itself as a kind of neutral arbiter of a battle between our two major political parties for power in a democratic system. Its elite status stems from its primacy inside that system.
However, as myriad critics have pointed out over and over again—James Fallows rounds them up at a recent post at his Substack—weighted against current events, the Times‘ Approach to politics is an actual failure of journalism, as one of our major parties appears to be actively moving toward true antidemocracy. This divide has led to obvious internal strife at the paper, which has occasionally spilled out into public, most recently in a leaked internal memo in which Baquet and a deputy issued an edict that reporters tweet less often, presumably at least in part to cut down on the public voicing of criticism of the paper by staffers.
The Times appears genuinely fearful of even being accused of bias, and so they bend over backward to create this false balance where the true nonscandal of Hillary Clinton’s emails is somehow equivalent to the fire hose of corruption and ill doings of Donald Trump and his coterie around the 2016 election. Again, read Fallows’s analysis of this and tell me the lie.
This often allows Times political reporters to be played as suckers, as they run innumerable profiles trying to understand what motivates the people who would happily trade in our democracy for power.
As Fallows also points out, the Times has a long and positive history of admitting when its reporters and editors fail to live up to their ethos (Jayson Blair, Judith Miller, Iraq War in general), but the paper appears loath to examine the underlying ethos of its political worldview. This has led to a kind of sclerosis where people who are willing to get on board with that view stay and the apostates go, leaving the paper significantly less diverse than it otherwise could or should be.
Elite higher ed institutions are prone to the same problem. If an institution truly wishes to become more diverse, it must not only question and quite possibly expand the criteria by which it determines its worth, it must also take active steps to make the institution actually welcoming and nurturing to people from diverse backgrounds.
We know for Black faculty, frequently the opposite happens, with minority faculty often being required to take on significant additional invisible labor in the effort of making the institution more diverse.
Achieving diversity is really pretty straightforward in theory, and maybe even in practice: decide you want to admit more and varied voices into the conversation and then do that. The track record of our existing higher education institutions, particularly those of the elite variety, is pretty miserable on that front.
Achieving diversity is not a zero-sum game, but it does require tradeoffs, and from my view, institutions are rarely willing to do the difficult work of making the changes, some of which may require necessary sacrifices by those who currently benefit from the status quo.
So much of the heat around these issues seems purely performative, rather than substantive. I’m sympathetic to people who are critical of surface-level DEI training not because the training is offensive or excessively “woke,” but because it doesn’t mean much by itself without questioning the structures that settle for surface-level training over substantive change.
Those who think that the status quo is righteous and good should feel no need to apologize, but I believe they should just own their embrace of the status quo and admit (to themselves most of all) that their commitment to actual diversity does not run beyond lip service.