Insiders and Outsiders in Racialized Higher Education

Having a voice rather than simply a seat at the table is a prerequisite for the participation of minoritized faculty, administrators, staff and students in the mainstream of university and college life. Whereas in the past visibility and invisibility of marginalized groups has been the predominant metaphor for inclusive/exclusionary practices, the phenomenon of voice and silencing more accurately represents the actual dynamic of power relations on college campuses. As Shulamit Reinharz of Brandeis University points out, if institutional practices support only the physical presence of marginalized groups without hearing their voices, little change will have taken place.

In a persuasive article, Fred Bonner argues that the academy gives greater weight to the scholarship of white faculty who write about diversity issues than to minority faculty who are not only writing about issues of inequity, but living them. In his words,

The etic outsider perspective should not be allowed to constantly overshadow the authentic claims of the emic insider’s view.

As a graduate student at an Ivy League institution, I was surprised to find that the leading faculty in Asian Studies were all white scholars, while the native Asian speakers held untenured lecturer positions. While the language instructors typically did not hold doctorate degrees, I often found it baffling at the time that the leading lights in the field did not include the first-person perspectives of Asians or Asian Americans. This polarization bespoke a troubling reality in higher education, i.e. the devaluing of the insider’s perspective.

In this two-tiered system, even the pursuit of diversity-related research by minoritized faculty has been viewed as of less scholarly value, particularly in the tenure process. In the Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader, Alvin Evans and I share the perspective of a white chair of kinesiology who sees it as part of her role to have a discussion with the promotion and tenure committee regarding the value of diversity research:

There is just more of an appreciation for what they would call scientific research as opposed to social science research, first of all . . . as much as I have tried to have conversations about that. . . . And then just the valuing of the diversity research agenda, clearly it is not as valued. I think it comes down to method as much as anything, but that is a vicious circle. Because the way you study diversity is different than measuring your blood pressure. The certainty for scientists sometimes in basic science is a false certainty, but they don’t perceive it at all in diversity-related research; there is not a valuing of it. So in the tenure process, I think the chair has to have a conversation about it.

How then can institutions of higher education begin to address the dichotomy between the insider/outsider perspectives? Through case studies and interviews with CDO’s and institutional diversity leaders for a forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift: Comprehensive Organizational Learning Strategies in Higher Education, Alvin Evans and I explore the ways in which organizational learning can serve as a lever for diversity transformation and the creation of more inclusive campus environments.

Our survey of diversity officers conducted for this study highlights one of the inherent contradictions in the insider/outsider perspective– i.e., the expectation that the Chief Diversity Officer, who is typically a member of a marginalized group, should be the sole leader or spokesperson for diversity cultural change on college campuses. The Chief Diversity Officer role is the only top leadership role in which the majority of all incumbents are diverse, with whites comprising only 12.3 percent of CDO’s in doctoral universities. This singular representation suggests a form of symbolism or even token status. As David Owen observes, reliance on minoritized individuals to carry the load on diversity issues has negative connotations, such as 1) only these individuals are responsible for or interested in diversity work, or 2) that these positions are the only executive positions that ethnic/racial minorities are competent to hold. As he explains:

It is manifestly unjust to place the burden of dismantling structures of race and gender privilege that are the consequence of hundreds of years of systemic oppression in the United States on men and women of color and White women.

Such broad expectations for the CDO role conflict with the fact that many CDO’s serve in “at will” status without employment protection. Leading a change agenda without such protection is inherently a risky proposition. As an Afro-Latino CDO in our survey sample indicates:

This role in itself is a risk. I think that anybody that takes on this role must go into role with the understanding that they are at risk all the time. … the reality is that this work challenges power.

Our current study reveals reveal several key themes that are integral to substantive diversity progress at both private and public institutions of higher education. Courageous presidential leadership is a sine qua non of diversity change. Such leadership communicates a sense of urgency about diversity and inclusion, emanates to executive leadership and the deans, and is bolstered by concrete action that provides the resources necessary for diversity change. Take the urgency given to diversity and commitment to resource prioritization exemplified by President Robert Nelsen of Sacramento State University. As he told us:

. . . in our budget this year we set three priorities: priority number one was to make certain that we had enough classes for our students; priority two was diversity; priority three was safety. When you move diversity to the forefront of allocations, it means that with your budget decisions you are making a moral decision about diversity and its importance. That takes some explaining and teaching so that people understand why it is important.

Another important theme emerging from the case studies is that tenured faculty serve as a powerful and sometimes singular voice of opposition in response to regressive external political pressures. Although student activists on many campuses have raised issues of diversity and inclusion, the power to sustain such efforts may indeed rely on the tenured faculty. Their collective voice has been strengthened when expressed in faculty senate resolutions or through the creation of sub-committees or councils to examine often uncomfortable diversity issues.

In his blog post of December 8, 2016, Joe Feagin warns that our country is now facing a social, political and political-economic downward anti-egalitarian spiral. In the face of this treacherous downward political spiral, as Feagin points out, we need to frame the questions and problems of social inequality. This concrete framing demands that we address both the insider/outsider dynamic at play in university power relations as well as how the value of diversity and inclusion is communicated and disseminated across the multi-dimensional contours of a campus ecosystem.