Marching Backward: Tenn. Politicians Vote to Cut UT Diversity Funding

The historic march of 600 civil rights activists on March 7, 1965 attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama toward Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday” marked the culmination of efforts to bring changes to voter registration procedures that prevented blacks from registering to vote. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, whose skull was fractured by a police nightstick as he led protesters across the bridge, has reminded us of an African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.” On August 6, 1965, following two subsequent marches, the Federal Voting Rights Act was passed. Congressman Lewis recalls that what propelled him forward was “the spirit of history”:

We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history and we couldn’t turn back. We had to move forward. We had become like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. I thought we would die. …I thought it was the last protest for me, but somehow, some way you have to keep going.

It is now up to us now to move our feet or else the march backwards will erode more than half a century of progress on diversity and inclusion. The effort to cut funding for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT Knoxville) by the state legislature is symptomatic of this regressive tide.

In April 2016, the House of Representatives and the Senate in Tennessee voted to remove the $436,000 state appropriation for the Diversity and Inclusion office at UT Knoxville for one year. An earlier version of the bill would have used $100,000 of the funds to place decals on law enforcement vehicles that read “In God We Trust.” The bill is now before Republican Governor Bill Haslam for final decision.

At the same time, 10 GOP representatives and state senators led by state representative Eddie Smith wrote to Tennessee’s Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor requesting a joint committee be formed to investigate the diversity offices at the state’s public universities and colleges. According to Smith, “the university needs to reflect the values of Tennessee.”

Specific objections were raised in late 2015 regarding the efforts of UT Knoxville’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion to educate the campus community about gender-neutral pronouns as well a memo that recommended avoiding religious symbols at holiday work parties. In a Fox news interview, Representative John J. Duncan, Sr., warned against the “political correctness” involved in these two actions and stated that the liberals in the United States are the most intolerant in the country. And Representative Micah Van Huss who drafted the original legislation stated that the “so-called Office of Diversity” was “not celebrating diversity, they are wiping it out. It is the office of Political Correctness.”

Calls for the resignation of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek by members of the legislature followed. The website posts were amended or deleted and oversight of the Diversity Office’s website was moved to the Communications Department. Some lawmakers called for Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, UT’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer, to resign as well. Petitions to support Cheek and Hall gathered more than 3,000 faculty, staff, and student signatures. A student coalition, UT Diversity Matters, was subsequently formed on the Knoxville campus and presented a list of demands to the administration including the need for inclusivity training for all incoming students, faculty, and staff.

In response to the legislature’s efforts to defund the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, hundreds of University of Tennessee students marched in protest on April 29, 2016, with some demonstrators lying down in a walkway and later forming a circle in front of a student residential building. As the protest continued, Confederate flags were hung outside two dorm windows. George Habeib, a 19-year old printmaking student described the hanging of the Confederate flags as “trying to instill fear in us” and added, “it further proves out point of why this [sort of protest] is needed.

The legislature’s efforts have been answered by students, faculty, and staff “moving their feet” in the forward-looking spirit of history that John Lewis spoke of. Yet the bill to defund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is but one example of the deepening divisiveness over the issue of diversity in this nation and its educational institutions. The move forward toward the creation of more inclusive institutional environments will require the sustained commitment and courage that anchors “trees planted by the rivers of water.”

The Diversity Research-To-Practice Gap: Backlash to Fisher Case

A new paper titled “Bridging the Research to Practice Gap: Achieving Mission-Driven Diversity and Inclusion Goals” by Teresa Taylor, Jeffrey Milem, and Arthur Coleman, seeks to link research findings on diversity with policy implications for colleges and universities. While a valuable effort, the paper appears confusing in terms of the policy implications resulting from the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action in admissions in the Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) case. In 2013, a conservative US Supreme Court ruled on the claim of “reverse discrimination” by Abigail Fisher, a white undergraduate who had applied to UT and not been accepted. Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur, actively recruited Fisher through his one-person organization, the Project on Fair Representation, an organization that has also challenged the Voting Rights Act.

The new research paper does acknowledge the issues arising from Fisher in terms of the need for evidence-based justification for the use of race-sensitive factors in the admissions process. It identifies two issues deriving from the Fisher case as

(1) the relationship between the ‘necessity’ of race-conscious practices and the availability and effectiveness of race-neutral alternatives, and (2) the relationship between race-conscious practices and their impact on the achievement of diversity-based educational goal (p.3).

Yet while the paper identifies the dilemmas debated in Fisher, it does not clearly identify the narrow limits within which the Supreme Court has determined that race-conscious practices can be used. The paper states that

research has confirmed that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interactional interactions and campus climate” (p. 19).

Despite the positive impact of diversity on campus climate and cross-racial interactions as demonstrated in research findings, the Fisher case casts a long shadow over the future use of explicitly race-sensitive means to attain student body diversity.

As highlighted in Alvin Evans’ and my recent book: Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, three of the most critical developments resulting from Fisher with implications for college and university admissions policies are:

1) the Supreme Court has moved from consideration of the value of diversity itself to the means colleges and universities use to attain it; 2) the reviewing court, not the university, “must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce” the educational benefits of diversity (Fisher v. University of Texas); and 3) universities must first exhaust race-neutral measures before race-sensitive factors are considered. The necessity of race-conscious practices was not acknowledged by the Court and even if such practices might be considered, they require substantial proof that workable, race-neutral strategies have been exhausted. As a result, race-conscious strategies cannot be used easily and without substantial proof/justification.

One of the important factors in the UT Austin admissions policy that is not adequately clarified in the new research paper, is that 90 percent of the available seats at public institutions of higher education in Texas fall under the top ten percent plan (TTP). This plan that automatically admits high school students in the top ten percent of their class to public institutions of higher education in Texas was viewed by the Court and conservative think tanks as a “race-neutral plan.” Instead, the Court narrowly focused on the very modest 10 percent of the seats that are based on a holistic admissions review process which after 2004 allowed the consideration of race as a “special circumstance.” In 2013, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit for reconsideration of the use of race in the Personal Achievement Index employed for 10 percent of the entering class, and the Court of Appeals upheld UT Austin’s use of race. An appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, once again sponsored by Blum, will result in a ruling likely to be issued in June.

Given this uncertainty, some caution needs to be applied to the findings of this new research paper confirming

that the use of race and ethnicity in the admission process can be an important tool for institutions to use to achieve their diversity goals because it lays a foundation for interracial interactions and campus climate (p. 19).

As noted in the paper, however, the institutional mission and the context for diversity are essential aspects of establishing the groundwork for diversity and inclusion policies. Viable means of achieving student body diversity also noted in the paper include recruitment and outreach to underrepresented groups, need-based financial aid, and scholarships based on first-generation or socio-economic status.

The future of race-conscious strategies in admissions processes hangs in the balance with lawsuits filed by the conservative Project on Fair Representation against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Given the death of Antonin Scalia and since Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself on the Fisher appeal, per Adam Liptak of the New York Times and others the ruling of the remaining seven justices on the Fisher case could be narrowly confined to the “idiosyncratic Texas plan” or broadly affect admissions policies nationwide.

One can only hope that greater leverage will be granted to colleges and universities in admissions policies that foster the attainment of more compositionally diverse campuses.

“Doing Diversity” in Higher Education: Practical Challenges

Recent student demonstrations protesting lingering and persistent racism on college campuses have called attention to the fact that diversity progress in higher education remains at incipient stages. Student voices have called for structural changes such as the hiring of more diverse faculty, inclusive leadership, the creation of chief diversity officer positions and greater diversity in the student body, as well as a more welcoming climate for minoritized students. In essence, the call for change requires systemic attention and integration of all the components of a campus ecosystem rather than through short-term, cosmetic adjustments to individual departments, courses, or programs.

Surprisingly in a review of diversity strategic action plans conducted for Are the Walls Really Down? (2007), the chief diversity officers that my co-author, Alvin Evans and I, contacted told us that the plans developed at their campuses and that were showcased prominently on their campuses websites had not really been actualized. Similarly, in interviews for Diverse Administrators in Peril (2012), chief diversity officers and affirmative action officers expressed frustration regarding their roles and real uncertainty about the degree to which their work was supported by their institutions.

Recent college graduates we interviewed for a forthcoming study, Rethinking Cultural Competence in Higher Education, reported the same gap between the institution’s stated diversity mission and the curricular and co-curricular experiences they had on campus. Most of their experiences related to diversity learning outcomes were accidental and the students had to seek such experiences out themselves. And adding to this composite picture of disconnection between espoused institutional goals and day-to-day realities, interviews with department chairs for The Department Chair as Transformative Diversity Leader (2015) reveal the fractionalization around diversity issues in the academic department, the isolation of the one or two faculty members who are perceived to be the perennial diversity advocates, and the difficulty faced by chairs in moving beyond the emphasis on disciplinary specialization to “border-crossing” dialogue or cross-cultural discussions. As a Black chair of Hispanic background in an elite predominantly white university reported,

Most White colleagues assume ‘diversity’ is for people of color and do not do much in recruitment (p. 79).

Bringing together the strands of research across these different domains of the university or college environment, certain common themes emerge that can yield practical steps on the pathway to successful diversity transformation. A precursor of such transformation is the willingness and desire to move forward collectively and collaboratively on the pathway to more inclusive institutions. This willingness cannot be taken for granted as diversity remains a contested topic on many college campuses and even discussion of “anti-racist” training programs can be considered controversial. Developing a common understanding of what diversity means to an academic institution and why it is important (i.e. the “business case” for diversity) is critical.

Our investigation of the integration of diversity and human resource programs across the private and public sectors and in higher education in the New Talent Acquisition Frontier (2014) reveals 10 prominent themes that characterize successful diversity transformation across all sectors.Among these themes are

1) an actionable leadership commitment to diversity;
2) a power structure that supports the attainment of strategic diversity objectives;
3) creation of a systematic, phase-based approach;
4) cultural change that builds trust-based relationships and eliminates fear-based working and learning environments.

Using the metaphor introduced by Ralph Kilmann to describe organizational change, diversity is not a quick fix. Instead, it will require long-term, sustained, and systemic attention to infrastructure, culture, systems, and processes across the multiple, intersecting domains of a campus environment.

Like the widening ripples that result when a stone is thrown into water, diversity transformation can remain elusive and disappear from intentional consideration or it can take hold through the progressive and practical action of institutional leadership, faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

Dr. Edna Chun serves as Chief Learning Officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and HR consulting firm, and has over two decades of strategic diversity and HR experience as Chief Human Resources Officers in public higher education. Two of her co-authored books have garnered the prestigious Kathryn G. Hansen Publication award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and she is the recipient of a silver medal in the Axiom Best Business Books Award (2014) for another publication.

Race in the Academy: Three Lessons from UBC

“You must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud…” the Chair of Board of Governors told University of British Columbia (UBC) President, Dr. Arvind Gupta in May, 2015. Shortly afterward, UBC announced that Dr. Gupta, UBC’s first non-white President, had stepped down after serving only thirteen months of a five-year term. The year 2015 also marked the 100-year anniversary of UBC and Centennial celebrations, along with Dr. Gupta’s sudden departure, prompted my reflections here.

(Dr. Arvind Gupta, Former President of University of British Columbia,
image source)

The circumstances leading to Dr. Gupta’s mystifying and unprecedented exit from the UBC Presidency were not immediately disclosed and the university became embroiled in a public relations fiasco fueled by speculation. One UBC professor of Mathematics, Dr. Nassif Ghossoub, called for the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors over the “botched” announcement of the resignation.  At the Sauder School of Business, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl, an expert in gender and diversity, wrote on her blog that the ex-President lost “the masculinity contest among leadership at UBC, as most women and minorities do at institutions dominated by white men” only to be chided by the Chair of the Board of Governors for this observation. Dr. Berdahl then publicly exposed what she experienced to be an attempt by the Chair to silence her and thus undermine her academic freedom.

Unlike 1915 when the university was founded, the dynamics of leadership were different as UBC entered its 100th year under a woman President, Dr. Piper. She had served in this position before (1997-2006) and was hastily reappointed for one year upon the untimely departure of Gupta. In a statement welcoming students, staff, instructors and faculty into the centennial year of the University of British Columbia, Piper said:

“We are as committed to our core mission of learning and research as were our founders in 1915, and this centennial year will give us the opportunity to show that the spirit of intellectual inquiry is alive and well at UBC as we reach new heights in innovation and discovery.”

(Dr. Martha Piper, Interim President, University of British Columbia,
image source


Of course, what is left unsaid in Dr. Piper’s remarks is that the university’s 1915 ‘core mission’ as conceived by its founders relied upon the dispossession of the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam and Coast Salish peoples. This ‘core mission’ placed the university at the centre of Eurocentric knowledge production and of fostering the emergent Canadian elite in the province, and indeed, the country. As such, the institution reflected, and was reflective of, the racial and imperial policies of a colonial-settler state and society. Moreover, the migration and settlement policies of the period sought to increase the presence and power of ‘preferred’ European ‘races’ while containing the permanent settlement of the ‘non-preferred’ races of Asia and Africa. In other words, UBC’s ‘core mission’ was of a piece with the practices that were to produce Canada as a ‘white man’s country.’

“It looks like a whitewash” was a comment I heard with regard to Dr. Gupta again and again in the community, as well as from a number of colleagues not particularly attuned to the politics of race or diversity. The high-handed replacement of UBC’s first President of colour with a white, albeit highly qualified and reputed, woman under secretive conditions raised many questions, not the least about the vexed politics of race, diversity, gender and equity at the university. These politics, of course, reach well beyond the level of optics in shaping intellectual and institutional life. The case of Dr. Gupta reveals that if the gender politics at UBC have shifted during its history, these now serve its racialized power structure. Indeed, UBC is becoming whiter at its Centennial even as this whiteness is contested in the world in which the university functions. Unfortunately, like 1915, white hegemony remains pretty resilient at UBC.

‘Race Culture’ Structures Life in the Canadian Academy

University campuses across North America have been in a state of heightened turmoil in the last decade. Debates and struggles sparked by the racial, gender, sexual and colonial/imperial politics that shape the academy are no less explosive now than they were at the height of the protest movements of the 1960s. Public attention in Canada has focused mainly on protests against anti-Black racism in the US, from Yale to Mizzou, but much less reported is the fact that protests against anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and other forms of racism are also being organized at Canadian universities. While protests against austerity measures and the ‘rape culture’ on campuses receives national (if intermittent) public attention – as with the rape chants and sexual assaults at UBC and the online posting of misogynist comments by a group of dentistry students at Dalhousie University  – the ‘race culture’ that structures life in the Canadian academy receives far less public or scholarly attention.

(Canadian students protest, image source)

The glaring absence of Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour in leadership at UBC has been documented by the administration itself, as has been its culture of institutional whiteness. A 2013 report, Inclusion: A Consultation on Organizational Change to Support UBC’s Commitment to Equity and Diversity, commissioned by then President Toope found a “lack of representation of racialized groups in senior positions and on committees, a lack of safe spaces for racialized groups, as well as the persistence of Eurocentric norms in the evaluation of scholarship and work performance.”  The report concluded bluntly, “UBC’s leadership and therefore its key decision-makers are white.”

UBC’s response to this report – which tied equity to diversity and linked both to race – was to ignore its findings on race, delink diversity from equity and link a generic approach to equity with ‘inclusion’.  In this, UBC provided a textbook example of what has been theorized in the scholarly literature as the ‘non-performativity’ of diversity and anti-racism policies. 

Sara Ahmed, in her empirical study of diversity work in universities, found that the writing of diversity statements, policies and reports is taken by administrations to be the ‘doing’ of the work of redressing inequalities of race. These policies and statements thus do not actually accomplish what they claim. They are ‘non-performative’ in that they do not translate into the action required to bring about the necessary change to make the institution diverse and anti-racist.

At UBC, the actionable information presented by the report was likewise not taken up to redress the lack of diversity and racial inequality in its leadership. Instead, this knowledge became calibrated to a race-blind approach that allowed for the enhancement of gender inclusion but deepened the racial inequality in the university’s institutional mechanisms.  Put differently, the institution acted on the report to make itself whiter.

(image source)

Such institutional investments in whiteness shape the context in which the Gupta affair has played out. The crisis ignited by his unseemly departure – GuptaGate, as it is  dubbed by some – deepened during the fall 2015 term with the administration’s (mis)handling of other cases related to gender, sex and race, some of which came to public attention. These included an investigation into the infringement of Dr. Jennifer Berdahl’s academic freedom, which led to the resignation of the Chair of the Board of Governors, but no apology from the university; and the institution’s (non)response to sexual assault cases on campus reported by women students, featured in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary.

The University Forced to Release Documents on ‘GuptaGate’

UBC finally broke its silence about the Gupta debacle with the release of the documents in late January (2016) in response to several Freedom of Information requests. The documents were highly redacted, but upon their release, online activists downloaded a treasure trove of uncensored attachments that were apparently released in error.  These attachments made for intriguing reading for they revealed just how fractious the relationship between Dr. Gupta and some members of the Board of Governors (the majority of whom are political appointees) had become. They also pointed to serious violations of  transparency, accountability and fair treatment at this publicly funded institution. Leaked statements from powerful members of the Board of Governors charged Dr. Gupta with exceeding his authority, acting in a manner unbefitting a university President, and generally being inept, divisive, confrontational and ineffectual.   

The quote with which I began (“… you must refrain from thinking controversial thoughts aloud….”) provides a sense of the tone adopted by the Chair of the Board in his communication with the President. In contrast, Dr. Gupta’s response revealed a collegial and measured response to the very many criticisms leveled at him both personally and professionally.  His emphasis was on the professional nature of their working relationships and on what he still clearly took to be their shared objectives.

Upon UBC’s release of these documents, Dr. Gupta spoke publicly about how his vision for transforming UBC into a 21st Century institution generated resistance from some sectors within the institution.  Without specifying the exact scope and nature of the change he envisioned, or the particulars of the conflicts with the Board of Governors, he described how he found out about secret meetings held by an ad hoc committee of the Board. In Dr. Gupta’s estimation, “This group had only one intention… They decided they didn’t want me.”   Eventually Dr. Gupta felt there remained no alternative but for him to resign if UBC was to be protected from further internal strife.

There have been suggestions that the conflicts between some members of the Board of Governors and Dr. Gupta may have included the former President’s attempt to restructure the top level of the administration with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, and a shift of resources to faculty and students to support teaching, research and experiential learning.  There is also speculation that Dr. Gupta’s ambitious attempts to resolve older “thorny and unfinished issues” – which included “a mishandled Athletics file, a controversial ‘Vantage College’, disagreements over copyrights, a faulty housing plan that never got off the ground, as well as various pre-approved big ticket capital expenditures” – were not well-received.  The ex-President’s experience has been described as a “nightmare”, it raised concerns about “bullying and harassment” for at least one of his close colleagues. Moreover, the role of political appointees in running the university has sparked further public debate about the involvement of the provincial government in UBC’s internal workings. The refusal of the UBC administration to respond to these substantive issues has kept the speculation and rumors alive and growing.

(image source)

Three Lessons about Race and Gender from the Crisis at UBC

What, then, are the lessons of this ‘teachable’ moment that is the crisis of legitimacy at UBC?  As a member of the UBC faculty who has worked for over a decade and a half to promote critical race feminist and anti-colonial studies and advocate for the leadership of faculty, sessionals and students of colour and of indigenous ancestry, I find this current imbroglio reveals a number of important insights into how the politics of race, gender and coloniality are currently being reconstituted at one of Canada’s leading academic institutions.

  • White Hegemony Takes Work. The crisis at CBC demonstrates just how much work it takes to assert white hegemony within the university. Instead of a remnant of a regrettable past that has been transcended, the production and maintenance of this hegemony requires active, dynamic and ongoing efforts at the highest administrative levels. The present crisis demonstrates how those in positions of leadership work to contain the direction of change in order to enhance their own status and access to power. Most significant from my perspective, the departure of the first President of colour, his replacement by a white President, the announcement and press statements by UBC, and the release of documents, all took place without the word ‘race’ entering the public debates and discussions in any meaningful manner.  If ‘race’ has been made invisible in this matter, so too has the ‘whiteness’ that is treated as the normative state of the institution.
  • Disenfranchisement and Appropriation are Crucial Strategies. Producing this institutional whiteness requires the ongoing, active and collective disenfranchisement of underrepresented racialized groups and the appropriation of their creativity, labour and expertise. The UBC example shows how, despite the accomplishments of Dr. Gupta, even in the very neo-liberal terms set by the university, he was denied procedural fairness and due process as stipulated in his contract. And, despite the supposed urgency for his departure, the UBC leadership continued to state their commitment to move ahead with the strategic plan that he had envisioned, presumably with the resources he helped bring to UBC. This suggests there was no significant flaw in his strategic vision or abilities, only with the man himself. The university’s policies, procedures, statements and reports that hold the promise of fair and equitable treatment are thus shown to be set aside on the basis of nothing more than the preferences, choices and interests of the (white) leadership. The Gupta debacle demonstrates how little the principles of fair and equal treatment, transparency and accountability actually impact on the making of such decisions.
  • White Women are the Main Beneficiaries of Equity Measures. The UBC crisis demonstrates how gender is put to work to advance institutional whiteness when the latter is destabilized. Of the four equity seeking constituencies, the greatest advances within the academy have been made in the area of gender equity, as Malinda Smith has found in her research. Significant, however, is that gender is read as white in the Canadian context, so that it is white women who have been the main beneficiaries of equity measures. Likewise at UBC, the treatment of gender continues to privilege white women, enabling them to corner the equity market by actively marginalizing women of colour faculty Situated at the forefront of ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ initiatives, gender (shorn of its intersections with other social relations, particularly race) now functions as a gatekeeper for the other equity seeking groups, Smith argues. Gender is thus a key site for the reconsolidation of a white hegemony that is deeply contested otherwise. In the present climate of local and global challenges to racial/imperial discourses of western superiority, promoting race-blind approaches to gender helps restabilize whiteness by containing and impeding the transformative potential of anti-colonial and anti-racist gender politics.

The UBC crisis is far from resolved.  Even as the Board of Governors rushes ahead to consolidate what many define publicly as a coup against Dr. Gupta with its search for a replacement President, the Faculty Association and the AMS Student Society have called for an external investigation into the Board’s governance practices. They have also demanded the suspension of the search for a new President until such an investigation is complete. These developments have been followed by the release of a public statement from the Deans throwing their support behind the Board of Governors and the Presidential search committee.  How and when the present standoff between the university’s leadership and its faculty and students will end remains to be seen.

The mess upending UBC’s centennial celebrations can be anticipated to keep feeding the tensions and upheavals in campus life, and the need for the administration to respond to the substantive matters raised by faculty, students and the general public becomes more pressing by the day. Even the most cursory of observations reveals that UBC’s leadership and its structures of authority reflect neither the demographic make-up nor the social and cultural environment in which the university operates, that it is not representative of the communities it claims to serve.

The making of UBC into a whiter institution will have major and far-reaching repercussions; this larger crisis affects not only the university’s governance, it sets back the cause of racial justice to which many of us are committed. That we have to speak out against the further entrenchment of white hegemony a century after UBC’s founding is a scandal.

~ Sunera Thobani is Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. She is a co-founder of the cross-Canada network, Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equity (RACE), the former Director of the Centre for Race, Autobiography, Gender and Aging (RAGA) at UBC, and a former President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Dr. Thobani is the author of Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2007), and coeditor of Asian Women: Interconnections (Canadian Scholars Press, 2005) and States of Race: A Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century (Between the Lines, 2010). She is currently working on a book on Race and Coloniality in the Academy.

An Update on the Rooney Rule: The NFL, Facebook, and Universities

It’s been a busy week for the Rooney rule—the rule adopted by the National Football League (NFL) to help increase diversity at the senior level by requiring at least one minority candidate be interviewed for each senior position. Last week we published Warren Waren’s call to higher education to institute such a rule in America’s colleges and universities in order to address the consistent racial disproportions among faculty.

That same week, Facebook announced it would include a similar rule in an effort to increase its diversity. And this week, the NFL itself updated the rule to include consideration of female candidates.

However, the biggest news in the Rooney rule comes from the University of Texas. Last Thursday, the new chancellor of University of Texas system announced a broad application of the Rooney rule to all administrative positions at the dean level and above.

In a presentation accompanying the formal announcement, Chancellor McCraven said,

This slide [referring to the racial gap between students and administrators] makes it very clear that we are not doing the job we ought to be doing in driving equal opportunity and fairness in our hiring and promotion processes. This is particularly disappointing because education is all about opportunity. Making sure our faculty and staff reflect the changing look of Texas is not just about fairness. It’s also about effectiveness. We need faculty, administrators and campus leaders who understand the people they’re serving, who come from the same kinds of places.

Which other college or university would be ready to implement such a program? Some other large public university? Perhaps one of the Ivy League? An elite research institution? One of our many small private colleges or universities? One of our community college systems? I hope my university (Texas A&M University) is next.

Institutional Racism: Comparing Oscar Nominations with Higher Education Faculty

Punxsutawney Phil must have seen his shadow last year at the Oscars and decided institutional racism was going to be around for another year. For the second year in a row no people of color were nominated for the top honors in America’s entertainment industry. In a country that is 37% people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where 46% of moviegoers are people of color, we have no nominees. In an industry where we have recognized superstars giving top notch performances, we have no nominees. We hate to have expected it. But like Phil, we probably could have seen it coming.

The problem in this instance is not who is starring or who is watching. The problem is who is voting. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the voting body of the Oscars, is 94% white. This glaring example of institutional racism is the legacy of an antiquated system that is not yet ready for the 21st century. The voting body is not representative of the audience nor the performers. The decisions of that institution reproduce the biased racial composition of the leadership itself. What did we expect? That entrenched institutional racism would go away unchallenged?

As much as we love movies, and as much as they are a part of our culture and identity, there is another more important institution that is facing a similar problem of leadership: higher education. African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 15% of the enrolled student population at America’s colleges, but only 5.5% of all full-time faculty are black. Back in 2007, when the black faculty rate was 5.4%, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education predicted black faculty rates would reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the U.S. in about 140 years. Long time coming. Unfortunately, between 2009 and 2011, black faculty rates actually slipped back a little. So, that original prediction might be off by a generation or two.

An educated reader might guess that black faculty are not evenly distributed across America’s university system. Black faculty are concentrated within the small (and shrinking) portion of higher education called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The Washington Post reported in November 2015,

Remarkably, 96 percent of black tenured faculty are at HBCUs (even though HBCUs comprise only 3 percent of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities). If HBCUs disappeared, so would most of the nation’s black academics.

Yet most college students and most African American college students do not attend HBCUs, they attend what we’ll call traditionally white institutions (TWIs). And those institutions need black faculty now. Badly. As mentioned above, at the student level, integration has reached parity nationally. The percent of students of color is close to their percent in the general population. This is indeed a cause for celebration. But now we face a new challenge of integrating the faculty.

Why do we have this problem? Why have we had in increase in black students and not an increase in black faculty? Compare fifteen percent of students to 5.5% of faculty. Why are we expecting faculty to catch up in 140 years? Do we not have great scholars ready to step into the classroom? We had a 43% increase in the number of black PhDs between 2000 and 2010, but during that time black faculty appointments at TWIs increased only 1.3%. This is not a crisis of supply.

Like with the Oscars, the problem is not with who is starring (professors of color) or who is watching (students of color)—the problem is who is voting. Leadership at universities look a lot like leadership at the Oscars. Both institutions are 90% to 95% white. Both are largely invitation-only affairs (make no mistake, social networks matter for every faculty appointment). Both bask in the glory of their own conceit. Both are prone to recreating their own biases. Both are self-regulating and quite insulated from external challenges. Do we expect either of these institutions to change without a challenge?

That challenge is not lost on students of color at traditionally white institutions. In 2015, students held anti-racism protests at scores of universities and colleges across the country. At over 50 campuses, students issued formal demands of their school’s leadership. Coupled with increased intensity of activism off-campus, the student movements began to get traction for their demands. Multiple university presidents have resigned, chancellors and deans have been removed. This is a student movement with power. But what is the main thing these student protesters want?

The website quantified the demands of 51 campus protest movements (those demands can be found here). There were, of course, many demands—requiring diversity training, renaming mascots, expanding mental health resources—but the modal response was some version of “we need more professors of color.” However, the most common demand was to increase the diversity of professors at TWIs.

We still face a graduation gap—in 2012, African Americans were 14% of students but only 9% of graduates. Also, the number of black students at top-tier, research one universities has apparently dropped. And we have a Supreme Court Justice who is openly considering a two-tiered racial system of higher education. So we face multiple issues. But correcting the proportion of black faculty in higher education might help solve these other problems. More faculty of color could reasonably help with the graduation gap in a number of ways. More faculty of color might help open pathways for our students of color into elite universities. And more faculty of color would help blunt the tired theory that African Americans should only attend “slower-track” schools.

Ultimately, I feel that both the Oscars and the academy will have to look a lot more like the people they serve or they will be replaced by institutions that do. But that is a long view. How do we get there from here? What if higher education used the Rooney Rule? This is the rule adopted by the National Football League (NFL) in 2003 to ensure that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every senior position. In 2002, before the rule went into effect, minority players made up 70% of the players in the NFL, but only 6% of the coaches. In 2015, minority coaches made up almost 19% of the total (six out of thirty-two) down from a full 25% in 2011.

At my own institution, a public university serving over 55,000 students in Texas, one department had the opportunity to hire six new positions last year. This is very rare, even at large institutions. For each position, the faculty in the department selected three candidates to come for a campus interview. Out of 18 candidates, how many were people of color? None. That was a missed opportunity, completely lost on faculty whose percent black resembles the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. If we had a policy that resembled the Rooney Rule, we would have had at least six people of color visit our campus in hopes of impressing the mostly white faculty who make the decision to hire.

Surely, there is delicious irony in asking higher education to learn from football. But the principle of ensuring interviews for candidates of color is so direct and efficient that Facebook just announced it would be adopting the Rooney Rule to increase its diversity. In light of the reasonable success of integration at the top level in the NFL, and the serious effort to integrate at Facebook, and the clear demands of students of color across the country, it is time for us to finally integrate the faculty in higher education. And the Oscars might look into it, too.

Dr. Warren Waren is an Instructional Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on racial residential segregation, gender differences in higher education, labor discrimination against Latino day laborers, and labor issues affecting same-sex couples. See his research work here.