‘Visible’ Diversity and the University

Insistence on the symbolism of ‘visible’ diversity in a diversity officer hinders real advancement.

In a “post-racial America,” we are to believe that the playing field has been leveled, the opportunity structure rendered color blind. This is an illusion.

How individual and group differences are respected has framed my entire adult life dating to the Kerner Commission report, which I encountered in college almost 42 years ago. Recently, I had an experience that had immediate consequences for me but, upon reflection, more enduring implications for higher education. They are intertwined.

As a candidate for the “diversity” position (newly created) at two research universities, I became a finalist in one search and a semifinalist in the other. In both cases I was the only non-minority who made the short list.

In one case, I met for 90 minutes with the search committee, including the provost. We established immediate rapport. Convinced that my performance merited a return trip and a meeting with the university president, I observed to my wife, “yet I may be the token White.” Indeed, no reason was given for turning me loose a week later.

In the other case, colleagues on campus reported that I won over most every constituency I met in two days of formal interviews and informal chats. After six months, the provost called to say “the search was derailed” and no appointment would be made. Shortly thereafter, he turned to an “internal interim” candidate, a woman of color as it turns out.

So I have experienced what many persons of color, regardless of credentials, have encountered in the academic workplace — the suspicion that you are there for reasons other than your accomplishments. I conclude that my accomplishments got me in the door, but the position I was seeking de facto is for a person of color. This is not an issue of not being good enough. Rather, it is an issue of “fit” between expectation and the incumbent. It is the difference between “visible” and “enacted” diversity. Criteria were specified: the position description in one stipulated a “national research profile.” But there are differences between scholarship and bringing a certain perspective. In my efforts to sort out what happened, several issues surface:

• the gap between what a university pronounces as a priority to achieve its mission and how it ultimately acts;

• the significance of “source credibility” — how race and gender matter as analytical assets or proxies; and

• the lack of institutional accountability for improving participation by those underrepresented — students and faculty.

A reality today is that institutions prefer the symbolism of a position (e.g., chief diversity officer) that relieves the responsibility for diversifying the campus from the leaders — president, provost, deans, faculty — and heaps it on a single position without the resources or the moral authority to make change. This is visible, not enacted, diversity. It is wrong-headed in other ways, too.

Diversity is a condition that allows a mix of backgrounds, experiences and ideas to create differently, to solve different problems in novel ways, to achieve an institutional mission. Diversity is no end in itself; it is a means to an end, the way of having a conversation, solving a problem, or designing a project that is more innovative than a homogeneous group can ever have.

So I am a White man whose career originated on the margin, moved to the mainstream, and has remained intellectually with those not quite in the majority — some disenfranchised, many underserved, and almost all critical of the way things are. To be sure, I have benefited from my gender and race, but you also become your subject matter. You internalize what they report and feel. Moreover, you are treated as one of them — White male in name only. This is how one comes to “know.” Yet the latest academic view is one of “privileged social identities” that only a person of color can “know” what being marginal — in the minority — means (see David S. Owen, “Privileged Social Identities and Diversity Leadership in Higher Education,” The Review of Higher Education, Winter 2009).

Here’s another view: marginality is a perspective, an angle that produces a kind of understanding. The supposition is that regardless of how clever, accomplished or insightful, the “White male” has not lived it, felt it, understood it, or looks like “it.” This is the burden of visible difference. One characteristic dominates all others — the way we look, our gender, our dialect.

The failure of non-minorities to land diversity positions speaks to a larger institutional dilemma. If we can’t get beyond the symbolism of visible diversity, the intent of these “diversity” jobs and their role in advancing university missions will never be realized. Now that we have a Black president of the United States the pressure is on universities to revise their conceptions of who is appropriate for what administrative job and diversify accordingly.

In sum, more diversity officers should look like me. More professionals of color and women should be presidents, chancellors and provosts. Without such diversity throughout a university’s administrative ranks, it will lose moral authority. It will not model the behavior it claims to instill in its graduates. And it will become increasingly estranged from a post-racial America that will deliver generations of hopefuls to campus. — Dr. Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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