The Art of Diversity
Dr. Arthur E. Levine is in a pretty enviable position.
As president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, he sits at the helm of a Harlem, N.Y.-based institution steeped in its legacy of inclusion. Back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Southern states burdened with the shackles of segregation readily paid for Black teachers to go out of state to get advanced credentials rather than integrate graduate programs at their
traditionally White schools. Teachers College welcomed these teachers and administrators with open arms.
As a result, a generation of Black Ivy league-trained leaders were made available to the Black public schools in the South. Black students were exposed to some great educators, and the college gained a reputation as a haven for Blacks and other minorities.
Today, the challenges are very different. Things are not seen in Black and White terms. Southern schools are desegregated. The vexing issue not only at Columbia but also throughout the nation, is achieving substantive diversity.
Levine has taken on the task of encouraging not only the Teachers College, but also the entire higher education community into fulfilling diversity’s unfinished agenda and its unrealized promise with his recent call for a higher education diversity task force.
BI Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Frank L. Matthews recently spoke with Levine about diversity, school vouchers, recruiting new teachers and his latest published work, Diversity on Campus.
BI: You are seen as a throwback to the earlier liberal progressive agenda. You even support affirmative action. Do you take a lot of heat on this issue?
AL: No. Not in the Jewish community and not in the academic community.
BI: So you would agree that the Black-Jewish rift over affirmative action has been blown out of proportion?
AL: I think that’s true. There have been some very visible people who were Jewish who have opposed affirmative action. But in the same way, Ward Connerly is not typical of Blacks in America.
BI: Would you say that there is a major difference between procedural diversity and substantive diversity? How would you delineate the difference?
AL: I think there is a significant difference between the two. I don’t know many universities that don’t go through the procedures, long and elaborate procedures. But if one looks at the composition of the professoriate, senior administrative positions on most campuses don’t reflect having gone through much of a procedure. They still look predominately White and male.
BI: Most people will say that they genuinely make a good-faith effort.
AL: I think that one of the things that happens is that in order to get under-represented minorities into a search, one has to work really, really hard here. It’s more than putting an ad in Black Issues, it’s more than putting an ad in The Chronicle. What it really adds up to is personally calling people on the phone. I’m one of the people who haven’t done extraordinarily well. I know the theory, and I know the practice, and I know I’ve tried hard, and I haven’t succeeded every time I’ve wanted to.
BI: There seems to be a reluctance on the part of college administrators to take on that in loco parentis role and be intrusive into the lives of the students, especially around the social aspects of diversity. What do they need to do to overcome that hesitance?
AL: Colleges and universities are afraid of in loco parentis for a variety of reasons. One is there are legal ramifications. If you don’t know and you don’t look, you are less likely to be sued. Another rationale, I think, is that we live in an age in which all kinds of values are seen as equal. Therefore, there is less rationale on lots of campuses for in loco parentis than there once had been. So that, I think it’s not only issues of diversity, I think it’s every issue that exists on college campuses that administrators are pulling back from. On this one, I also think that on the issue of diversity, what makes it difficult is that the issue is so hard to talk about on college campuses. I’ve said in the past that the dirty words on college and university campuses now aren’t four letters anymore. They’re at least six letters. They’re racist, sexist and homophobic, and nobody wants to be called those things. So what everybody does is duck on this issue.
BI: Is that acquiescence that this thing is just too tough? Do you think it’s really that tough?
AL: I think it’s really, really tough, even when they talk about it from a variety of different perspectives. I was interviewing focus groups of students. We were doing a study of American college students, and we surveyed 9,100 students and 272 student affairs officers. And each of the groups is fairly diverse. Diverse in race, diverse in age, diverse in gender. So we were sitting there talking to the students, and the interviews last about two to three hours. About three-quarters of the way through the interview the topic is: “Tell me about your sex life.” And students would tell us intimate details of their sex lives. The next question is: “Talk about the racial climate on your campus.” All of a sudden, what you watch happen is the smiles disappear, arms cross over chests, legs that may have been spread suddenly close up and there is absolute silence around the table. People aren’t looking at each other; they are looking at the table. I would wait and I’d repeat the question. One day, I waited two minutes. Do you know how long two minutes is when you are sitting in a group like that? Students would not talk about it.
BI: Why are students so reluctant to talk about race?
AL: Part of it is that the emotions around it are so very, very strong. And it is one of those topics that lots of things get translated into. One of the conversations I remember having with groups of students on different campuses was asking, “How do you know that racism exists on your campus? Tell me.” And some of the examples were just ludicrous: “Well, they come into my room and ask me to turn down my music. They wouldn’t do that if I wasn’t Hispanic, White or Black.” The music can be too loud and it isn’t a race issue. What I think is that there’s a sense that there’s a ‘zone of indifference’ — that we all have bad issues. The ‘zone of indifference’ about race and gender and sexual orientation is so thin you can see through it right now. So that means that whatever issue comes up, it’s likely to be translated. The other thing that is shocking is that we did studies with students and we asked them, “Tell us who your heroes are and tell us whom you don’t like, giving a list of 30 names.” The answers that we got from Black males and from White males were almost mirror images. In essence, people that Black males regarded as heroes were more likely to be on the list of people who Whites disliked, and vice versa. What also happened was, when we asked, “What are the seminal events in your life?” There was almost no overlap in the issues between Blacks, Whites and Hispanics. But they were more likely to pick events that were particular to the group that they were born within. So, in essence, what I found was two groups that were growing up in close proximity to each other who had entirely different experiences growing up, different heroes, different villains and different life-forming events. I think that builds further walls between people. What it says is, “The experience we have in common is relatively minimal.”
BI: Even in the suburbs there is a significant difference in life experiences …
AL: I think so. We couldn’t find differences by income. Although, this is the fascinating thing: We talked to students, particularly students of color, about what made their experience on campus unco mfortable. And the one interview that stands out in my mind was one student who said, “I’m just tired of everybody asking me what it was like to grow up in a ghetto.” She said, “I grew up in Scarsdale. Yeah, that’s a ghetto, but not the kind they’re imagining.” There were other students who said, “I just hate having them call us by each other’s names. I’m tall and she’s short. I’m fat and she’s thin. We have nothing in common except the color of our skin.”
BI: Was that the exception or the rule?
AL: Everybody had a story like that. Everybody had a story. One of the other things we found was that we’d go to parties and after the party we would stop the White students and say, “How many Blacks attended your party?” And they’d say, “Oh, they never come to our parties.” We’d say, “How many?” They’d say, “Ten.” In reality, it was close to 50. The other thing that happened was that we’d go to a speaker, say it would be an Asian American group that invited this speaker. And we’d ask, “How many Whites were at your event?” They’d say, “Whites never come to our events.” We’d say, “How many were there?” and they’d name some small number. We would find that one-third of the audience was White. So the other thing is, however much students really aren’t talking to each other, they also perceive their isolation to a much greater extent than the reality is. I don’t know if that means that even the close-proximity students don’t talk to each other or that students just don’t talk to each other.
BI: How would you evaluate President Clinton’s national dialogue on race?
AL: He put the issue back on the table. It had been off the table for quite a while. I think we lived for a time, perhaps before this administration, through a period of only meanness. We assume that people who are different, or people who are more disadvantaged than we were, for the most part deserved it. They hadn’t done enough to make their lives what their lives could be, and therefore they deserved whatever fate they had. I think what he said was differences need to be reconciled, whether those differences are racial or economic. We have to embrace those, and we have to do something. It was the first response we’ve had to this issue since the Kerner Commission Report.
BI: So what else should have been done, and could have been done, to move that further than it was, because it seemingly is dead in the water now?
AL: We are going to need a few things. One thing is that the degree to which this conversation continues is going to be significantly influenced by who is elected president this fall. Another item is, this is an issue that the press needs to be picking up. The New York Times just finished a major series or is finishing it. That’s a good thing to have happen here. Americans need to be made to face issues of difference on a regular basis or we’re going to let them slide because it’s so hard.
BI: What happens if nothing happens? If we just keep limping along the way we do now?
AL: My world is going to explode — my world being colleges and universities. One of the big secrets that nobody’s talking about is that 39 percent of all student protests right now deal with the issue of multiculturalism. And what’s going to happen is that campuses that have a chance to deliberate about these issues now are going to find that in the next few years, we’re going to see more and more protests around these issues in which there won’t be time for intelligent answers. The solutions will require rapidity and will be largely political in orientation.
BI: Progressives have taken a whipping. Academic conservatives, such as the National Association of Scholars and their various state counterparts, have been successful in moving their agenda.
AL: My sentiment is that issues of race haven’t been a huge part of the progressive agenda. We, or progressives, have let that issue slip. I tend to think that they’ve dealt with issues that deal with economics. They’ve dealt more with jobs; they’ve dealt more with kids. But the issue of race has slipped off the plate.
BI: So what do they need to do now that the NAS is organized in all 50 states?
AL: We need to organize in that same fashion. We need to create information. We need to create data. One of the things that has been shocking has been the success of anti-affirmative action movements. They’ve been successful in California, they’ve been successful in Texas, and it’s going to speed across the country. When [William G.] Bowen and [Derek] Bok wrote [The Shape of the River] last year, people said, “My, isn’t it wonderful that we’ve had a book like that?” We shouldn’t have had to wait for a book like that. We’ve been doing this stuff for a third of a century. Why don’t we have data? Why isn’t anybody collecting it? Why don’t we have an advocacy center for universities that’s at least as powerful as NAS? Why don’t we have a group that monitors progress in universities and colleges?
BI: Who is the “we” that you are talking about?
AL: I guess I’m talking about the American academic community. This could be something set up by any of the associations. There is no reason why the American Association of Higher Education couldn’t do this. The American Council on Education could do this.
BI: Their response is always that we can’t do it because we are a constituent organization.
AL: But the constituents are college presidents, and it becomes circular. I think the problem college presidents face is that diversity is a scary issue for them. The danger is that it’s a Pandora’s box that will explode.
BI: Maybe they are hoping that it will go away. They don’t want it on their watch.
AL: Exactly. We’re seeing the same thing in corporations, which is very short-termed vision. But the reality is, if ACE is going to serve its population of current presidents and future presidents, we really need the kind of institute that you and I are talking about. It’s the only thing that will serve institutions and states.
BI: And what kind of institute? Can you give me some examples of the types of institutions that would have to be affiliated to be credible? Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Brandeis? Those kinds of schools?
AL: Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, University of Texas. It needs to be the major institutions in America. But also, to have credibility, they are going to need the community colleges. We need a broad swath of American higher education to do this. It also doesn’t make sense to do this without Black and Hispanic colleges. So we need a coalition. And ACE is a great organization to do that.
BI: As president of the premier teachers’ college in America, where do you stand on vouchers?
AL: I’m going to tell you a bunch of different things. One thing I’m going to say is that the whole education agenda is up for grabs. There are states like New Jersey saying, “We have to equalize resources for all schools.”
BI: Public and private?
AL: Just public schools. So it means that Newark gets the same thing as the most affluent suburb in New Jersey. So that’s moving in one direction. But … the Supreme Court decision — that the president agreed with — moves in the opposite direction. And where we are as a nation is littered along that line. My own policy is one I never would have expected to come out for. I favor vouchers for inner-city kids who are attending schools in the bottom 10 percent of institutional quality if they are poor. My sense is that we are doing such a bad job with urban schools we’ve got to get kids out of school systems that are failing. We’ve done a decade-and-a-half of school reform.
BI: So would it be school-based or parental income-based?
AL: Parental income-based and school-based. It’s only poor kids and it’s only bad schools.
BI: Bad schools or bad test scores?
AL: Any method you want to use. Test scores is not a bad way. But any method you want to use. I’m guessing if you talk to most urban superintendents, what they’ll tell you is the bottom 10 percent of their schools aren’t salvageable.
BI: Many will read this and say, “Art’s going conservative on us.”
AL: This was one of the toughest positions I’ve ever taken in my life. Because all of my liberal friends say, “Oh, my God. He’s gone over to the other side.” And conservatives said, “We’re so pleased to have you.” But the question is, do you want to save schools or do you want to save kids? We need more parents who care about what happens to their own kids and say, “This school’s rotten and I won’t take it anymore.” If you’re affluent, you can send your kid to a private school. If you’re middle class, you move to the suburbs. And if you’re poor, you’re stuck with some of the worst schools in America.
BI: You say it’s all up for grabs. You’re kind of adhering to a free-market kind of standard, putting competition for resources on the table.
AL: No, actually I don’t believe that. My position was that it was sort of the equivalent of Schindler’s List. I’m trying to save as many of these kids as I can save. And there are schools that are actually going to kill these kids. The reason that these kids are going to be killed intellectually and economically is just because they’re poor. That’s unconscionable. For me, what I would do at this point is, I’d make a major effort to save as many urban schools as we could save right now. What that means for me though, is, would I settle for competition?
BI: Is the strong teacher shortage as desperate as we read about?
AL: Yes. The biggest danger we’re facing right now is 39 states have developed new standards for teachers. So we could have the highest standards in the world for our teachers and the lowest quality teaching force we’ve had in years in the classrooms because we have had to hire uncertified teachers to meet the discrepancy.
BI: Do you think it’s acceptable to sacrifice teacher diversity at that altar of expediency, if you will?
AL: I don’t think we need to. I think that with the appropriate preparation programs we can have an incredibly diverse teaching force. We can do that with scholarships. We can try to attract people to our education schools. We can do that by improving salaries. All those things will let us have an incredibly diverse teaching force.
BI: But that’s not going to happen, not in the near term.
AL: It’s not going to happen unless we do something about it. What happens is that we’re having three conversations at once. One conversation says, “We’ve got to improve the quality of our teachers.” The next one says, “Oh, my God. We’ve got to improve the quantity of our teachers.” And the third one says, “We need a more diverse teaching force.” And we act as if these things weren’t interrelated. What we need to do is recruit people into the profession who are nontraditional, we need to find alternative routes to get them there, and we need to close bad schools.
BI: What about the high teacher turnover rate, especially in a booming economy?
AL: People leave this profession of teaching. And the reason they leave it is the salaries are bad, and the longer you are in this profession, the worse the salary discrepancy gets. In addition, working conditions are poor and the status is poor. I was talking to a student at our school who had done his undergraduate work at an Ivy, and now he’s a third-grade teacher. What he said is, “Look, I’m watching the people who graduated with me and they are making much more money and they’re in much more prestigious jobs. Second, my parents keep calling me and saying it’s great to have had this experience and now it’s time for me to get a real job. And third, I go to parties and I’m talking to somebody and we’re having a great conversation and finally she says, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I explain I’m a third-grade teacher and she remembers that she needs to get her glass refilled.” If we can’t change that, we are going to have a very hard time. Every institution in America needs to sit down and have a clear vision of what it means by diversity. What are the goals? What are the outcomes? What does our campus look like? Every campus in America needs to be a mix of two things … They need to figure out what those differences are that are important and what the commonalities are that hold people together.
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