Progressives at Tier 1 research universities and top liberal arts colleges sit at the summit of the higher ed hierarchy, where their eminence rests upon high standards of academic work. But they are fervently committed to hiring and retaining more persons of color. They have attempted affirmative action of the official and unofficial kind for a long time, but gains in the percentage of professors of color in elite departments have been disappointing. If you listen to them, you can hear a rising dismay in their voices. They want so much to have more non-white colleagues, but the years pass and nothing seems to change.
This is a case of bad faith. People are in bad faith when they think and act in way that deny the reality of what they otherwise enjoy. The behavior is to demand more non-white hiring and promotion and retention. The reality is a combination of the meritocratic system of selective schools plus the limited pool of minority candidates. The number of African American and Hispanic PhDs falls well below the proportions those groups constitution of the general population. And in the humanities, Asian Americans, too, are underrepresented.
‘Inclusivity’ vs. Prestige’
This means that superior institutions must compete vigorously for faculty of color who have the qualifications that put them into the ranks of high-achievers. Inevitably, they must lower the bar for them, setting up a showdown between a top school’s prestige and its “inclusivity.”
It has happened recently at Dartmouth College. A female Asian American English professor has been denied tenure even though the department’s tenure committee voted unanimously to promote her. The headline of a story on the case at reads “Campus unrest follows tenure denial of innovative, popular faculty member of color.” Aimee Bahng, a UC San Diego PhD, has been an assistant professor at Dartmouth since 2009. The titles of her various writings indicate the nature of her expertise:
“Extrapolating Transnational Arcs, Excavating Imperial Legacies: The Speculative Acts of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest”
“Queering The Matrix: Hacking the Digital Divide and Slashing into the Future”
She has also supported Black Lives Matter and was co-founder of the Ferguson Teaching Collective at Dartmouth. In other words, all her interests fall nicely within Dartmouth’s reigning identity politics.
But the higher-ups rejected her. Why?
Not Close to Dartmouth’s Standards
Bahng’s colleagues say that the Dartmouth administration isn’t sufficiently committed to raising ‘the number of underrepresented minorities on the faculty. They don’t accuse the leaders of racism, but they do allege an unpleasant climate on campus and little appreciation of the special pressures and burdens faculty of color experience. Reporter Colleen Flaherty interviews a SUNY-Buffalo professor of transnational studies who claims that people of her profile end up doing extra service work on diversity committees and programs, and they do extra work mentoring students of color who seek them out. That cuts into their research time. Additionally, she claims, research on race, gender, and sexuality “has less cultural capital” (tell that to Judith Butler, Cornel West….)
Nobody who turned Bahng down speaks in the story, but it isn’t hard to see why they did in fact speak out. Flaherty includes a link to Bahng’s CV, and it displays a research record that doesn’t come close to meeting Dartmouth’s tenure standards. All English departments at major institutions want to see a book in hand and several research articles. But all Bahng has is a book “forthcoming” from Duke University Press in early 2017. By itself, that counts for nothing. We need, at the very least, a contract from the Press stating that the manuscript has passed through peer review, been approved by the board, and has a production schedule. Bahng’s defenders don’t say anything about it, suggesting a contract doesn’t exist.
As for essays, since her hiring in 2009, Bahng has only two of them in print.
Making it all Go Away
The situation is clear. The department was willing to lower Dartmouth standards in order to meet identity needs (and, possibly, friendship). Higher officials weren’t. She has delivered 37 lectures, and she lists 19 fellowships and grants on the CV, but those awards and activities haven’t produced much in the way of the written word. However much Dartmouth wants more faculty diversity, the output was just too low.
I don’t think it will be too long, however, before the scruples of administrators in these kinds of situations soften. the identity demand is growing too shrill, and in the humanities, research is increasingly meaningless. Who cares whether someone has just published the 4,210th essay on literary transnationalism? Soon, administrators will ask themselves whether it is worth it to insist upon strict standards of published research when they run against the diversity mandate, incense other professors, and bring on bad publicity. A simple and quiet acquiescence can make it all go away.