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Conceptual shift needed to diversify higher education

by Mary L. Fifield

At a recent meeting in Los Angeles, the American Association of
Community College board of directors unanimously approved a statement
on inclusion.

The statement urges community colleges “to evaluate policies to
ensure diversity and equal access within their institutions.” It goes
on to say that the association “believes diversity in education is
crucial to a democratic society and that colleges should be responsible
for shaping an environment that mirrors the general culture and creates
opportunities for all within the college community to interact with
understanding, tolerance and respect for others.”

Many of us believe that the association’s statement on inclusion is
a good thing. Yet, it would be naive to assume that all share this
opinion. If they did, African American, Asian and Latino faculty
wouldn’t represent less than 5 percent each of all community college
faculty members or community college presidents. If everyone agreed
that diversity was a good thing, women wouldn’t continue to be
under-represented in selected disciplines or college presidencies
either.

In a recent report by the American Council on Education, funded by
the Ford Foundation and titled “Achieving Diversity In the
Professoriate: Challenges and Opportunities,” eleven universities were
polled. The primary reason that administrators gave for the lack of
faculty diversity was, as authors Marjorie F. Fine Knowles and Bernard
W. Harleston put it, the “pool problem.”

Knowles and Harleston went on to say, “Administrators may be aware
of techniques that can be used to attract and develop minority
scholars, but they have failed to make use of them. It is unclear
whether the primary barrier is lack of knowledge or lack of will,
though it most likely is a combination of both.”

It is the “lack of will” issue that we rarely discuss because it’s
more acceptable to attribute our hiring shortcomings totally to
external factors, purportedly beyond our control. Interestingly enough,
when minority faculty and graduate students of the universities polled
were asked their views, the responses took a different direction.

Although acknowledging the pool issue, the primary hiring
disincentive given by faculty and students of color centered on their
contention that the curriculum is static rather than a changing and
evolving entity.

Think about it. If academic departments continue to teach the same
thing, then it only follows that they believe only the same kinds of
people can teach it. And the same kinds of people only sometimes may
include women and rarely people of color.

What would happen if instead of expecting those who are different
to “fit in,” we operated from the expectation that our institutions
would change — undergo a personality transformation of sorts and
emerge with a new structure for managing diversity. This isn’t a new
idea. In fact, business once again has the edge on us.

In the September-October 1996 issue of the Harvard Business Review,
in an article called “Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for
Managing Diversity,” authors David A. Thomas and Robin J. Ely discuss
what they call the “flawed assumption about diversity.” They go on to
define two approaches organizations commonly take toward diversity. “In
the name of equality and fairness, they encourage (and expect) women
and people of color to blend in. Or they set them apart in jobs that
relate specifically to their backgrounds, assigning them for example to
areas that require them to interface with clients or customers of the
same identity group.”

Sound familiar?

How often at our own institutions have we — out of benign neglect
or perhaps for less innocent reasons — placed women and minorities in
this Catch 22? It’s no wonder that on some campuses people of color
actually begin to appear white while others are considered unfriendly,
aloof, distant or not team players.

Is there an easy solution to all of this — a quick fix? Of course not.

So what will we do with the American Association of Community College’s endorsement of inclusion?

Hopefully, some community colleges will grasp the enormousness of
the task at hand, embrace it and forge ahead to transform their
institutions into learning environments where faculty, staff and
administrators will really learn new, effective ways of doing work from
people who work differently.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com

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