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April 6, 2023+Frank Lechner
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A Case Against Representation of Faculty: A Response to al-Gharbi

“Nearly without exception,” says Musa al-Gharbi in one of two essays on the Heterodox Academy blog, “academic stakeholders express a desire for faculty to reflect the diversity of America writ large.” But, he argues that several obstacles block the path to professorial parity and that its advocates do not want to pay the price for removing them. Barring drastic measures, the professoriate therefore won’t look like America anytime soon. When an HxA commentator wondered if his pieces might be satire, al-Gharbi clarified that he did not mean to defend the “unpalatable” pursuit of equal representation but rather to expose the tensions and trade-offs that result when “things we want . . . conflict.”

Al-Gharbi is right to challenge an influential ideological position, but I argue that his critique does not go far enough: Representation in his sense should not be one of the “things we want” in higher education. Achieving parity is even less feasible, and its costs are even less palatable, than he thinks. The position he calls the “exception” should be the liberal rule.

The original and understandable desire for diversity as a response to long-standing practices of exclusion in higher education goes astray when it morphs into the pursuit of parity as an alternative to current “underrepresentation.” For the sake of argument, I will adopt that term, though it oversimplifies the relevant issues and al-Gharbi himself says that “nonrepresentativeness of the professoriate is not, in itself, proof of injustice or wrongdoing.” I sidestep another issue mentioned by al-Gharbi, namely that nonrepresentativeness does not legally justify “positive discrimination” to remedy past injustice. Without implying that every injustice has been eliminated, I take the view that, in law as in policy, current remedies must correct current problems — and not make things worse, as the pursuit of parity would.

Representation Is Not a Worthy Goal

Whether or not al-Gharbi personally supports the position that disparities are bad in general and equal representation as such is a worthy goal, it is wrong. Without going into detail, I only note that the essays he cites in empirical support, stressing effects of underrepresentation on knowledge production and pedagogy, do not make the general claim more plausible: In one essay, he does not explain how much, and in what fields, research gets distorted by positionality and homogeneity, and in the other essay he says that ideological discrimination affects faculty more than it does pedagogy aimed at students.

Underrepresentation in higher education is only inherently wrong if equal representation is inherently right. But representation to make a sector reflect “the society it serves” (quoting al-Gharbi) through parity with some demographic distribution is not desirable in general. We do not require such parity in roofing or retail sales or pro basketball — for good reason. Imposing it undermines the pursuit of excellence according to the standards inherent in various sectors. My vertigo would make me a poor roofer, and the NBA would soon fold if it had to include me. If standards and quality matter, representation cannot be the governing selection principle.

The parity demand would also affect the public at large. The society being served has legitimate expectations of quality. In a free and dynamic system, it is proper for producers to strive to serve customers by supplying the best performance possible, and for the public to exercise comparative judgment, choosing some goods and services over others. Imposing a parity requirement on producers necessarily inhibits the quality of their output and consumer choice.

Parity in principle restricts diversity. In any free society, as al-Gharbi acknowledges, we would expect variation in occupational choices and sectoral distributions. Everywhere, talents and interests vary across populations and subgroups, leading to disparities. In fact, the more open and less discriminatory the system, the more outcomes will reflect individual capacities and choices. From a liberal standpoint, such variation based on real diversity, through careers open to talents, is a great good. Imposing parity would undermine it.

For such reasons, imposing equal representation across sectors is undesirable. It would suppress performance, limit choice, stifle competition, and restrict real diversity — harming the hallmarks of a liberal society. The desire for parity is inherently illiberal. We can resolve the “tensions” al-Gharbi describes in his essays by not giving credence to that desire in the first place.

Representation Is Not Feasible

What is the society that the professoriate must reflect? One could answer that the entire professoriate should match the demographic makeup of the United States. But that would leave patches of inequity, allowing individual institutions to hire only people with certain backgrounds and leaving unaddressed the uneven distribution of groups across prestigious positions that al-Gharbi criticizes.

Another option would have states shape their professoriate to match their own composition. Parity would vary between California and North Dakota; a diversity czar would not make underrepresented minority (URM) faculty decamp to Bismarck. But these two options consider only the United States’ population, though the society that academia serves includes foreigners. By the logic of representation, we might have to be less parochial and hire more Asian faculty — at the cost of domestic underrepresentation. Achieving parity in one of these plausible ways is hard; in all three at the same time — impossible.

Second, what is the relevant distribution to be matched? Al-Gharbi refers to Black and Hispanic underrepresentation and to disparities in political or religious perspectives. But reducing disparities on all dimensions is practically unfeasible, since maximizing inclusion of some groups will probably reduce representation of others. For example, if qualified minority academics hold mostly leftist views, then the pursuit of racial diversity will exacerbate political disparity. This is no hypothetical issue: al-Gharbi suggests that as the academy became more racially diverse, it grew more politically homogeneous. But even if reform jettisons general parity to focus on high-priority disparities, maximizing gap reduction on several dimensions will be difficult. For example, if more Black women than men are qualified, then closing the race gap may widen a gender divide. Reforms will entail trade-offs that make parity unfeasible.

Third, should every field and institution reflect the diversity in society? Clearly, not all parts of academia can attain parity: Many are too small to feature the necessary fine-grained diversity. Even if equalizing representation focuses on large high-prestige institutions and fields, parity seems hard to reach by widening the pipeline, unless underrepresented groups are nudged into it for disciplines they would not otherwise choose or if fields featuring greater underrepresentation are abolished to improve diversity. Perhaps the latter is not impossible, but cuts would have to go deep to make general parity feasible.

Fourth, how can professorial representation match a changing society? As al-Gharbi points out, piecemeal reforms don’t suffice as society diversifies. But continual change also complicates drastic interventions: Even if we can close relevant gaps at one moment, the professoriate would still be mismatched the next, unless a higher education czar makes immediate corrections, 24/7. Not feasible, it would seem.

Striving for Representation is Unpalatable

Al-Gharbi explains this well. But most unpalatable in striving for representation in his sense is the coercion it requires. Besides forcing people into early retirement, parity czars would have to force qualified members of underrepresented minorities into the pipeline — a Black chemistry graduate might have to give up a lucrative job in the industry and be assigned to run a university lab at lower pay. Consumers of academic services would have to be forced to accept the effects of parity, for example, by having to take courses in favored fields with faculty of the correct backgrounds (wait . . .). The pursuit of an illiberal goal relies on illiberal means.

Representation is Not the Real Goal

The “desire for faculty to reflect the diversity of America” does not actually refer to closing all demographic gaps. The general rhetoric of representation serves to justify a more specific project. That project does not aim to eliminate all disparities in backgrounds — certainly not in perspectives — but rather to give the professoriate a profile that fits progressive preferences. Social justice, not parity, drives the recruitment of underrepresented minorities. The project is an exercise not in demographic matching but in political transformation. Overshooting parity in favored groups — for example, when faculties become majority-female — is no problem. For that we have precedent: The fact that the student bodies of elite colleges do not reflect the diversity of America appears to be cause for celebration rather than concern.

That does not moot al-Gharbi’s theoretical exercise. Even if the rhetoric of equal representation serves only to promote a different project, its use is real in its illiberal consequences. Al-Gharbi is right to question them, though he does not go far enough. In dealing with professorial representation, the “exception” should be the liberal rule.

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