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January 26, 2023+Musa al-Gharbi
+Academic Careers+Campus Policy+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

How Much Do We Actually Care If Professors Reflect America?

Perhaps the single most important measure of what people truly value is what they are willing to sacrifice or change in order to obtain or achieve it. Representativeness in the professoriate is no different. Nearly without exception, academic stakeholders express a desire for faculty to reflect the diversity of America writ large. Yet U.S. professors do not well-represent the society in which they are embedded. There are systemic disparities along the lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and ideological lean with respect to who gets a job in the academy at all, and what types of jobs they get. In a previous essay for Heterodox Academy, I illustrated just how broad the disparities between the faculty and the general public continue to be, and I cited research showing that, at its current rate of diversification, the professoriate will literally never approach parity with the rest of the country. The strategies currently deployed to support a more diverse professoriate — anti-bias training, cluster hires, etc. — are ill-calibrated for the scale of the problems they are trying to solve. As I explained, three core challenges seem to drive persistent disparities in the professoriate: pipeline problems, bias and discrimination, and differential rates of change in the professoriate vs. the general society. There are fairly straightforward solutions to each of these problems. However, most stakeholders seem insufficiently committed to parity to put them into practice.

Reversing Systemic Bias and Discrimination

Ibram X. Kendi (in)famously asserted that “the only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Kendi and the critical legal scholars are right, I think, in asserting that the most expedient path to rectifying existing disparities is to directly select qualified candidates on the basis of their identity characteristics. However, this kind of “positive discrimination” is illegal under existing anti-discrimination law. The same rules designed to prevent employers from discriminating against people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups also significantly limit the capacity of employers to prefer candidates on the basis of protected characteristics. In part for this reason, critical legal studies theorists have long insisted that the apparent neutrality of the law is actually an obstacle to achieving equality. Legal color blindness, they argue, actually helps reinforce the position of already-dominant groups in various respects. Some work-arounds to color blindness are already in use. For instance, affirmative action laws have historically provided employers with some leeway in positively discriminating in favor of underrepresented groups. However, the Supreme Court seems likely to overturn affirmative action later this year. Likewise, mandatory DEI statements are increasingly used in hiring as a means of getting around laws prohibiting the selection of candidates on the basis of their ideological or demographic characteristics. In some cases, these statements are used as an initial screen, eliminating huge numbers of candidates before committees even consider their qualifications, publications, teaching history, etc. However, as with affirmative action, the use of these statements skirts the line of what is legal under existing anti-discrimination law. And it is likely that, in a world where affirmative action is overturned, policies like mandatory DEI statements will likely face growing legal scrutiny in coming years, which they may not survive. In light of these realities, one of the most efficient paths to bringing the faculty into parity with the broader society would be to either repeal and replace, or significantly revise, existing anti-discrimination law in order to allow for outright positive discrimination in hiring and promotion that favors underrepresented populations.

Broadening the Pipeline

As a result of systemic disparities in Ph.D. attainment, the pool of qualified candidates tends to be disproportionately white and male. There are far fewer black, Hispanic, or female Ph.D.s for academic employers to choose from, even after controlling for differences in levels of representation in society writ large. The tendency of hiring committees to recruit almost all their faculty from a small number of elite schools exacerbates these disparities, as the most selective schools cater primarily to the most advantaged Americans. There are two straightforward ways to get around these “pipeline” problems. Universities could:
  1. Lower the educational expectations of tenure-track professors. That is, they could hire people who don’t have Ph.D.s and pay less attention to institutional prestige.
  2. Further increase access to Ph.D. programs to members of historically marginalized and underrepresented groups — particularly at the handful of Ph.D. programs that consistently “place” their graduates.

Keeping Pace With a Changing Society

Even though the professoriate is growing more diverse, society is changing at a much more rapid rate. As a consequence, although universities are much more inclusive than they have been in the past, little progress has been made in recent decades toward reaching parity with America writ large. One key obstacle to having tenure-track professors reflect the broader society is the existence of tenure itself. Although tenure-track appointments represent a relatively small and diminishing share of contemporary academic job listings, the positions that exist are disproportionately held by whites and/or men. So long as these indefinite appointments are honored, they will significantly inhibit the ability of the professoriate to evolve alongside broader social changes. As a general rule, institutions with substantial shares of lifetime appointments will be unlikely to change at the same rate as society writ large. To illustrate: Even if we could simply reset the tenure-track professoriate to match society perfectly as of right now, the faculty would likely be highly unrepresentative again 25 years from now, because while social demographics would likely change a lot over that time, the vast majority of faculty appointed today would still be in their jobs a quarter century from now. Faculty are increasingly declining to retire well into their ’70s and ’80s, not because they can’t comfortably retire, but because they simply don’t want to and can’t be made to. And this has significant impacts on faculty diversification. If the goal is to ensure that the constitution of the faculty can readily evolve in line with trends in society overall, tenure protections would likely have to be significantly reduced, revised, or outright eliminated.

Getting Even (Statistically Speaking)

All said, if one’s primary priority is to establish and maintain parity between the professoriate and the public it serves, the most efficient path would be to:
  1. Make it easier to become a professor (by watering down requirements and/or increasing access to Ph.D. programs)
  2. Eliminate or significantly weaken tenure protections
  3. Lay off large numbers of current faculty-in-good-standing who have the misfortune of belonging to overrepresented populations
  4. Replace laid-off faculty uniformly with qualified aspirants from underrepresented populations
  5. Continue indefinitely with periodic identity-based layoffs and hiring as the broader population shifts, ensuring that new distortions do not emerge over time
Individually and collectively, these strategies would allow the professoriate to efficiently achieve and maintain parity with the broader U.S. population in a way that the current “tinkering on the margins” approach never could. However, each component entails significant risks and costs as well. For instance, increasing access to Ph.D. programs or lowering requirements for tenure-track jobs sounds good in principle. However, the brute reality is that, with respect to faculty positions, there is already an acute overproduction of Ph.D.s in most fields. According to estimates by Richard Larson, departments have been producing Ph.D.s at such a rate that less than 13% of graduates could even plausibly secure tenured or tenure-track jobs. The existing glut of Ph.D.-holding academic aspirants has given rise to a “buyer’s market” for academic labor. There is an apparently inexhaustible supply of aspirants with Ph.D.s who are willing to take on high course loads for little to no pay, with no benefits or job security and few academic freedom protections — all in the (typically vain) hope of eventually securing a tenure-track role. It’s already the case that most Ph.D.s who manage to graduate with jobs in hand do so by securing positions outside of academia. Radically increasing the supply of Ph.D.s, or lowering the credentials required for a faculty position, could perhaps increase the diversity of the faculty but likely at the cost of exacerbating existing trends related to the oversupply of aspiring faculty relative to available tenure-track jobs. It would become even easier for employers to underpay and exploit professors, as they will be even easier to replace. Likewise, eliminating or significantly eroding tenure protections could help the faculty evolve more easily to match the broader population. However, this move would have significant implications for academic freedom, faculty governance, and the ability of academics to pursue high-quality and ambitious long-term big-picture projects without the constant need to publish, publish, publish. Too few faculty enjoy these benefits as it is. Eliminating or eroding tenure would undermine the security and autonomy of academic labor even further. Meanwhile, overturning or revising existing anti-discrimination laws could allow employers to more directly pursue qualified candidates from particular underrepresented backgrounds. However, there would likely be a number of undesirable and unanticipated consequences from these revisions — not the least because it isn’t just Kendi-style anti-racists who are eager to revise or repeal these laws. Many of Kendi’s political and ideological opponents share the same aspiration. Existing anti-discrimination law is far from perfect in many respects. The color-blind standards it imposes on hiring and promotion do limit the ability of employers to diversify their workforce in an efficient manner. However, many worse scenarios could come about if these rules were struck down or significantly revised. This is a move that would have to be made with a lot of care — and would likely still result in myriad unfortunate and unintended outcomes.

Where Are We Going?

Overwhelmingly, academics tend to endorse the idea that the professoriate should reflect the society it serves. Three core obstacles prevent U.S. faculty from reaching parity with America writ large. There are pretty straightforward fixes for each of these challenges. However, I suspect that few readers, irrespective of their political lean, would be willing to embrace these strategies, expressed commitments to diversity and inclusion notwithstanding. The reality underlying this tension is that enhancing representativeness of the faculty is just one goal among many that institutions of higher learning can and should pursue. Truly maximizing the pursuit of parity would almost certainly entail significant trade-offs with respect to the character and quality of academic employment. And most seem insufficiently committed to faculty parity to accept the costs that might be necessary to reach that goal in an expedient manner. However, the current paradigm of “tinkering on the margins” is also likely unsustainable over the long run. As my forthcoming book illustrates at length, the gap between knowledge-economy institutions and everyone else is having increasingly pernicious and destabilizing effects on U.S. society and culture. Dramatic change is needed. What’s more, dramatic change seems inevitable over the medium to long term, be it by means of willing reform or torches and pitchforks. Disinclined to maximize representativeness yet unable to stick with the status quo, academic stakeholders are forced to confront a handful of questions:
  • If we are unwilling to truly commit to parity per se, how much disparity are we willing to countenance? What types of underrepresentation should we prioritize rectifying in higher ed? Which deficiencies in representation can we implicitly resign ourselves to? On what basis should these judgments be made?
  • Under what circumstances does faculty non-representativeness reach a point where knowledge production and pedagogy suffer significantly, and non-academics lose faith in higher ed?
  • With respect to trade-offs required to rectify imbalances, what other priorities, and which elements of the status quo, are we willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of parity? What are we willing to fight to preserve?
These are, in part, empirical questions. However, they are largely moral and political questions too. Sometimes when we focus too much on data, such as statistical disparities, we can lose sight of the moral and political goals we are actually trying to achieve. What are we really aiming for when we highlight disparities? What would an ideal endgame look like? These questions are fundamental, yet they are rarely made clear in discussions about (over- and under-) representation within the professoriate.

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