“Diversity Programs” in Recession-Time

by Andrew E. Kurtzman on October 14, 2009

In FID’s discussion about the appointment of Chinua Achebe to Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, we have frequently touched upon the idea of “diversity programs”: efforts to recruit significant numbers of students from minority racial groups. I would like to extend this discussion by exploring the logic of these programs, in the context of the current economic environment.

There are, of course, important social reasons that have motivated these programs since their inception. Many universities are chartered with a “mission to their communities,” and see an important duty in helping historically under-privileged groups. This is in many ways commendable, in principle if perhaps not in implementation.

There are, too, many related economic / business reasons for these diversity programs. As admissions officers see it, many future leaders – with unique experiences, especially for young-adults at age 18 – can be found in developing communities. It has often been assumed (correctly or not) that there is a need to a “critical mass” of a given minority population, in order for that population to be comfortable, as well as “sustainable” from year-to-year.

And, finally, there is the issue of demographics: rapid growth in minority populations, and especially in the percentage of these minority populations who are, potentially, college-bound. Colleges, always eager to out-compete one another in the selectivity-driven national rankings, see a golden opportunity for an influx of new applicants.

As several board members of FID pointed out in a recent press release and editorial, Brown has fully embraced the philosophy of diversity programs. With regard just to African Americans: “Brown has a Department of Africana Studies with 14 full-faculty members — not counting seven visiting and affiliated professors. In addition, Brown has the Third World Center, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Africa Group Colloquium, and the University recently sponsored the Focus on Africa speaker series as well as the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. All are related to Africana studies.”

Much of this is a creation of very recent years, driven in conjunction with a booming endowment and significant growth of financial-aid programs, at a cost of millions of dollars per year. However, the crash of the past year has resulted in an estimated 20-25% average reduction in university endowments, nationally. (Brown was slightly worse than this average, with a 26.6% loss).

Many universities will necessarily be scaling down these efforts, needing instead to spend their dwindled reserves on core academic services. But in hiring Achebe while modestly reducing faculty elsewhere, Brown has shown that it will not.

And in this context, we can see an underlying logic: if indeed “diversity programs” contribute to successful recruitment and / or academic success for the relevant population; and if indeed at least a modest number of Brown’s peers scale back their programs (as is likely); then Brown has the potential to increase the number of its recruits, who in other years would have matriculated elsewhere. Further, Brown may see a synergy with the appointment of Achebe and its desire to expand international recruiting to Africa proper, especially, again, when its peers may be scaling back.

Of course, if all of this is true, Brown could well have hired a faculty member of equal repute to Achebe, without Achebe’s tendency to politicize his work. Channeling and cultivating post-colonial angst would not seem to lend itself well to developing future leaders; and we can no longer afford feel-good facades that gloss over substance.

One might further ask: is it not illogical — if not profoundly disrespectful — to assume that Africana Studies is the key to recruiting Africans and African-Americans? Would a black physicist or a mathematician have been less inspirational? (Does the color of the professor’s skin matter, even in this context?) If Brown is serious about recruiting continental Africans, practical knowledge of the sciences and economics would seem to be among the most valuable tools that the University could impart.

If Brown is to keep to its values, the harsh challenges of the moment demand substantive and imaginative self-reflection about what “diversity” truly means in higher education. Given what we have established regarding the social, economic, and business goals at hand, it is clear that Brown can and should do better.

In FID’s discussion about the appointment of Chinua Achebe to Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, we have frequently touched upon the idea of “diversity programs”: efforts to recruit specific racial groups in large numbers. I would like to extend this discussion by exploring the logic of these programs in the current economic environment.

There are, of course, important social reasons that have motivated these programs. Many universities are chartered with a “mission to their communities,” and see an important duty in helping historically under-privileged groups. This is in many ways commendable.

There are, too, many related economic / business reasons for these diversity programs. As admissions officers see it, many future leaders – with unique experiences, especially for young-adults at age 18 – can be found in developing communities. It has often been assumed (correctly or not) that there is a need to a “critical mass” of a given minority population, in order for that population to be comfortable, as well as “sustainable” from year-to-year.

And, of course, there is the issue of demographics: rapid growth in minority populations, and especially in the percentage of these minority populations who are, potentially, college-bound. Colleges, always eager to out-compete one another in the selectivity-driven national rankings, see a golden opportunity.

As is clear from arguments in FID’s recent press release and editorial, Brown has fully embraced this philosophy. With regard just to African Americans: “Brown has a Department of Africana Studies with 14 full-faculty members — not counting seven visiting and affiliated professors. In addition, Brown has the Third World Center, the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Africa Group Colloquium, and the University recently sponsored the Focus on Africa speaker series as well as the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. All are related to Africana studies.”

Much of this is a creation of very recent years, driven in conjunction with a booming endowment and significant growth of financial-aid programs (at a cost of millions of dollars per year).

The crash of the past year has resulted in an estimated 20-25% average reduction in university endowments, nationally. (Brown was at the upper end of this average, with a 24.6% loss). Many universities will necessarily be scaling down these efforts. But in hiring Achebe, Brown has shown that it will not: many other departments face modest faculty reductions.

And in this context, we can see an underlying logic: if indeed “diversity programs” contribute to successful recruitment and / or academic success for the relevant population; and if indeed at least a modest number of Brown’s peers scale back their programs (as is likely); then Brown has the potential to increase the number of its recruits, who in other years would have matriculated elsewhere. Further, Brown may see a synergy with the appointment of Achebe and its desire to expand international recruiting (perhaps to Africa proper).

Of course, if (and that’s quite an “if”) all of this is true, Brown could well have hired an author of equal repute to Achebe, without Achebe’s disdain for Western culture.

Alternatively, following this line of reasoning, and accepting the same premises, one might ask: why does Brown believe that the core of its efforts to recruit Africans and African-Americans should be focused on the Africana Studies department? Surely for the salary Achebe commands, we could have hired several minority leaders in the sciences. Would they truly be less inspirational? Would they not be better role models?

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