Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

  • Archives

  • Stats

    var sc_project=3293756; var sc_invisible=0; var sc_partition=21; var sc_security="d61881ba";
    free hit
  • Subscribe

  • Recent Posts

  • Follow me on Twitter

Doing diversity

Posted by Melissa on May 18, 2009

As you might gather from my various posts, making sure that science, particularly at the undergraduate level, is welcoming to all who want to pursue it is important to me. As a faculty member, my interest in enhancing diversity in the sciences has lead me to think more broadly about diversity in higher education.

Ever since I was a graduate student, various people have warned me with different degrees of bluntness that my interest in diversity would be a detriment to my career and decrease the likelihood that I would ever be taken seriously as a colleague. The harshest warning came when someone told me, “Under no circumstances should you ever be engaged in diversity work with regards to women in physics until you either 1) have become a full professor or 2) want to throw your career under the bus and in the process maybe make some small change.” Despite these warnings, I haven’t given up my commitment to diversity. In small ways, I’ve been involved in discussions and efforts to address diversity both in the physics community and at Carleton, but as a junior faculty member, my primary focus must be on teaching and research.

Nevertheless, observing faculty members I know at a variety of institutions, who are engaged in diversity issues, I find myself wondering about the nature of this engagement, which seems like a calling for some and a reluctantly carried, but grudgingly accepted, burden for others. These efforts are often unrewarded, and the work is almost always shared inequitably, but it can lead to significant changes. My growing awareness of the challenges I’ve observed led me to pick up the book, Doing Diversity in Higher Education: Faculty Leaders Share Strategies and Challenges.

The first thing that struck me when reading this book is that diversity challenges in higher education are unique to each institution and, at the same time, universal. Doing Diversity makes it clear that diversity work is challenging, and it provides glimpses into what diversity is and what diversity work means at a variety of institutions. Faculty at Spelman College, a historically black college for women, face different challenges than faculty in the University of California system, who have had to find new ways to promote diversity after the passage of Proposition 209. Nevertheless, I found it illuminating to see the common threads.

The weariness, frustration, and ever-present setbacks associated with tiny victories were palpable in many of the essays. I thought the chapter by Castro, Fenstermaker, Mohr, and Guckenheimer at the University of California Santa Barbara described well some of the reasons for discouragement faced by those who engage in diversity work:

“Rarely does an action lead to an immediately successful outcome. Far more often, the work of faculty leaders involves endless meetings that may not yield discernible results; writing applications for grants that may never be funded; arguing with colleagues over the meaning of ‘academic merit’ while hiring and admissions committees continue to implement default selection principles; mentoring individual students whose sense of academic satisfaction may eventually translate into a more welcoming campus climate for students of color even as they recount ways in which the institution has failed them. Mixed in with a few programmatic successes are many individual failure and frustrations; indeed, it appears that the former are in some way fundamentally dependent on the latter.”

Although diversity work is often viewed as “service” work, the level of intellectual and emotional engagement is different from other kinds of faculty service. Institutional structures don’t reward service work in general, and the price of professional activism with regards to diversity can be particularly high both personally and professionally. The chapter by Hart, Brigham, Good, Mills, and Monk at the University of Arizona summarizes the challenge effectively. “In institutional terms, the definition of success is based exclusively on quantitative measures such as resources and research. Less tangible qualitative measures, such as diversity or respect, are not rewarded or seen as successes.”

If diversity work requires significant sustained effort without immediate payoffs, what prompts faculty to get involved? The reasons are varied, but several writers describe the engagement with diversity work as having an ethical or moral dimension for some faculty. The chapter by Ackelsberg, Hart, Miller, Queeney, and VanDyne exploring departmental microclimates at Smith College and examining how to enable all faculty to take ownership of and feel like valued contributors to the college highlighted one of the reasons why I find diversity work compelling.  The authors found that “a sense of shared purpose in faculty work” was important in creating a positive climate for faculty, and many faculty found that shared sense of purpose in college-level service. As a woman in physics, I often feel out of place, and being involved with diversity issues provides me an opportunity to find like-minded individuals, connect to a wider community, and contribute to changing the situation. These personal benefits of diversity work have made me reluctant to give it up despite warnings of the potential negative impact on my career.

The take home message I got from Doing Diversity? Supporting those faculty who choose to engage in diversity work by acknowledging that these efforts can be a meaningful extension of the faculty role, and not a distraction from it, would be a valuable change in the discourse around diversity work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: