On Behalf of Diversity in Academic Hiring: Part Two

In the comments section of the last post, one commentator asks me to define underrepresentation and my grounds for believing it characterizes women and ethnic minorities in at least some sectors of the North American academy.

Now, it might seem ridiculous to take this question seriously. Is there any doubt that white men predominate in the academy?

But the question is not,”Who predominates?” The question is, “What does underrepresentation mean?” with the correlative question, “What would appropriate representation look like?” And those are very good questions indeed.

I have endured arguments among professors many times over the last thirty years in which a straight line was drawn from the demographics of society at large to the demographics of a particular faculty. If fifty-one per cent of the population of Canada is female, for example, then fifty-one per cent of the Regent College or University of Manitoba faculty ought to be female.

This sort of argument strikes me as preposterous. Representation on the faculty of Regent College (or anywhere else in the academy) isn’t a sort of basic human right, like the franchise.

And the argument is quickly reduced to absurdity, of course, as if Regent ought to try to represent in its twenty or so faculty positions the demography of Canada along every axis: sex, yes, but also ethnicity, denomination, theological outlook, age, height, weight, marital status, you name it. And why just Canada as the frame of reference, when Regent serves Americans (about one-third of our student body every year), Pacific Rim inhabitants (we have more alumni/ae in Hong Kong than any other city in the world save Vancouver itself), or the world?

No, we need to shift the discourse from justice language to mission language. What does Regent—or the University of British Columbia, and each of its constituent academic units—need to do to pursue its mission optimally, or at least adequately?

Can we agree that having an all-male or all-white faculty is inadequate for at least most academic units of the sort we are discussing? I have become convinced that students profit from having professors as role models who have lived life in similar bodies to theirs. I have also become convinced that scholarship benefits from alternative views in conceptualization that can similarly result from different forms of embodiment. I cannot argue for those conclusions here—they’re based on years of reading epistemology and the sociology of knowledge coupled with personal experience, so you either grant these premises or you don’t. But if you do, then how much diversity, how much representation is enough?

I would say, enough is enough. There would be enough women or members of ethnic minorities in a given academic community if they form what we might call a “critical mass” such that the conversation in the classroom or the faculty lounge is materially affected—just as it would be, in the case of a theological school like Regent, if there were “enough” Pentecostals or Presbyterians or church historians or Old Testament scholars on such a faculty. Underrepresentation (meant functionally, therefore, and not politically) would occur when nothing much is altered and crucial viewpoints are missing. Remaining content with underrepresentation with only a little representation is to engage in mere tokenism.

Enough is enough, that is, when faculty and students can agree that teaching and scholarship are being conducted  from at least an adequate range of perspectives. Specifying more precisely what that adequacy means is of course deeply contextual, but it isn’t so vague a standard as to be useless. For we can ask professors and students and they will tell us: Do you judge our conversation to be missing some crucial viewpoints such that we are failing to achieve our stated mission?

So are women underrepresented everywhere in the academy? Are certain ethnic minorities? Not so far as I can see. But in some sectors? You bet, and especially in North American evangelical theological education, for reasons I have articulated earlier in this series.

Thus, despite our manifold disagreements, I agree with what I take to be some of what P. W. Dunn and Elderj have been pressing in their comments: There needs to be a good missional reason for affirmative action and diversity criteria in hiring. Here’s why, then, brothers, I think those can make some sense in some situations. I think it particularly makes sense in the one I’m in now, as well as in the secular department of religious studies I was in before. And here’s why, other brothers and sisters, we should push for adequate pertinent diversity.

So I’ll keep pushing for it until—not until some level of political “fairness” is achieved, for I don’t think that’s the right way to construe the issue—we are doing what we aim to do at least as adequately as we can.

0 Responses to “On Behalf of Diversity in Academic Hiring: Part Two”

  1. D Goheen

    It is difficult for women to be hired as academic staff at a University when only a few years ago I was denied entry into a course at a famous Theological School because it was for men only since only men could preach.

  2. John

    Just a comment about my experience with diversity at seminary. You say:

    “I have become convinced that students profit from having professors as role models who have lived life in similar bodies to theirs. I have also become convinced that scholarship benefits from alternative views in conceptualization that can similarly result from different forms of embodiment.”

    I’m a white male pastor married to a second generation Korean American, and I’ve spent some time working in Asia American churches. My mentor in seminary was Korean American. I doubt you were setting up a hard dichotomy, but I’ve found that the presence of diversity in the faculty and the student body does more than just enhance the academic experience. Developing a robust epistemology is as important for pastors as it is for professors. Epistemological hubris in the pulpit is a dangerous thing. Humility in interpreting scripture is a part of discipleship.

    Maybe this was implied already, but I thought I’d add that the benefits of being in relationship with those different than you go beyond the classroom!

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