• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

On Behalf of Diversity in Academic Hiring: Part One

My recent post on “International Women’s Day” prompted a spirited exchange about affirmative action and prioritizing of diversity (not the same things) in academic hiring. Herewith a few comments:

1. Affirmative action is a political program meant to remedy certain deficiencies in previous academic hiring. The two main arguments I have encountered on its behalf are these: (a) privileged white males previously received preferential treatment, and so other groups are entitled to preferential treatment in return (this is the less persuasive of the arguments, in my view, since it boils down to “two wrongs make a right”) and (b) the hiring practices of most academies have been established by privileged white males and thus they tend to select for more privileged white males (PWMs), although PWMs believe that they are hiring merely according to “merit” plus the notorious X-factor of academic appointments, “fit.” Without affirmative action, that is, the system will perpetuate itself and never produce a proper number of appointments of non-PWMs. This (much better) argument seems to me to square quite directly with the sociology of knowledge over fifty or more years.

2. Prioritizing diversity is a different matter. A case needs to be made that the mission of the academic unit (university, faculty, department) will be advanced better by having different kinds of people—and particular kinds of “different”—rather than having all of the same kind.

A history department, for example, normally will do its job better if not everyone is a specialist in the American Civil War. An English department will do its job better if at least one person knows something about Shakespeare. Likewise, a philosophy department will do its job better if it hires both Continental and analytical philosophers—although try getting most North American philosophy departments to believe that!

What, then, about race and gender? It seems to me that it entirely depends on what the academic unit is trying to do. If having a diversity of ethnicities represented on the faculty will enrich the conversation, improve the unit’s ability to teach its students, and promote better research, then of course it should seek that diversity. A department of Asian studies, for example, will do its job better if not everyone is Chinese, and not all of those are from Hong Kong. A department of gender studies, for another, will do its job better if both men and women are employed in it.

By this point, then, the case for diversity as at least sometimes justifiable seems to me to be obvious. What remains is to justify it in any other given instance.

Here at Regent College, our mission will be advanced, it seems to me, if we teach our very diverse student body from more than the point of view of middle-aged, white, English-as-first-language males—who make up the majority of our current full-time teaching complement, although we do have fine women colleagues both full-time and part-time and a few colleagues (such as the estimable Edwin Hui) who are of a different ethnic background. We will, that is, teach better and research better if we hire more good people who share a pertinently different point of view, and I think that in theological studies and Christian formation gender and ethnicity are pertinent in both teaching and research (not to mention academic governance)—just as Regent insists on denominational and disciplinary diversity in the faculty on the same grounds.

My sense, then, is that unless a school already has in place a significant number of women and a significant amount of ethnic diversity, it will normally not develop such diversity without intentional hiring that does indeed give special attention to women and non-whites. Those aren’t the only two categories that matter, of course, but they are two categories that obviously (does anyone really doubt this?) have lagged behind others in hiring priorities.

One last point, however, that reiterates something I wrote in reply to a comment in my previous post. Looking at the make-up of the faculty of any particular academic unit (such as Regent College) and seeing a dearth of women and ethnic minorities cannot be read as prima facie evidence of either prejudice against such people or a failure to recruit such people. It is a simple demographic fact that there are very few women and non-whites who are seeking employment at places such as ours. We have tried very hard for the dozen years I have been here to diversify our faculty without sacrificing academic quality and we simply have had very few options in any given case. Our evangelical tradition has not encouraged nearly enough women to pursue academic theological careers (again, does anyone doubt that?) and we have produced very few non-whites with excellent academic preparation available to hire, either.

Maybe we can do something different, or something better. If you know the situation at Regent in particular, I’d love to hear from you with concrete suggestions. But they have to be concrete: particular things we can do, or particular people we should look at, etc. We already bemoan our sameness and it only hurts to have people keep pointing out the obvious as if we’re too stupid or sinful to look around our own faculty meetings and see who’s what.