With universities slashing budgets due to the pandemic response, some in higher education are worried about the decline of diversity in their institutions.
Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Charles Flowers of Worcester State University poignantly states, “Whatever form the university takes post-pandemic, it will be more white, more male, more straight, more monied, and less accessible to people with disabilities than it was before the pandemic.”
Flowers points out that full-time and tenured faculty are overwhelmingly white and the increases in diversity are mostly seen in adjunct and part-time positions, which are the positions most at risk of being eliminated. And the fields dealing with marginalized groups, such as women’s or Black studies, are the ones where cuts are being made.
The implied solution is to keep such positions and fund such programs, but I think the author is arguing the wrong point. Equity in traditional higher education structures may be a problem, but focusing on it is short-sighted.
The focus should revolve around completely changing the overall higher education structure – not seeking to merely move chairs around the deck of the Titanic.
It’s well documented that higher education was struggling even before the pandemic, from declining admissions to a growing sentiment that all they do is waste four years of their students’ time not helping them to secure a meaningful career and plunge them into unforgivable debt.
A main point of contention in Flowers’ article is tenure. The reality is that such notions as tenure reflect a bias that no longer serves the higher education community.
Tenure offers misaligned incentives for the student-teacher relationship. There are clear benefits to tenure for the teacher, such as being safe from any unfair firings, but overall it’s not clear how this helps prepare the next generation of leaders. A tenured professor doesn’t offer more to students who are looking to secure meaningful employment post-graduation than another professor.
Finally, the aspect of having full-time faculty be predominately academicians raises the point as to the validity of the student experience and the practicality of the learning outcomes. Perhaps part of the barrier to having diversity in higher education teaching positions is the very fact it focuses on those who are in the academic loop, as opposed to those who are out there in the business world.
The movement towards practitioners in the classroom makes the learning more tangible and viable for these future employees.
In other words, his concerns are valid, but his focus is short-sighted. Anyone concerned with diversity in higher education should be looking at how we can change the system as a whole to better serve its students.