March 06, 2004

DUKE UNIVERSITY has been at the center of a controversy involving its apparent lack of intellectual diversity (see posts here and here.) In response, Duke held a panel discussion on the subject.

Er, except it was a discussion on the subject of academic freedom and whether affiliation matters, and none of the student critics got speaking roles -- it was all Duke faculty and administrators.

Question: If a bunch of minority students challenged Duke for underinclusiveness, would the university put on an all-faculty-and-administrator panel, with most panelists suggesting that the race of faculty members isn't important?

It's not all bad by any means, and the very existence of this discussion is some evidence of progress. But the different treatment of different kinds of diversity challenges is striking, especially as intellectual diversity would seem more important to the university's academic mission than skin-color diversity, which we're always told is a proxy for the intellectual kind. And here's an interesting bit from the only speaker to take a different tack:

Here's a true statement: ... every conservative faculty member recommended for [tenure] by the literature department has been tenured. That's also true of every unicorn and every talking dog. . . .

When I first arrived at Duke, there was a party for new faculty. And when it was time to sit down, we were all told: "Since you've been hired at Duke, I'm sure that none of you is so foolish as to be conservative. So, please, spread yourselves liberally around the tables." Now, I wasn't offended. I wasn't worried. I would never have mentioned the incident except I recently heard several people who were at that dinner and who laughed at that joke loudly insisting that politics should never play a role in hiring. . . .

Now, let me emphasize, it's always unofficial, it's not a statement of policy, I don't think that there is any policy that takes that effect. It's just an expectation. The policy is for openness. The actual expectation is that we'll generally hire liberals.

It seems hard to justify such a policy, er, expectation, in light of the oft-stated importance of diversity in academic settings. It also suggests that many faculty members are unaware of their own prejudices, just as diversity consultants have been telling us, in other contexts, for years. Presumably, universities such as Duke will want to remedy this, as they have done in other contexts, with seminars for faculty on sensitivity, and guidelines for inclusiveness in hiring. . . .

(Thanks to Duke's PR office for forwarding this link.)

UPDATE: Eric Muller says that I give insufficient attention to William Van Alstyne's talk, which he says makes a similar point to the one above, but in a more understated way. Fair enough -- though I think the transcript must not convey the full character of Van Alstyne's talk, which seemed to me, from reading the transcript, to be understated indeed. But I couldn't see the visual aids, which sound as if they increased the impact. (I couldn't get any of the video links to play, and I guess that either Eric could, or he was there, though he doesn't say which.)