US college introduces diversity requirement for tenure

Pomona College academics vote for guidelines that ask tenure candidates to be ‘attentive to diversity in the student body’

May 24, 2016
Diversity on campus
Source: iStock

A US college’s faculty has voted to change the criteria for tenure to specifically require candidates to be “attentive to diversity in the student body”.

While many colleges and universities encourage faculty members to support diversity efforts, and a few have encouraged tenure candidates to reference such work, the requirement at Pomona College – a private liberal arts college in California – may go further in that it applies to all who come up for tenure.

The faculty voted overwhelmingly this month to approve the change.

At Pomona, the faculty controls the tenure criteria, so the vote is final, although there is a grandfather clause exempting those already in the tenure-review process.

The changes were similar to one demand of students at Pomona in campus protests last autumn.

Students organised a petition drive – signed by hundreds – and a few dozen students brought the petitions to the faculty meeting where the vote took place.

The petition stated that the changes in the tenure criteria were “a crucial step towards recognizing that an essential component of exceptional teaching and service is meeting the needs of a diverse student body”.

Eric A. Hurley, associate professor of psychology and Africana studies, is among the professors who worked on the policy changes.

He said that the idea has been under consideration for three years, well before the protests. He said that Pomona routinely asks candidates for new faculty positions about their vision for teaching a diverse student body, and he and others questioned why that wouldn’t be examined at the point of tenure review.

“This is already part of our job but as the student body has changed, what it means to do that job, with close mentoring as what we do, is also starting to change,” Hurley said.

With regard to the student protests at Pomona and elsewhere, Hurley said it was important to realise that students want “structural change”, not just short-term adjustments.

A college could, for instance, hire more minority counsellors, a worthy thing to do, but they might leave in a few years. Changing the considerations for tenure, in contrast, is a permanent change of the type students want and faculty members at Pomona agree is needed.

A number of universities have in recent years adopted policies that have sought to encourage faculty members to consider diversity issues in their teaching and research.

Oregon State University in 2015 changed its guidelines for tenure and promotion to state that “outputs and impacts” of faculty members’ efforts “to promote equity, inclusion and diversity should be included in promotion and tenure dossiers”.

Virginia Tech has for a longer time had a policy that encourages those up for tenure and promotion to describe their work on diversity.

When – as happens from time to time – the university is criticised for allegedly imposing certain political stances on tenure candidates, officials have said that the diversity issue is optional, and that tenure candidates are not required to believe or report anything specific in their tenure portfolios.

Last year, the then-provost of Virginia Tech, Mark G. McNamee, wrote a letter to the editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch taking issue with such criticism.

“The suggestion that contributions to inclusion and diversity are a litmus test for promotion are patently false,” McNamee wrote.

“A close reading of the university’s P&T guidelines reveals, time and again, that a candidate ‘may’ include examples responsive to the criteria. It says may – not must.”

Hurley said that Pomona wanted a policy that clearly applied to all departments, and that said diversity wasn’t just a plus, but a requirement. “The college is now asking you to think about who your students are,” he said.

Many faculty members, he said, already do so. But he said the change was important to them as well.

Leaders of the National Association of Scholars have written numerous critiques of Virginia Tech’s policy and similar ones, arguing that references to diversity and inclusivity become political “litmus tests” for tenure candidates.

Ashley Thorne, executive director of the group, said via email that she opposed the Pomona policy.

“While it is appropriate to evaluate faculty members’ contributions to the university by way of service (in addition to teaching and research), it is inappropriate to make these expectations into ideological litmus tests,” Thorne said.

“Pomona’s new requirement not only discriminates against faculty members who put academic excellence first, but it also can undercut the value of the education students will receive.

“And it may subvert faculty members’ academic freedom to teach a subject according to their best judgement and field of expertise. A college should be encouraging its faculty members to prioritize books and ideas that are intrinsically good, true and important, regardless of whether they count as ‘underrepresented’.

“Students deserve an education that is guided by intellectual worth, not topics that merely fulfill a diversity requirement.”

Hurley of Pomona said that the new Pomona policy would in no way limit faculty members in terms of their political views or expressing them – even if students disagree with those views.

“Inclusion doesn’t mean students aren’t meant to be challenged in their views. It doesn’t mean anyone has to edit their academically grounded perspectives,” he said.

“It’s not about protecting people’s feelings by not saying anything anyone could disagree with. That’s how learning happens.”

But he said that, regardless of the ideas a professor might share, “there is a way that one might frame such a thing that is appropriate and a way that is not appropriate”.

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said he did not see problems inherent in the language of Pomona’s new policy. But he said via email that what will be key is how the policy is used.

“What is practically meant by ‘attentive to diversity’ will have to be established in practice before one could really judge,” Reichman said.

“After all, people who hate diversity are in a sense ‘attentive’ to it, and ‘diversity’ has multiple meanings – cultural, ethnic, religious, gender and, of course, diversity of viewpoints. But I see nothing wrong with the wording itself.”

This is a version of an article that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed

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