Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dr. Amelia asks us to ask ourselves "We can, but should we?"

I was over in the mothership mail room (I'm officed in a different building from the rest of the department), and ran in to a dear colleague whom I rarely get to to see.

"How are you?" I asked, not prepared for the fleeting look of terror that preceded the socially acceptable "fine."

My friend has been the victim of the "we'll make it seem like it matters to us by forming a committee to look at it" scam. He's one of the only native-american faculty on campus, and here in Abilene, we take diversity seriously, meaning that if you are the only one of your kind, you are asked to be on everything.

He just wants to do things that matter like write his book on the genetic basis of hamster fur taxonomy and do a good job training the future taxonomers. But instead, he is spending his time on the "value of the arts" committee, so we can seem serious on art and on the "student happiness through changing the campus bus routes" committee, so we can seem serious on student happiness. He knows almost nothing about jazz combos (apparently, the last meeting was about whether the uni should invite a 3-piece combo or a 4-piece combo) or public transportation, so his place on these committees is mostly to nod and smile.

Art is great. Happy students are great. We can show our appreciation for diversity by putting dear colleague on every committee and task force we can dream up.

We can. But should we? What are the opportunity costs?


  1. Someone wiser than I observed that it's not a person of color's job to diversify the environment for white folks.

    That said, your colleague needs to find a way to say "no" and make it stick. There are a number of ways to spin it; if he's still TT rather than tenured, all this committee work is eating up time that could be used building his portfolio.

    If he already has tenure, he should have enough security to say "non" without any explanation at all. As loudly as necessary.

  2. It sounds like somebody should be asking about the opportunity costs for all members of the committee. They are a waste of time.

    Here's how you know that the administration doesn't give a shit about something: They ask faculty for their opinion.

  3. So, he is the only native-american faculty on campus? That makes him untouchable, right? So he can simply refuse to be on any committees that aren't "fun" for him (as said). If he accepts the assignments, he must either like this kind of thing, or is too much of a "trooper", or has yet to realize how unassailable his position is. Now, if they get one or two other "minorities"...that would weaken it significantly

    I'm sure this is bad, but I can't read "minority" without hearing Eric Cartman singing in my head (South Park).

  4. As a white person, I didn't realize how much of a problem this is until I read some of Kerry Ann Rockquemore's columns and her book. Peter K assumes the admin at this school is equally interested in giving lip service to diversity and actually tenuring faculty members of color, which is frequently not the case. Not even necessarily due to malice, but due to a lack of anyone thinking about the effect of burdensome service requirements like this on people's performance.

  5. OH! THIS! Yeah: I'm often requested to be present for photo opportunities when the PR and Marketing people are doing brochures or taking photos for any material that gets disseminated beyond the borders of our campus. Suddenly, our materials make us appear to be the United Colors of Benetton community. Granted, we do rank in the very top tier for most diversity student body (not so for faculty/staff) in the whole country (probably the only thing we can brag about), but why is there a need to suddenly have every minority represented in a photo or on a committee? It's insulting to be viewed as a "token" and not be valued for individual opinion and intelligence in photos and committees. And, as pointed out here, it takes time away from blogging!

  6. It's a real problem, and has been around for some time. I lost my first grad school advisor to token-exhaustion (she left our Ivy for a slightly-less-prestigious but more actually diverse public R1, where she could concentrate on her teaching and research. Interestingly, she later returned, I assume after putting herself in a position to say "no" when necessary). At the very least, as-yet-untenured faculty from underrepresented groups need to be protected even more carefully than other untenured faculty from crushing service loads (they're already likely to be mobbed by students eager to work with them, increasing their teaching load). At least in the late '80s/early '90s, many schools seemed willing to hire any young minority scholar they could find, ready or not (one friend received feelers for a tenure-track job before he had *begun* his dissertation), work them to burnout, and then fail to tenure them (if they hadn't already burned out/broken down/left for some other reason). Some of it was well-intentioned, I suppose, but it was also incredibly exploitative.