Valuing Diversity


I will never forget my interview for the job I still hold, 33 years later, as an instructor of philosophy at Grossmont College. I sat in a room with the president and vice president of the college and, for more than two hours, engaged in a heated discussion about teaching.1 Employing a variation of McCluhan's "medium is the message," I argued that the principal lesson taught in traditional college classes was that students should sit still and do what they're told, that this lesson was the same no matter what the nominal subject matter of the course, and that the primary function of college, therefore, was that of quashing any tendencies to uniqueness and turning out docile citizens who would dependably function within a limited range of social normalcy. Whatever I did in my classes, I assured them, would be designed to undermine and subvert this oppressive tradition. My students might or might not learn much about philosophy, but they would sure as hell learn what college was designed to do to them, and they'd learn a great deal about how to fight it. My interlocutors argued, with equal vehemence, that my attitude was irresponsible both to my discipline and my students.

They hired me the next day.

For the next few years, I engaged in what might be generously characterized as "cutting-edge, experimental, non-directive" teaching, until it gradually dawned on me (1) that what my students were learning seemed to be that my classes were an easy `A' if only they were willing to show up and emote, and (2) that my own traditional education had not left me feeling or acting particularly oppressed. (I know, we might argue that it was precisely that oppressive tradition that was the cause of my slow epiphany-but to go there would only prove, again, that the intellect can be a tool of masochism.) My teaching, as a result, eventually worked its way to within the bounds of the normal. In the meantime, the senior members of my department, to their credit, protected me from subsequent administrations, less sympathetic to my need to experiment.

It was not until 11 or 12 years later that I was asked to serve on a hiring committee myself, and was first exposed to the system that is still with us today. The hire was in the department of Computer Science and Information Systems, in which I was, by then, teaching part of my full-time load. Because of my peripheral role in the department, I was not involved in the paper screening or in the preparation of the interview questions, but was only asked to participate in the interviews themselves. Prior to the first interview, committee members were handed a sheet of prepared questions, it was decided who would read which of them to the candidates, and the interviews began. I found the process appalling. Both interviewers and interviewees were stripped of their humanity and required to engage in a stilted simulacrum of communication. It was as though authenticity had been banned from the room. No one in this process was encouraged to be themselves: the interviewers were required to be "neutral" in their responses; and the candidates were required to pour themselves into the mold constituted by the predictable, insipid, systematically inoffensive questions.

The top finalist was, of course, predictable, insipid, and systematically inoffensive (until she was hired). The best candidate, in my view, was one who was least able to contain herself within this process; she kept verging on breaking out and being herself. In this context, though, she was perceived as "weird" and slightly dangerous-which, of course, she was. Each flash of authenticity threatened to explode the process, to reflect it back on itself and reduce it to a heap of embarrassed rubble.

The interviews completed, I went to the dean and expressed my dismay at what had come to pass in our hiring procedures. The contrast, I pointed out, between this recent, Kafkaesque experience and my own hiring interview could not have been more stark. The people interviewing me wanted to know who I was, and genuinely encouraged me to show them what I was made of. And they, in turn, did not hesitate to convey to me their own deeply held convictions. The result was an impassioned dialogue that left me feeling that this place was one where I truly wanted to work. I could not imagine a candidate feeling that way about our college as the result of the interviews we had just conducted. In fact, if I wanted to communicate that our college was a haven for those who were most comfortable when repressing their humanity, seeking others equally at ease with a denial of their personhood-a community, in other words, of crazy people-I could find no better way to do it than through the process we had just engaged in.

That meeting with the dean was the beginning of what has been a 20-year effort to inject humanity into a process that has become the norm in the California Community College system. I am now convinced that the effort should be abandoned, and with it the process itself.

What has brought me to this point is a series of reflections on the "crisis" in our hiring policy brought about by the Third Appellate Court ruling on Proposition 209 in the Connerly case. By striking down the statutes and regulations governing affirmative action, the court is seen to have struck a blow to efforts to achieve diversity within the community colleges, and to have presented us with the challenge of achieving diversity through other means. To accept that challenge is to seek to identify the obstacles to achieving diversity, and then to find ways to overcome them.

Whatever else Ward Connerly and Proposition 209 have done, they have not robbed us of the tools sufficient to achieving our goal. That much at least is clear from the dismal record of our progress. If we are going to think anew about how to diversify our faculty and staff, then, we need to move beyond the desire for new regulations to replace those struck down, and begin with the as yet unanswered questions: What has kept us from getting there so far? and, once the obstacles are identified, How do we overcome them?

One obvious place to look for the impediments to diversity is at the attitudes of those serving on the hiring committees. Are they pro or con, actively seeking to hire diverse candidates, or actively-or passively-resisting? My own experience on hiring committees in my district suggests that this is a genuine source of our problems. And my experience as a human being living in America also suggests that these attitudes are heartbreakingly difficult to change. We must continue to try, and we must eventually succeed if we are to succeed as a civilized nation; but we cannot hang our hopes of achieving diversity in our ranks in the short term on changing peoples' hearts.

We can, however, change the process which seems as though it were designed, however unconsciously, to give comfort to the opponents of diversity and to silence its advocates. The process I have described above, the one we have all employed for decades and which we take for granted in all of our discussions, is one which does just that. I have no doubt that the process was designed by well-intentioned people to promote fairness and to eliminate bias and cronyism in hiring. The process is fatally flawed where diversity is concerned, however, for it identifies "fairness" with "uniformity" or sameness, whereas to celebrate diversity is to embrace variety or difference. From the interviewer's perspective, even those who might champion diversity are shut down, for this process allows no championing, no overt encouragement nor overt challenge. From the candidate's perspective, we must recognize that in hiring procedures the medium truly is the message, and our process screams "No variety wanted here!"

So, if we abandon our current way of doing things, identifying it accurately as a major obstacle to the achievement of diversity, what do we do instead? We invite candidates to lunch or to dinner, we sit down with them and engage them in serious discussion, we challenge them to show us what they're really about, and we let them see who we are as well. And, sure, we have them teach a real class of real students-and we don't worry that they aren't the same students for each candidate or that each candidate might teach a different topic. In short we treat candidates and ourselves like human beings interested in discovering if they want to be one another's colleagues for the next thirty years.2

But how can we guarantee fairness in such circumstances or, beyond that, ensure that we don't just choose as colleagues those who are most like ourselves? Short of absolute guarantees, we can, in fact, do a great many things to promote fairness and the championing of diversity. We can ask that every academic senate form a committee on hiring and diversity, and that this committee establish, with the full support of the administration, a training program for all members of hiring committees. We can ask that such programs seek, in the words of a recently adopted Academic Senate paper, to

  • convey a sense of the educational, vocational, and social value to students and the campus community of a rich variety of backgrounds and perspectives among its members;
  • reduce trainees' fear of, and induce a positive appreciation of, cultural differences;
  • communicate clearly that discrimination based on cultural and racial difference is wrong, and illustrate the damage-social, socioeconomic, and psychological-that has occurred as a result of discriminatory practices;
  • communicate the importance of campuses becoming cultural models for students: that, by providing an environment which honors diversity and is free of prejudice, the college can produce in students attitudes that will contribute to the elimination of bigotry in the larger community;
  • provide trainees with specific strategies and techniques for promoting inclusiveness in job descriptions, advertising, paper screening, and interviews, as well as eliminating unintended exclusiveness; [and]
  • persuade trainees that good hiring practice demands reaching the broadest pool of potential candidates and hiring the candidate who will be the greatest asset to students and the campus community.3

We can ask, as some colleges already do, that no one be permitted to serve on a hiring committee unless they have undergone training, and that there be a requirement that all potential committee members be "re-certified" on a regular basis. And we can ensure adherence to this policy by having the academic senate make all appointments to hiring committees in consultation with discipline faculty. Our aim would be, in part, that those who are frightened by their own humanity, who, that is, are afraid of difference, would either get over it or self-select themselves out of what they perceived as an onerous process.

We can charge academic senates with the development and oversight of part-time hiring policies that ensure the same level of professional consideration as is accorded to full-time hires.

We can ask academic senates to take the lead in initiating and sustaining internship programs, such as the SDICCCA program in San Diego.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the process under which I was hired 33 years ago be taken for a model. In fact, in almost everything but the interview, that process was deeply flawed. We have indeed come a long way since then in terms of our awareness of the value of diversity and of the factors that contribute to our achieving a more diverse faculty. But we have also made some mistakes, mistakes that I believe impede the achievement of our goal.

In conclusion, the Third Appellate Court ruling did not revoke section 87360 (b) of the California Education Code, the section that makes faculty hiring policies the product of joint agreement between academic senates and their governing boards. Those policies must now be reconstituted in the light of the Connerly decision. I am suggesting that academic senates must take responsibility for realizing the value of diversity in their own ranks, and that this might best be accomplished by first removing the straitjacket that identifies fairness with uniformity, and replacing it with an open process that permits diverse candidates and the champions of diversity among the faculty to affirm the value of human variety and difference.

1 I had already met with the faculty; the "interview" lasted ten minutes. My first year was to be as a sabbatical leave replacement, and they had clearly already determined to offer me the job based on my recommendations from graduate school.

2 As far as I have been able to determine, there are no legal obstacles to such an "opening up" of our interview procedures. In fact, interviews in the UC system appear to be conducted in much the fashion that I have described. The rigidity of our own procedures seems to be grounded primarily in a fear of lawsuits.

3 A Re-examination of Faculty Hiring Processes and Procedures. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, adopted Fall 2000.