ABBASI: Underrepresentation poses threat to higher education
Opinions Column: Midweek Crisis
In a Supreme Court case over affirmative action brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who claimed that the University of Texas denied her admission in 2008 because of her race, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. questioned what value diversity has in an academic setting: “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”
The implication that the presence of minority students in a classroom ought to be justified, or that the value of diversity is in the “perspective” that minority students offer to their peers, is problematic in itself. A more important question to ask is how the presence of diversity in an academic setting — or lack thereof — impacts minority students and faculty themselves.
Many universities have attempted to fix this by throwing money at the issue, opening more slots to hire minorities and offering salary incentives for minority appointees. But hiring faculty members does not translate into retention, promotion or tenure. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the representation of minorities declined since 2007 in certain fields, such as engineering, which can largely be attributed to the fact that many people from these minority groups were hired as contingent rather than full-time tenured faculty.
Rutgers, to its credit, does relatively well when it comes to faculty diversity. According to a nationwide study from the 2013-2014 academic year that includes data from 20 four-year universities with the biggest instructional staffs and all eight Ivy League universities, Rutgers—New Brunswick has the lowest rate of white faculty members (62 percent) and the second-highest rate of black faculty members (4.2 percent). Just 4 percent of Rutgers’ faculty members are black, but that still puts the University among those with the most diverse faculty in the country. It is important to note that this data does not make a distinction between adjunct faculty and tenure-track professors.
Clearly the standards are unacceptably low and we’re hardly reaching the bare minimum. When compared to the national population, this representation of faculty is still completely disproportionate. While 62 percent of the national population is white — which is almost perfectly reflected at Rutgers — the 13 percent of the national population that is black is severely underrepresented.
This is why the current question of professor Jennifer Warren’s tenure warrants a serious examination of what Rutgers can be doing to help fix this issue. Warren is an African-American professor at Rutgers in the Department of Communication who was recently denied tenure on the basis of her departmental evaluation. In order to be approved for tenure, faculty members are subject to review and evaluation by three committees and a dean. Warren said she was approved for tenure at the school level, but denied at the departmental level, and was subsequently denied approval by University President Robert L. Barchi. Currently there is only one tenured faculty member of color in the department.
I have never taken a course with Warren and I don’t have any knowledge of her tenure review process. But regardless of one’s opinion of whether Warren in particular should or should not have been granted tenure, the bigger question is why there are so few tenured faculty members of color in the first place. Just because we do relatively well compared to other institutions, such as Dartmouth, which has a faculty that is overwhelmingly (80.4 percent) white and only 4 percent Hispanic and 2.3 percent black, does not mean that we reach anywhere near a fair and representative student and faculty body.
A major focus of the University's Strategic Plan is to improve scholarships by attracting distinguished faculty members. According to its ambition for the five-year plan introduced in February 2014, “Rutgers aspires to be broadly recognized as among the nation’s leading public universities — preeminent in research, excellent in teaching and committed to community.” While Rutgers is known for its strong research programs, especially in STEM fields, the University has to also prioritize the inclusion of a more diverse faculty and student body — merging certain liberal arts departments and cutting funding from certain humanities fields does not help. Diversity is about much more than just numbers. Increasing the enrollment of people of color, low-income students, women and other marginalized groups may be a priority for Rutgers, but higher numbers do not create a more diverse and inclusive university environment. The underrepresentation of race in faculty is an issue in universities across the country and will continue to be an obstacle in higher education until it is more seriously addressed.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. She is a former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs alternate Wednesdays.
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