It’s no secret that America’s colleges and universities have become bastions of political rectitude. This is often attributed to the left-liberal political orientation of the faculty. Typically, however, the administration, not the faculty, is the driving force behind efforts to promote campus diversity, to build multicultural programming and to regulate campus speech. The president of the University of Rochester, for example, recently announced a 31-point “diversity plan” saying that diversity was a “fundamental value” of his university.
What accounts for the solicitude shown by university administrators for this progressive political agenda? The chief reason is that a pitched battle for control of the university in under way, and by championing left-liberal causes administrators hope to bolster their own power vis-à-vis the faculty. Most professors are progressive in their political commitments and usually unwilling to be seen as siding with putative oppressors against the oppressed. Hence, they are generally reluctant to oppose programs and proposals that are presented as efforts to foster campus equality, diversity, multiculturalism, and the like. Accordingly, university administrators will often package proposals designed mainly to enhance their own power as efforts to promote these social and political goals.
Take, for example, the matter of faculty diversity. Most colleges and universities in the United States appear to be campaigning vigorously to hire and retain women and people of color as professors. Hundreds of schools have appointed “Chief Diversity Officers,” with the authority to implement diversity plans. Still others have employed the services of one or another of the now-ubiquitous diversity consulting firms, which will, for a hefty fee, help ensure that they do not overlook any possibilities that might help speed them along the road to greater and greater diversity.
At first blush the administrative drive to add under-represented minorities and women to college faculties seems a bit off the mark. The simple fact of the matter is that in many fields there are few women and virtually no minority faculty available to be hired. In a recent year, only ten African-Americans earned Ph.D. degrees in mathematics and only thirteen in physics. Given these numbers, it might appear that the only way to bolster the presence of minority faculty in such fields would involve a long-term effort to identify and nurture math and science skills among talented minority secondary-school students. A crash program to hire minority scientists when none are being produced seems misguided, to say the least.
In the humanities and social sciences, to be sure, women and members of racial and ethnic minorities constitute a larger fraction of the graduate school population. In these fields, though, the academic departments have been actively hiring minority faculty for a number of years. Why then have university presidents, provosts, and other high-ranking officials suddenly, and somewhat belatedly, become outspoken diversity advocates, seemingly on a collective quest to drastically change the gender and racial balance of their faculties? The answer to this question has more to do with administrative interests than long-standing moral commitments.
Since the emergence of the tenure system, faculties, particularly at research universities, have strongly resisted even the slightest encroachments by administrators into faculty autonomy in the realm of hiring. Efforts by administrators to intervene in the process were almost always firmly rebuffed. Today, under the rubric of diversity, university administrators have been able to arrogate to themselves an ever-growing role in the faculty hiring process. The rationale for this administrative encroachment is the idea that university departments are not well suited to work diligently on behalf of diversity. According to one diversity advocate, university departments assign too much weight to “their notion of quality, appropriate credentials, and scholarly research/productivity administrators.” Rosovsky was correct. Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing new knowledge, new visions of politics, policy and society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering some vocational training but never imparting to students the most important training of all-–the ability to think.
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