elizabeth warren and minority professors

There’s been a slow burning debate over Elizabeth Warren’s ethnicity. She has some Native American background but is functionally White. Yet, her former employer, the Harvard Law School, listed her as minority faculty.

The real issue here isn’t Elizabeth Warren, millions of Americans have Native American roots. The issue is the relative paucity of minority faculty on the tenure track. Listing Warren as Native American rubbed people the wrong way because her employer was trying to gain credit for diversity without hiring people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The pipeline for minorities is very broken. Even though graduate programs do a fair job recruiting minorities, most do a horrible job training minority graduate students and getting them on the tenure track. Doctoral programs often run on a philosophy of benign neglect. In such an environment, women and underrepresented groups are the first to go. Later on, there’s hand wringing over the lack of minorities in academic leadership positions.

Harvard’s actions exemplify academia’s poor response to the under-representation of minorities on the tenure track. They use dubious statistics to paper over a problem. The only way to address the issue is to directly confront graduate programs and ensure that *all* students receive adequate training within a reasonable time frame. Administrations should end the regime of benign neglect in America’s graduate programs and implement a series of benchmarks for all students. Only when that is done will universities be able to fill their departments with qualified minority faculty.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz


Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. You write,”The only way to address the issue is to directly confront graduate programs and ensure that *all* students receive adequate training within a reasonable time frame.” This comment seems to indicate that you fail to appreciate the underlying problems here.

    Operationalize the following phrases: “directly confront graduate programs”; “all students”; “adequate training” and “reasonable time frame.” There will no doubt be more than one reasonable way of operationalizing each item. Next determine what kind of consensus exists for each item’s interpretation. Any clear winners?

    If so, determine who the actors will be who do the confronting. (Who will do the determining?) Who will be confronted as avatars of “graduate programs?” To what ends will the adequacy of training (what kind?) be directed? Whose judgement of reasonableness will count for specifying the time frame?

    Given the complex political dynamics involved in all this, I think most people will just choose to default to the status quo with problematic ethnic definitions and live with the occasional problems that cases like Warren’s illustrate.



  2. Reblogged this on tressiemc.



    June 8, 2012 at 5:06 am

  3. The problem of inequality is almost perpendicular to the broader problem of the crisis in graduate education. Graduate education is becoming less sustainable. It is expensive, subsidy via federal grants has been capped, and subsidy via undergraduate tuition or state support has been declining steeply, especially for public institutions. Post docs are now cheaper than graduate students. There is an over-supply of PhDs in most fields and many people with PhDs are having trouble finding decent work. Getting more people through graduate school is not going to help these problems. In fact, it will make them worse.

    These and comparable pressures are probably why the privileged have circled the wagons around trying to keep the disadvantaged out.

    I agree with you that a program that is better for everyone is also better for disadvantaged people, but I don’t see any constructive way to address issues of privilege and disadvantage except directly through paying attention to the hidden curriculum and teaching people the things they don’t know they don’t know as well as trying to alert the privileged to the things they know that they don’t know they know.

    There’s nobody, White or Native, who thinks you ought to count as American Indian if you are not on a tribal roll,don’t live on a reservation, have fair skin and hair, and only 1/32 of your family line is Native. Counting someone as minority when they don’t count themselves that way is institutional cynicism at its highest level, and if Elizabeth Warren cooperated with this, then she needs to be censured for it no matter what good qualities she also has. Hers is not remotely even a borderline case.

    But there are lots of real borderline cases, people with quite dark skin who are South Asian or from elite families, people who “look White” but are genuinely from culturally- and racially-mixed families who identify with the minority group in whole or are part, people from culturally- and racially-mixed families who have been raised to identity with and think of themselves as White until it was time to check a box for college admission.



    June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm

  4. Edward and o.w. raised a number of good points that merit response:

    – We all agree that higher education reform is hard, but some reforms are much easier than others. For example, o.w. correctly raises the issue of the hidden curriculum. That is a very hard problem. In contrast, making departments actually bring PhD students to completion is easier. I wrote an old post on this topic:

    At Harvard (ironically), Theda Skocpol (then FAS dean) imposed a new rule. No PhD completions = funding cuts. Surprise, surprise – departments got their act together! Of course, that’s only the first step. Building a diverse professoriate does require grappling with the hidden curriculum and other issues. But none of that is possible until PhD programs become more structured and people actually have their PhDs.

    In my view, it’s very much a sequential process. First, programs need some structure and right incentives. Second, programs need to reform their culture. Third, we can then worry about people making it through the tenure track.

    – Edward asked about “who.” I don’t think this is all that puzzling. The “who” is deans and provosts. “What” is creating rules that punish departments for not graduating people.

    – o.w. is correct that inequality and poor graduate education are separate issues, but faculty diversity is where they come together. There are multiple issues and diversity is just one of them.

    – Finally, there is the issue of “worthiness.” the o.w. is correct in that having a great grandparent from group X isn’t enough. As sociologists, we’d probably focus on social practice (e.g., do people treat you as a member of X?) But once again, I think that’s a side issue compared to the bigger structural issue of poorly run PhD programs. If we actually had people finishing programs, then I’d be happy to have a conversation about how to measure diversity. But until we have people passing exams, not dropping out, and filing dissertations, this sort of discussion doesn’t have a lot of value added.



    June 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm

  5. Though we might agree that Elizabeth Warren is not a Native American because she is not on a tribal list, who is (or is not) a native American is actually an interesting question. The rules governing (legal) identification are different from those governing the identification of membership in any other American racial/ethnic group and even Native Americans dispute them. See

    The debate reminds me of the current to-do in the Chronicle of Higher Education about whether Jews are white. All of the writers and commentators are forgetting that in the US, at least, Jews are relative late-comers to “whiteness” and that here, as elsewhere, race is historically and situationally contingent. The people who devised the category “white/Jewish” are as blind to the diversity of color among Jews are they are to the considerable variation among people who identify themselves as Native American.

    I assume that one must promulgate some definitions for policy purposes, but I do wish that people would remember that larger sociological point as they do so. Cynicism about individuals (who counts as what) does not help to reform how institutions work to bend the rules.



    June 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm

  6. Gaye: Thanks for the reply. Measuring ethnicity is crucial for policy and has to be seriously considered. At the same time, the Warren controversy over her ethnicity shouldn’t be overplayed. If we care about diversity, we must focus on making good institutions, not some politician’s great grandparents.



    June 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm

  7. I realize this is not the point of this post, but what (generally speaking) is contained in the hidden curriculum and how do I ask about it / learn about it? I’ve read the Rulz (thanks Fabio!) but I am wondering if the comments above about ‘the hidden curriculum’ are referring to something other than the unspoken departmental rules?


    minority grad student

    June 9, 2012 at 3:03 am

  8. re hidden curriculum, I’ll take a stab at it as I was the one who threw it into the conversation. But before I started writing this answer, I Googled the term and see that it has a huge usage in education to refer to things like knowing how to sit still in class and whether and how to be obedient, including a lot of discussion of class differences. It’s actually pretty interesting to read up on how the concept has been used. The general idea is that the “hidden curriculum” is the teaching that is going on about how to be a certain kind of person with a particular set of ways of behaving and norms and values about life. Searching for hidden curriculum minority or hidden curriculum class turns up a lot.

    What I was specifically referring to regarding graduate school is that cultural standards and ways of being that are characteristic of upper middle class educated White people are assumed to be how all professionals ought to behave. One example is that people of our class (I’m in it) teach our children to be assertive with adults and we believe that taking a critical stance and arguing with one’s elders is a sign of a good mind. People whose cultures emphasize respect for elders and deference to authority are often downgraded in graduate school for not being assertive or critical enough. What gets tricky is that there are subtle ways of doing this that are deemed acceptable and others that will get you branded as a trouble-maker, and the cultural codes for how to pull it off are actually subtle and tricky and difficult to pick up easily. Generally the members of the dominant group cannot even articulate what the “rules” are about how to be asserting and intellectually challenging in a non-offensive way, it is just something they have absorbed growing up. In addition, there are unconscious racial/sex biases that lead people to interpret the identical behavior differently depending on who is doing it.



    June 9, 2012 at 3:31 am

  9. I’ll affirm what o.w. said and then add another layer. Each discipline has a secret code for what are valid career strategies and forms of behavior. I briefly discuss this briefly in Chapter 5, “Learn the Unspoken Rules,” but I didn’t get into detail because disciplines, and even sub-disciplines, have different codes.

    In sociology, we have some unspoken rules. For example, the path to a competitive job is through the ASR & AJS. It almost functions like a first screening for job applicants in mainstream programs. There’s also all kinds of unspoken rules that govern what you can publish and how. There are invisible codes about assembling an article, cleaning data and even table formatting.

    That’s why, ultimately, diversity in the academy is a multistage process. One we have decent institutions and rules, the next step is socialization. Once under represented groups are in an environment where graduation is normal and expected, then we can focus on professionalization.



    June 9, 2012 at 5:28 am

  10. Well, it is kind of funny in a bitterly ironic way that academia has this problem. Supposedly – at least by their own definition – the ivy-covered halls are the frontline in social progress. (How many sociologists does it take to change a lightbulb? The lightbulb does not need to be changed: it is society that needs to be changed.) Yet, as discriminations of all kinds trudge along like zombies, they seem so oddly out of place where they are so strong. Harvard. Of course.

    Cypress Semiconductor founder and CEO T. J. Rodger’s famously responded to Sister Doris Gormley on affirmatively acting. In computers, in engineering, and similar fields, race, gender, and class are less salient. Who you are counts much less than what you do. Having worked as a contractor at several large multinationals, for as comical as corporatism can be (ready any Dilbert strip), irrational discrimination is not one of their sins.

    When interpersonal and political power enter the picture, other standards apply. Ethnicity, religion, campus alma mater, fraternity, or sorority, or (in the case of social science faculty) political party affiliation can be the difference between success and failure.

    Ann by “minority” we seem not to mean East Asian or South Asian. Certainly, immigrants in general tend to have values different from the ethicities they left behind or those of their next and third generation followers.

    Prof. Rojas hit the nail on the head when he noted that ethnicity is ascribed to you by others. President Barack Obama grew up in an academic immigrant family, more like Esther Dyson than Mike Tyson.


    Michael Marotta

    June 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: