affirmative action and the academic pipeline
When people discuss affirmative action, they often have a mistaken view that higher education is filled with legions of under-qualified minorities. From the inside, we have the opposite view. The higher up you go, the less likely you will find folks from under-represented groups. So, what gives?
In addition to plain ideological differences, I think people are selectively looking at the academic pipeline. Basically, at some points in the career, affirmative action is indeed at work and some folks, including myself no doubt, will receive extra consideration. But most of the time, privilege is the rule. People will disproportionately focus on the parts of the pipeline where affirmative action is a modest benefit for some people.
To grasp the argument, it helps to break down what needs to happen in order for anyone to become a tenured professor:
- Getting a high college GPA.
- Applying to the “right” grad schools.
- Admission to the “right” grad schools.
- Passing courses.
- Passing exams.
- Getting the “right” adviser.
- Getting published in the “right” places.
- Writing the dissertation.
- Applying to tenure track positions
- Getting an offer from a school.
- Strong teaching skills.
- Continuing to publish in the “right” places.
- Getting elites in the profession to vouch for you.
- Getting the department and college to sign off on your tenure case.
As you can see, academia is this insanely long career track with a long list of interdependent parts.
Now let’s get back to affirmative action. Where does that policy work? In my scheme, it shows up mainly in step #3. Most schools will look askance at graduate school cohorts that lack ethnic or gender diversity. Some may even provide funds for recruitment and fellowships. But that’s it. After step #3, affirmative is rare. Perhaps the exception is when deans or departments at the junior level look to diversity the faculty and they may approve a hire.
This helps explain the perceptions of the policy. Admissions is high profile and people are openly competing for spots. Faculty hiring is also high visibility. In contrast, say, getting published in a journal, or joining the “right” research groups is highly invisible to most observers until after the fact. And these are structured as homophilic networks, which might work against diversifying the faculty.
So, when it come to diversity in academia, you can’t look at one link in the chain. You have to look at the whole thing.