Notes of a DEI Search Chair
by Abena Ampofoa Asare, Associate Professor of Modern Africana Studies @ Stony Brook University;
Contributed by Wesam Hassanin, SUNY UFS Communications Committee
Dr. Abena Ampofoa Asare, an Associate Professor of Modern African Affairs & History @ Stony Brook University, recently published an article entitled "Notes of a DEI Search Chair” in Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Asare was also a Co-Chair on the IDEA Fellows search committee at SBU.
Without certain conditions, a search amounts to a public devaluing of scholars who have historically been marginalized within the academy, argues Abena Ampofoa Asare.
What do you do when you become a co-chair of a diversity, equity and inclusion search committee charged with increasing faculty diversity? You write notes.
Note 1: On Violence
Malika Jeffries-EL’s recent article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “How do we mitigate the impact of systemic bias on faculty from underrepresented groups?” begins with a chart titled “Percentage of U.S. Faculty Within the Ranks of Professor, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor by Race.” Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, this image, with its towering blue columns of white male and white female professors looming over barely perceptible multicolored slivers corresponding to Black, Latinx and Asian faculty, is presumably the context for the DEI faculty search.
This chart should be projected onto a large screen. It should be a figure of contemplation. How do we, on the DEI search, explain this disparity? Are we willing to address this? And if so, how?
We struggle to speak clearly of the processes through which U.S. higher education creates and reproduces itself as an exclusionary space. Behind these statistics, I see doors slammed shut, the bowed heads of discouraged scholars, rows of brilliant children tumbling into the euphemistically named “achievement gap.” DEI, the series of letters strung together in a well-meaning row, does not make it any easier to speak of the jagged histories that fuel the chart.
While I am the search co-chair, Adrienne Kennedy’s play The Ohio State Murders opens on Broadway. My committee never considers this play’s depiction of the harrowing conditions facing Black women who dared to attend predominantly white colleges in the 1950s. Neither do we find the time to discuss a local photo exhibit about the legacy of the Native American residential school experience. Located at an art space called Ma’s House, the exhibit reveals the entanglement of education with state violence for Native communities in our region. The chart, “Percentage of U.S. Faculty Within the Ranks,” has no sliver at all corresponding to Native American and Indigenous faculty. We also do not find time to reflect on the viral video of the chancellor of Purdue University Northwest speaking gibberish syllables and calling it an “Asian language” during the university’s commencement ceremony. Instead, we talk generally of leaky academic pipelines, unconscious bias, identity sensitization and lack of mentoring.
The reality is that underrepresented faculty members leave their positions due to institutional violence. If we cannot name racial violence, past and present, the DEI faculty search is subsumed into liberal wish fulfillment. “If only there were more Black Ph.D.s in my field.” “If only these faculty were willing to stay at this institution.” Or, “Well, we are not allowed to just hire people because of their skin color.”
Note 2: On Principles
Given the current popularity of the DEI faculty search as a feature of university hiring, we must articulate a few clear principles.
Given that it is usually scholars from underrepresented and racialized backgrounds who exhibit the portfolios that DEI searches claim to crave, the search committee must be willing to account for the “difference” in their search call and hiring protocol—or risk undermining the very principles the search is supposed to champion.
Note 3: On Precarity
Assistant professors, with identical qualifications, will enter their departments knowing that the university has invested in them for the seven years associated with tenure. Not so for most DEI professors. They usually must research, teach and build community knowing that they may only be there for a year or two. The university’s commitment to them extends only as far as the goodwill of their department, their new department chair and the university administrators. If they are family breadwinners, if they have dependents, if they must support themselves, if they are prudent, if they are anxious, if they are wise, they must watch their words, they must seek to please, they must put themselves onto the job market from the moment they arrive on campus.
Building community in this context is a fraught effort; one part ingratiation is muddled with one part resentment, mixed with a portion of secrecy. Can DEI professors placed in this deliberate precarity chart their own course within the institution? Can they exercise their no, a word that is the foundation of Black academic women’s pursuit of joy in academic labor? Why is this model of postdoctoral precarity attractive to universities seeking to incorporate faculty whose research, teaching and service interests suggest that they would benefit from clear and robust institutional investment?
During my first six years as a professor, my presence as a tenure-track underrepresented minority at the university and in the surrounding community was, colleagues and neighbors insisted, an anomaly. Loudly and quietly, brashly and subtly, the message from many people was clear: “You are still here?” In wilderness moments, my tenure-track job was a promise, a resting place. The possibility of tenure spurred me to dream of a long future here, which led me to find ways to exist here. If the university’s goal is to support the thriving of diverse faculty, communicating the university’s investment in the unmistakable language of salary, timeline and tenure possibility is a sturdy beginning for those of us who must work to seek out, find and create new communities if we hope to remain.
Note 4: On Competition
These days, it is not uncommon for universities to ask numerous departments to compete, often using limited faculty and staff resources, for only a few opportunities to hire. This hunger games approach to academic hiring—a structure where many people must compete on a playing field where only one or two can succeed—has particularly negative consequences when used for DEI searches.
If the DEI search enshrines the stratagem of manufactured scarcity as the pathway to increased faculty diversity, this approach may propel us further away from the transformation that we seek. In the hunger games approach, different departments—and often various underrepresented communities—are pitted against one another. Inevitably this tired question enters the room: Which of the multiple historically excluded knowledge areas should benefit from the DEI hire? Should it benefit the project of Africana studies, Indigenous studies, Latinx studies, LGBTQ+ studies, Asian American studies, gender studies, disability studies or others? A process where marginalized knowledge groups—and the faculty, students and staff who champion them—may only enter the room or expand their program if they compete against one another sows seeds of dissension in arenas where solidarity is desperately needed.
Those of us coming from a Black studies tradition, where solidarity with marginalized knowledge and oppressed peoples is a political imperative, are particularly challenged when participating in DEI searches that affirm principles of scarcity. The Black studies ethic of “appreciat[ing], support[ing] and advanc[ing] the interests and intellectual work of [others] who share histories of oppression and exclusion,” in the words of Darlene Clark Hine, hews away from search descriptions in which marginalized communities and knowledge are grouped together not based on methodological, historical or intellectual connections, but solely so that they, under the guise of a generalized otherness, might compete against one another.
Note 5: On Success
We claim the success of a DEI search when excellent new colleagues with stellar research, teaching and service credentials enter the university through the DEI door. However, recruitment should not be the only rubric for assessing success. The launch of a DEI search is an opportunity to examine institutional hiring practices and policies, both formal and informal, and to weigh these against the university’s proclaimed diversity and inclusion mission.
Are unreasonably large labor burdens being placed on administrative professionals, often at the last minute, in the name of DEI? How are faculty and staff compensated for their labor as part of the search? How are questions of difference—especially in terms of work style, family structure, communication and disability—managed for the faculty and staff members who participate in the search? Beyond the acquisition of new faculty and staff, the DEI search is an opportunity to review the university’s existing practices and its treatment of current faculty and staff.
My impulse is to insist that the search process was better because of my involvement. As a search chair, it may be possible to infuse an ethic of kindness and camaraderie into a search process that can otherwise threaten to breed departmental competition and maneuvering. Perhaps, as a search chair, you will be able to challenge exclusionary practices that reinforce the sentiment that academe is the natural domain of the wealthy.
For example, you may be the one to explain that asking candidates to pay their own way to interviews and get reimbursed later causes considerable hardship and may simply be impossible for some. You may be able to avoid dumping administrative labor on professional staff at the last minute. You may have an excellent committee that supports the hiring and retention of transformative scholars.
Still, despite my efforts to shave the jagged corners off a DEI faculty search, I am unwilling to paper over the fraught politics of it. The process was not smooth or painless. On the contrary, I and others on the committee often absorbed the harm.
I reach toward faculty searches that can be a seed planted against the multiple forms of institutional violence reflected in the chart “Percentage of U.S. Faculty Within the Ranks.” For that to occur, a DEI search must dare to reflect on what already is, not just who can be acquired. The energy that we expend on recruiting amazing new faculty must be matched by a campus willing to support the soaring of these scholars once they arrive on campus. The innovation that new faculty bring must be met by an institution committed to its own transformation. Even though universities embrace the DEI framework as positive branding or opportunity for self-congratulation, in its most hopeful iteration, the letters “DEI” are a prodding stick, a wrestling arena, a question seeking an answer.
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