By now, it should be clear that I am infuriated by consistent patterns of underrepresentation, particularly in terms of gender and race. Not that other facets of diversity representation are unimportant, but I am wearied by the widespread allocation of the word “diversity.” In the contemporary market economy of words—that obliterate histories, mask sufferings, gamble with bodies, negotiate moralities, and disenfranchise lives to the ends of preserving institutional profits—the word “diversity” has become suspect. It is deployed as weaponry against neo-liberal calls for inclusivity as more and more, everyone and every group are sought after and welcomed to lay blankets beneath the widening tents of diversity, thus leaving the word in a troubled state where it signifies moral and historical unaccountability alongside corporatized performativity. Any corporate human resource team, any academic department, any media outlet, and any university president such our President Chase Robinson can perform institutional responsibilities without an agitated conscience that contends with the everlasting pain faced by large numbers of their (in)visible community. They can easily put on fancy suits and ties and walk and talk with the burden of only how to prioritize profits rather than equality. And don’t forget the usual dignity of their smiles as they cross legs around tables, sometimes with a bottle of water or wine, as they sell forecasts and yearly goals report as having done, and will do, a lot to remedy diversity issues. But isn’t their fabrication—rhetorically spinning facts into fiction—nothing but just disgusting?!
Resisting that pattern of digestedness which is obviously dominant in the Graduate Center’s administration (GC), the Advocate has been paying keen attention to diversity in the representation of ethnic groups, geographies, genders and sexualities, and even the genre of our writings. The paper has not solely focused on the diversity of gender and race though I have issues with the wide-tent approach of the word. In fact, we have always ensured that our images represent a wide cross-section of our community alongside our presentation of letters as a story genre, a back-page satire, art shows and conference reviews. We have also prioritized concerns from multiple regions of the world. In our current issue, the Advocate supports the Doctoral Student’s Council’s (DSC) resolution that stands with Indian students and universities being targeted by the state. Bhargav Rani’s “The Stakes of the Student Resistance in India” addresses this story. Do also take note of Esther Bernstein’s “Enforcing Standards in Hasidic Schools.” We happily published this piece, knowing the Jewish community is often misrepresented as a monolithic group. And of course, Conor Tomás Reed’s “CUNY’s Largest Crisis in Forty Years” updates us of key issues that confront our college community.
To return, at length, to the disgusting patterns at the GC, I must recall our last issue’s highlight of the gender and racial composition of the GC faculty: 62 percent White and 86 percent Men. I was shocked that there is, for instance, no Puerto Rican or American Indian on the GC faculty. So I went to the DSC’s end-of-semester meeting last Fall and passionately raised my concerns with Provost Louise Lennihan. She listened empathetically and acknowledged that the college should do more. Lennihan could have been performing the institutional role of appearing empathetic. But even if she were, I have to admit that she appeared likeable and her tone was professional. Nevertheless, knowing the limits of Lennihan’s power and also recalling that Robinson sat on the recommendations of a diversity report for a whole year, I went to another DSC meeting on 19 February to ask questions of the president. I hoped the president would tell me exactly how he was measuring his diversity goals and accomplishments.
At the meeting, unlike other students, I stood up, announced to the president and audience that I am Black, and explained that I had to begin that way as a protest against racial invisibility which is prominent at the GC. I reminded the president that ethnic and gender underrepresentation have confronted the CUNY Graduate Center since the 1980s, and the institutional responses, strategies, and results have remained the same. I explained that this is unsettling in light of his recent announcement to appoint a Diversity Director to address this “epidemic.” I wanted to know what a Diversity Director would do that hadn’t been done before. And importantly, I asked the president to explain what specific results would be assessed to determine the success of his diversity goals. What are your specific diversity goals? I wanted to know.
I also referenced the widely circulated letter, which we published in the last issue. The letter states that in 2014, “the Graduate Center Diversity Task Force, chaired by Robert Reid-Pharr, submitted a final report to the President’s Office in January. To date, the full GC community has yet to receive and review that report.” The letter, which was signed by more than 350 students and faculty, wanted to know why was the president sitting on the letter for a whole year. I raised the issue of this letter with awareness of Robinson’s own email on 21 December 2015. His email came after the Advocate had joined the GC community and the DSC in highlighting this gender and racial epidemic. Do read Robinson’s letter against the background that he was Provost and Senior Vice President of the GC from 2008-2013. That is five years without a legacy of addressing our gender and racial epidemic. Robinson was nonetheless made president and this is what he had to say in the letter on the issue of diversity:
I am grateful to Robert Reid-Pharr, who chaired the presidential advisory committee that I created last spring and whose preliminary findings, along with my response, are posted to the Diversity and Inclusion page. The work of the Task Force has now been taken up by a standing Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In order to provide leadership, I am pleased to announce that we are establishing a senior position, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Reporting directly to me, this colleague will oversee the work of program-based diversity committees, develop and maintain relationships with ‘feeder’ institutions both inside and outside the CUNY system, and ensure a positive climate, particularly for individuals of color, women, and members of LGBTQ communities.
The president’s response was basically that, one year after sitting on the Diversity Task Force’s recommendations, another committee would begin to look at the issue and another administrative post would be created to address what he didn’t address as provost and senior vice president for so many years. Should we feel grateful for this new development?
As I presented my respectful questions to Robinson at the DSC meeting, he appeared calm. His legs were crossed. But when responding to me, the president’s eyes became harder than they had been when responding to other students. His stare was challenging, asserting his privilege as president, and clearly condescending. His tone was respectful but obviously annoyed. There was little doubt that he was offended by my performance of racial visibility, my refusal to entertain him as a grand opportunity that had graced the DSC’s meeting. And most of all, he was clearly annoyed that I had dared to say he had done nothing to address the underrepresentation epidemic at the GC. To be also noted is that at no point did Robinson say he understood the communities’ frustrations. At no point whatsoever did President Robinson acknowledge that indeed a gender and racial epidemic exists at the GC. Responses after the GC meeting revealed concerns that he acted like he had a chip on his shoulder, that he thinks he was doing students a favor by showing up at the meeting, and that he really has no passion to address issues of underrepresentation.
One cannot ignore these viewpoints considering that the president’s passion was mostly demonstrated in his denial that he sat on the diversity report for a whole year. He even blamed the Diversity Task Force, which he had appointed. He said that the committee hadn’t communicated the findings to him in a timely manner and that he was the one who had been waiting on the committee. Here, Robinson’s response showed that he was more annoyed with me than coherent in recalling the details. He was basically accusing the committee of lying. Now, it is not my place to play jury here, but aren’t you the supervisor of the committee? As a previous provost who lacks a record of doing anything significant to address the gender and racial epidemic, you should have been swift to reign in the committee to get the ship moving. But what is indisputable is that you didn’t lead in a way that commands the admiration of people suffering due to lack of representation.
And frankly, President Robinson, it is unconscionable for someone in your esteemed position to deploy such smugness and dispassion through your body language against members of underrepresented communities when they are simply saying, “We are in pain and you aren’t helping us!” What you really have to understand is that women and people of color believe that the GC administration considers them as second class—the problem populations that will forever be screaming, “Problem!” Knowing that, many times we become crippled by fear. We feel afraid that our advocacy will result in consequences where more and more of the GC’s privileged population will accuse us, privately, of playing the gender and race card. We even fear persons from the GC’s marginalized communities, because we know that they are trying to move ahead with their career as they worry that association with us will tarnish their reputations amongst the privileged supervisors and colleagues who hold the keys to their success. We are also afraid that we will not be taken seriously as brilliant academics but as single-issue, race-and-gender, academics. Yes, we worry that our bold advocacy might inadvertently force others to perceive us inside a box that is supposed to only address race and gender problems. And deeply, we are afraid that our colleagues, fellow students, and supervisors will think that we are troublemakers, who lack the skills needed to “Play the Game.”
So President Chase Robinson, your response really disappointed most of us. We are a community that is not only in pain, but daily trying to erase fear. When you approach us, don’t bite us with your attitude, but heal us—me—heal yourself, too, and this troubled istitution with your empathy, compassion, and passionate leadership. You can begin the healing process by putting the brakes on the Diversity Director appointment. This announcement to appoint a Diversity Director seems very unethical and it implicates you into a strategic move frequently adopted by corporations. These corporate bodies usually do little to address diversity underrepresentation, but the presence of a diversity executive absolves the institution from any immoral complicity.
For the questions remain with students—what will this director do that you couldn’t have accomplished as provost? What are the exact powers of this director in relationship to your office and our academic departments? How much will this person be paid? How will this person execute her/his duty? What are the criteria that will engage the selection of this person? Did you convene a meeting with the college community of students and faculty to discuss the implementation of this particular strategy in depth and comprehend the pain and suffering experienced? And importantly, what statistical figures will you examine to determine the success of your diversity goals? Indeed, students are not opposed to a Diversity Director, but we expect that the questions raised here are ones that should have easily come to you if you are determined to show a commitment to combat the gender and racial epidemic in our community. And we are just disgusted by what appears to be an unexamined corporate strategy to place a masking tape on the GC’s institutional epidemic.