An Honest Commitment to Diversity

Paul L. Hebert

The Graduate Center’s informational brochure, distributed by Admissions representatives at college fairs, colorfully highlights notable faculty and students. Nobel Laureate and Distinguished Scholar Paul Krugman is pictured, as is Distinguished Professor Cathy Davidson. The achievements of students are touted, also. Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo from the English Program and fashion designer Min Hur from the Liberal Studies Program are both pictured. Alongside these notable names are pictures of professors with recent accomplishments and photos of smiling, unnamed African American and Muslim women. There is also, mysteriously, a picture of a humpback whale mid-breech.

Since President Chase Robinson’s introductory message on the brochure emphasizes that the Graduate Center “draws upon the widest possible range of experience—of race and ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity,” the pictures make an easy kind of sense. Well, except the whale.

Prospective applicants are obviously supposed to think of the Graduate Center as an incredibly diverse and exciting place to study. It is an ideal vision of the Graduate Center.

That Krugman does not teach any courses or chair any dissertation committees and that Cathy Davidson’s most recent course required an application is irrelevant to that vision. So too is the fact that Pardlo and Hur were successful in their fields before enrolling at the Graduate Center and that most biographies of them, including those on their personal websites, make no mention of the Graduate Center.

Unlike the carefully-chosen and sometimes staged photos included in the brochure, random photos of students and faculty would likely be less diverse. As noted in the open letter featured in this issue, eighty-six percent of full-time faculty at the Graduate Center are White and less than forty percent are women. The student body is more diverse: nearly sixty-eight percent of students are female and thirty percent are students of color. Yet that is hardly representative of New York City and is far from the ideal described by President Robinson.

The Graduate Center administration has prioritized increasing diversity among incoming students and established an institution-wide committee to investigate strategies for achieving this. A report by that same committee has not been made public—another issue highlighted in the open letter published in this issue. It is a crucial example of the ways meaningful discussion about diversity in higher education is often institutionally silenced.
It seems that “drawing from diverse experiences” is quite different from actually representing those experiences in the student-body or the faculty.

Notably this semester, the Graduate Center announced that it would no longer award MAGNET fellowships, a fellowship awarded to students from “traditionally underrepresented groups” in higher education. The definition of which students meet this criteria is absent from the Graduate Center’s website, but because the rules conform to state definitions, the fellowships have been available only to African-American and Hispanic-American students. United States Citizenship is a requirement for the award.

Instead of offering MAGNET fellowships, which previously equalled Chancellor’s Fellowships and included service in the CUNY Pipeline Program, the Graduate Center plans to use the same guidelines to award “top-up” money to the base fellowship, making the new award worth roughly $35,000.
The justification for the change is that promising minority applicants often choose other institutions because the awards are higher. Increasing the award, the thinking goes, makes the Graduate Center more competitive against elite private institutions.

While the plan may increase enrollment of African-American and Hispanic-American students, by focusing on competitively attracting minority applicants, the plan fails to address the more significant problem that the number of minority applicants is woefully small and the pool of accepted applicants is even smaller. This is a real problem for the Graduate Center and doctoral programs across the country.
The Graduate Center, and specifically each program, need to address our lack of diversity urgently. CUNY’s and the Graduate Center’s historic and stated mission is to be representative of the people of the city of New York and to be an institution that advocates for the diversification of the scholarly profession based on those people. Each program needs to make specific, goal-oriented plans to address the root causes of our lack of diversity, especially focusing on preparing minority students to successfully apply. Programs cannot simply aim to be more attractive to the students who are already successful.

Put simply, it’s our job to work to make the ideal presented in the Graduate Center brochure a reality.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to increasing diversity at the Graduate Center is that “diversity” is a slippery word. It is the ambiguity of the word, as it is often used institutionally, that makes it useful. We all seem to have agreed that “diversity” is something good and something we should have, although the reasons for that have become murky in recent years.

In the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court rejected the notion that affirmative action corrects historical injustices, instead accepting only that diversity has educational benefits for all students. Currently, the U.S. Supreme court is hearing a third challenge to the case and the comments by Justice Scalia are not promising. Divorced of its history, the calls for diversity become disarticulated. College administrators, like President Robinson, can apply the term nearly anywhere.

Because I am enrolled in the English program and have the most familiarity with that program, I use it below as an example, but it is by no means the only program at the Graduate Center which has grappled with this issue or needs to continue aggressively questioning its practices.

The English program is diverse in many ways. By liberally appointing college faculty instead of relying solely on central-line hiring, the English program curriculum is remarkably wide-ranging. The program prioritizes courses about research focused on traditionally underrepresented groups in academia: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer Studies, African-American Studies, Disability Studies, and Trans-Atlantic approaches to American Studies, to name a few.

Few of these diverse research specialties, and the personal experiences of students and faculty they often reflect, are acknowledged by the Graduate Center’s definition of MAGNET-eligible students. There have been calls within the English Program to redefine diversity in the program to counter these institutional definitions, but there has been no significant progress in doing so.

One possible reason for the lack of change is because even if the English program began to highlight the ways it is already diverse, it would not produce significant institutional change. The English program can nominate someone who identifies as trans or someone who is undocumented for a top-up fellowship, but only at the cost of giving up an opportunity to fund another student in need who meets institutional criteria.

Further, there is a danger in simply redefining diversity to fit targets the English program already meets. A commitment to diversity requires a definition of diversity that has political and ethical teeth, so to speak, and actually advocates for someone who needs recognition. “Diversity” cannot be watered down so that it is equivalent to something as reactionary as #AllLivesMatter. All Lives matter, but not all lives are systematically and institutionally ignored. Providing support and resources to specific underrepresented groups needs to be the focus of attention. In some cases that can mean advocating for expanding the definition of diversity, but in others it can mean making use of every avenue possible for helping underrepresented students receive the support they need to graduate and be successful in their academic careers.

Students and faculty in each program need to precisely define the type of diversity they actually seek. The definitions will always be problematic. That is why programs should make commitments to reassessing diversity goals regularly and identifying ways to hold the people running programs accountable for meeting, or failing to meet, set goals.

The English Program website states that the program is “committed to fostering a culturally diverse environment informed by CUNY’s historic mission to educate ‘the whole people,’ not just ‘the privileged few,’ and by the Graduate Center’s mission to ‘enhance access to doctoral education for traditionally underrepresented groups.’” The site also lists specific actions the program takes to increase the diversity of its students and faculty. Yet the results of these actions, such as indications of improvement, are absent. This is an example of the way faculty, administrators and students often do not hold themselves accountable for their commitments.

I would like to return to the admissions process, however. It is clear that the traditional admissions process disadvantages students who have less experience with the culture of academia and this results in a lack of diversity at the Graduate Center. Students who attend large state or city institutions are less likely to have faculty mentors or small classes in which faculty can help students learn the unique genres of academic writing or even mount compelling arguments for why academic jobs are desirable.

Further, nearly anyone who sits on an admissions committee will tell you that a personal statement must demonstrate that a student has a significant knowledge of the discipline and that the applicant is already engaging in the academic community. This does not help those who have been denied opportunities to develop this knowledge or gain this experience.

Perhaps in recognition of these short-comings, the English Program has, for the past three years, held Admissions Workshops specifically for students who meet state criteria for underrepresented groups (but welcoming of all students). For the past two years, this annual event has included a personal statement workshop component. The event implicitly acknowledges that the personal statement is a specific genre which requires a unique literacy. Yet, instead of implementing a system that would require less demonstrated ability in this type of literacy and increasing institutional support to students once they are accepted, the program implements a band-aid fix that is wholly inadequate.

Many of the questions students ask at these events reflect a fundamental ignorance of how doctoral study works. Students routinely ask, for example, if it is possible to work while pursuing a doctoral degree. Faculty and students on the panel answer truthfully: no, it is not reasonable to do doctoral study part-time. The commitments of the fellowship largely preclude it because of research assistant or adjunct instructor responsibilities. Faculty and students also argue that spare time should be used to read, reflect, and write.

What these answers do not acknowledge is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what academic work looks like that is being expressed. Academia is a career that requires unique forms of work that are largely unrecognized by a corporatized culture, often instilled in CUNY students, which values specific work hours, production quotas, distributed work spaces, and obvious channels for advancement. That entering academia as a career also requires accepting near or below poverty-level wages during the years of training and “professionalization” is offered only as something fixed-in-stone or part of a moral sacrifice to “the life of the mind.”

You cannot correct these misconceptions at an admissions event in October. It is unreasonable to assume that students will somehow develop the skills necessary to produce a successful personal statement in the next two months.

There is important information that can be gleaned from these types of events, though. Intervention needs to happen earlier in a student’s educational career and these interventions need to be designed to address the actual misconceptions and knowledge gaps students have.

What would happen, for instance, if the English program routinely held workshops as a part of 300 or 400 level English classes about doctoral study? What would happen if informational meetings and personal statement workshops were held routinely on college campuses over the course of the year instead of annually at the Graduate Center? What if all Graduate Center students were required to perform this service instead of teaching or being a research assistant? What if successful personal statements and CVs were made available online so that these workshops could be designed around developing the literacy that matters to being a successful applicant? The English Student Association has prepared guides for the required exams that include sample essays, orals lists and prospectuses. Why can’t this be done for applications?

It is important to acknowledge that some of this work is already being undertaken by the senior-level colleges. The English Department at Queens College, for example, gives one presentation a semester to honors students. The Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge Program (SEEK) and the CUNY Pipeline program address some of these needs for students of color who may not otherwise be able to attend college as a result of educational or financial circumstances, but these programs are sorely underfunded and cannot help all of the students who need these resources. These patch-work solutions again fail to address real injustices of the system.

The Graduate Center administration, certainly more than faculty and students, seems particularly mindful of how programs perform based on a preciously small number of statistics such as Time-to-Degree or Job Placement Rate, for example. Yet by focusing on “improving” these particular metrics often results in cutting programs such as SEEK which, for many reasons, have lower graduation rates.

For four years, I worked for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the University at Buffalo, a state-funded program similar to SEEK. EOP is an avenue of admission for educationally and economically disadvantaged students. To meet that criteria, students had to be below the admission requirements of the school and prove that their family income was significantly below the poverty line. Because of the education and financial circumstances these students faced, they were often the least likely to graduate. The EOP program was always the target of budget cuts by administrators seeking to improve their graduation rates in spite of the fact that, more than most programs, at a state-funded university, it served the needs of the underprivileged students.

For those enrolled and teaching at the Graduate Center, the questions regarding how to increase diversity here should not end with how we can increase the number of underrepresented minority students who apply to the Graduate Center, but also how we can increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who are accepted and who graduate. It would be a truly radical change to admit students who do not seem to meet traditional criteria for admission, as programs such as SEEK and EOP already do for undergraduate education, and commit significant resources to supporting those students. To do so would acknowledge that the process of diversifying the professoriate is an on-going one and cannot be done in four years of undergraduate education.

I have focused on the admissions process because it is so rarely questioned—not because other factors contributing to the lack of diversity among doctoral graduates are less important. The significant gap between the number of male and female graduates, for example, is equally troubling, as are the ways a largely homogenous faculty discourages students who do not share the same histories and backgrounds as those faculty. Additionally, the underfunding of students by CUNY and the state and the unfairness of the adjunct pay schedules advocated by the PSC CUNY also contribute to the lack of diversity at CUNY.

We can only address the pervasive problem with diversity at the Graduate Center when everything is on the table and demand an honest commitment to diversity.

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