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  • Writer's pictureMarybeth Gasman

What If We Used Our Shared Governance Power to Undo Systemic Racism?

By Marybeth Gasman

Faculty are at the core of undoing systemic racism in faculty hiring.

Within research universities—specifically those that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU)—there are two factors that are most likely to determine who becomes a tenure-track faculty member. First, the institution a faculty candidate attends for their PhD and, second, the person who served as the faculty candidate’s PhD advisor.

We need to see immediate change in the hiring process at our colleges and universities. A broad diversity of individuals needs to sit on hiring committees, and faculty input must be central. All those involved in the process must be open to change and to the possibility that the system has a different impact on different people depending on a variety of identities, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion.

Shared governance—faculty participation in institutional governance, including “personnel decisions, selection of administrators, preparation of the budget, and determination of educational policies”—is essential and works effectively to ensure thought-provoking curricula as well as intellectual integrity, but in other ways, shared governance allows faculty to perpetuate sameness in faculty hiring. In an ideal system of shared governance, faculty would hold their colleagues accountable around issues of equity in the hiring of faculty members, but I have rarely seen that happen. The data don’t indicate robust accountability in faculty hiring, and the research related to faculty hiring shows little evidence either.

Search committees are made up of influential faculty members, and the structures of shared governance—stronger at some institutions than others—provide immense support for search committee decisions and the maintenance of the status quo (that is, sameness and whiteness).

Chief diversity officers, who are rarely ever tenured faculty, are becoming more involved in the faculty hiring process at many AAU institutions, but their role is undefined and often faculty members don’t understand their position, the work they do, or why they are involved with the hiring process. Some faculty members even oppose their involvement as they believe faculty hiring should not have input from “outsiders” and see administrative diversity efforts as an impingement on their academic freedom and the foundation of shared governance.

What would happen if faculty used the power that is linked to their shared governance voice—their contributions to university decision-making—to foster justice and equity regarding the faculty? What would result if faculty members realized that diversifying the faculty is their responsibility and that not doing so is evidence that they don’t support, and are intellectually lazy about, issues of equity? And how would the academy change if faculty members realized, acknowledged, and grappled with the role that they play in upholding systemic racism in the academy, and especially within the faculty hiring process?

Not everyone is comfortable with this type of change and often faculty members hide behind shared governance and academic freedom to uphold the status quo that benefits them. Although embracing diversity and pursuing equity are essential goals for systemic change in higher education, they are slow in coming.

It is vital to convince faculty members that regardless of their disciplines and intellectual expertise, it is their role—part of their shared governance obligations—to become educated about the ways that pedigree and whiteness undergird systemic racism in faculty hiring. If we are aware of the problems in the pipeline, the obstacles in the hiring process, and the issues that manifest because of our personal biases, we must work to concretely change the overall system that only works for a few—the same system that, in effect, limits knowledge by limiting who produces it. Individuals from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are essential to creating knowledge and should have the opportunity to do so in an environment that appreciates, affirms, and supports them.

If the academy is honest in its commitment to hiring a diverse faculty, we must do the hard work of dismantling a system that was built to support white men and exclude white women and people of color. We’ve made progress with white women, demonstrating that we know how to make change that leads to more inclusivity. Instead of congratulating ourselves on the mediocre success we have achieved with regard to diversifying the professoriate, we must be honest about the lack of substantial progress we have made, the pervasiveness of systemic racism, the role that the negative aspects of shared governance play in the maintenance of the status quo, the privileging of pedigree and narrow definitions of quality, and our roles in stymieing opportunity for people of color who want to pursue faculty careers. Only then can higher education begin to live up to the lofty ideals expressed around academic excellence in every college mission statement.

Essay was originally published on Academe's blog.

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