Skip to content

Losing Perspectives: The Importance of Demographic Diversity to Intellectual Diversity, and How Academic Freedom Requires It.

May 3, 2017

Margaret D. LeCompte, Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado-Boulder delivered these remarks at the Colorado Conference on Academic Freedom and Diversity, on April 29, 2017 in Boulder Colorado:

I’m going to talk about being a woman in higher education, because that is the aspect of diversity that I represent. But I want to use that aspect to highlight how all kinds of diversity are required to support the academic freedom that intellectual diversity requires.

I want to begin by asking you to imagine that I am not here. I’m invisible. And all the colleagues on this panel are middle-aged white males. That’s how the demography of higher education looked when I was in graduate school and in my first jobs. In every panel discussion I participated, I was the only girl in the group.

Being the only woman on this panel of men made me think of the bad old days when every class I took was taught by white males and every conference I went to was dominated by them. When I got my first job, the whole department and most of the college at the University of Houston was comprised of white males; I only was hired because the department was under sanction for not hiring women and minorities. So they hired me and a Black man who lasted three years before he was let go allegedly because he was preaching black power and revolution to his students (a bald-faced lie; I taught in an open space next to his and heard every word he said. Mostly, his comments about ethnicity had to do with the experience of Black children in elementary schools, and how those schools failed them). Three years later, I myself was denied tenure because I “didn’t have a research lifestyle.” I think that meant that I did not have the proper gonads for tenure, because the white male who was hired at the same time as my Black colleague and I was, in fact, tenured, despite that his record of teaching excellence, publication, and overall professional recognition was far inferior to mine. Oh, and by the way, two years after tenure, he dropped out of higher education to be a house husband and take care of his and his wife’s child while she worked.

One of my colleagues later lamented, “we never thought we’d have to deal with tenure for you; you’re so young and pretty we thought you’d get married and we wouldn’t have to deal with that decision.” I filed an EEOC suit and a lawsuit for discrimination, which I lost, in part because my tenure files had been tampered with and positive letters of recommendation were “lost,” and in part because both the members of the EEOC and all of the judges were alumni of the University of Houston. As a result, I was blacklisted in the entire great state of Texas. Basically, I had become un-hireable.

What does this have to do with Academic Freedom? Being denied tenure because of who one is demographically deprives the academy of the diversity of outlook and perspective that people whose life experience differs from that of white males is a bring. Those different perspectives and outlooks are among the most important factors that foster true intellectual development. By firing me and Howard Hill, the Black professor who was hired with me, the University of Houston eliminated both of our perspectives and contributions.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. Women and minorities now are more visibly present. Most faculties now include a at least a few women and minorities. I did get hired five years later at CU because of the research I was doing and because I had women friends on the faculty. Women now outnumber men in undergraduate life and at graduation. More and more women are entering the ranks of graduate school—even in the STEM fields. And women are forming their own “old girl” networks from among their colleagues and former students. However, they still haven’t moved into leadership roles in anything like representative numbers– the full professors, department chairs, deans, heads of important committees, or presidents of universities. Their pay still lags far behind men, even for the same work. Women still are loaded into the lower ranks of instructors and part-time or contingent faculty, who, in fact, teach the majority of all courses; at CU, more than 71% of all the classes taught are presided over by instructors, not tenure-track faculty. And overt sexual harassment, like that at Fox News and that bragged about by our Trumpeter in Chief, still exists, although perhaps not quite so overtly.

For academic freedom, this means that leadership roles within the academy still are limited to people with a specific and more limited perspective—the white male point of view—and hence, alternative perspectives are less likely to be supported.

Most important, the disadvantage in pay, leadership roles and recognition suffered by women persists. And it is aggravated by a prevailing culture that remains tone-deaf to the differences in life-styles between men and women. As I think about that crack about my lack of a research lifestyle, I have begun to realize that what that meant was that as a woman, I probably would have children. And if I had children, I couldn’t be wholeheartedly committed to the University 24/7—like men, who had wives to be their support system—type their papers, care for the children, cook the meals, and even hold down a second job to supplement the meager salary of a university professor. Without a wife, I wouldn’t be as able to attend overnight faculty retreats or late night meetings or work every day on the weekend. As a woman, I also couldn’t hang out in the men’s room where so many good conversations took place, and I didn’t really like golf or bass fishing (very big in Texas) or football (even bigger), so I wasn’t very interesting to talk to. If I were single –and even if I weren’t—I was seen always as a sexual object first, and only afterwards as a colleague, collaborator or potential leader. It also meant that I didn’t have an old boys’ network to cheer me on and upon which I could rely for important career information and connections, and to engage in cover-ups if I engaged in unseemly behavior. Further, volunteering to be a department chair or a head of graduate studies seldom produced results as men dominated those entry level leadership positions. These small slights, this being invisible, being overlooked or forgotten about or finding that key events are scheduled when you are unable to attend because of family obligations—the list goes on—become a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

Additionally, two structural factors also mitigate against increasing the numbers of women in higher education in Colorado. First is the vocationalization and corporatization of universities, in which STEM fields are privileged vastly over the arts, education, humanities and even social sciences—fields in which women are more predominant. The STEM fields are hiring; the latter emphatically are not. Second, the tenure lines that produced academic leadership are disappearing, not only in a concerted attack on tenure, but in budget cuts that replace tenure track positions with rotating pools of part-time and non-tenure track instructors. These are increasingly are populated by women. The tenured faculty who are left are those with most seniority, and they tend to be the same white males who originally held the positions.

What does this have to do with academic freedom? If people who look like you and who share your interests and research fascinations are not present in the academy, and especially if they do not hold leadership positions, you are not likely to enjoy as much support in, or freedom to, pursue the intellectual pursuits that differ from the mainstream of your institution.

In addition, here in Colorado and elsewhere, we have become aware that new and insidious ways to discriminate against or harass faculty members have emerged. Among these include accusing faculty of violating IRB regulations and procedures when, in fact, the activities in which faculty were involved did not constitute research. It also has involved the hijacking of Title IX, which originally was designed as a remedy for overt sex discrimination against and sexual abuse of women. Now, however, it seems that women are being accused of establishing hostile environments in their classrooms or labs, or are being defined as equal opportunity abusers who have engaged in sexual abuse or harassment of their male students—an act which warrants their dismissal or at least suspension from their classrooms and labs.

The case of sociologist Patti Adler is instructive; an award-winning professor and prolific researcher, Patti had taught a course in social deviance for decades to great acclaim and no complaints. She covered many forms of social deviance, including the topic of prostitution, and she had long had students role-play various women describing how they actually got into the sex trade. In the fall of 2013, Adler was accused of misconduct on two counts. First, it was alleged that she had violated institutional research protocols regarding getting informed consent from her students for participation in the role-play. These, of course, were not necessary, because the role play activities were instructional activities, not research, and Adler never had required any student to participate in them. Second, she was accused of violating federal sexual harassment policies forbidding the establishment of a hostile environment, because it was alleged that the role play had offended some of her students. Adler was removed from teaching that class because of alleged student complaints to the Office of Conduct and Discrimination. It turned out that the real complaint had been made by a graduate student who visited the class, not one of the enrolled students. The outcry over her treatment was nation-wide; the president of the American Sociological Association wrote a letter shaming the University for its actions, and the Colorado Conference of the AAUP filed protests with the CU administration. While the University ultimately reversed its decision and returned Adler to the classroom, the entire experience was so horrific that she retired the next semester.

What does this have to do with academic freedom? Perhaps most important is that Adler’s academic freedom to teach in ways that she, as a professional, thought most appropriate, was violated.

Less dramatically, I was warned against continuing a practice I routinely engaged in: Inviting my doctoral and master’s degree students over on a regular basis for spaghetti dinners where we discussed their thesis and dissertation projects and innovations in research methods. I modelled my actions on one of the most rewarding of the experiences I myself had had as a grad student at the University of Chicago. There, my advisor held similar dinner seminars for our group of grad students on a monthly basis. Students in those groups became my reference group for my entire career. But here at CU I was told that it might appear that I was hitting on the male students—or that they might hit on me. I was advised to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Well, I didn’t stop, because holding intellectual conversations out of the classrooms with my own group of students certainly is not improper. But other women faculty who have held similar seminars or who have presided over labs and working groups have not been so lucky. They have been accused of all sorts of unprofessional behavior and have been received negative sanctions. The thing to note is that laws passed to protect women now have been discovered to be useful to administrators who want to get rid of them.

What does this mean for academic freedom? In the ‘60s, when I was a grad student, having informal seminars with faculty members was an honored way for faculty to build students’ intellectual networks and to explore ideas. Now, these avenues are being seen as dangerous…not because they foster academic and intellectual freedom to explore ideas, but because they are seen through the lens of inappropriate sexual conduct. I think this is dangerous.

And so the litany of insults continues: “First, they simply didn’t hire women. Then, they simply wouldn’t retain them. Then, when they did hire them, they were never promoted, or relegated to instructor roles.  And once they did begin to get tenure, it’s still that ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ ” Even if tenure is granted, the academic culture still is not structured to support anyone who lacks the privilege of those who initially created it, whether they are women, people of color, gender non-conforming, religiously observant in non-Judeo-Christian traditions, whatever. So while there has, indeed been change, we still have a long way to go, and as the signs I saw in the spring 2017 Women’s March said, “I can’t believe that I still have to protest this shit.”

And some of this shit, of course, involves intellectual diversity. Every time you bring another group that isn’t middle aged white men into an organization, the kinds of intellectual and other questions that get raised change and get broader, because the people who are “different” have interests and concerns that the old white guys just don’t think are worth bothering with. People who are different also explore different research topics—often ones that white males consider trivial. Thus, the extent that diverse people are excluded, intellectual freedom and intellectual diversity is stifled. And with regard to the academic hierarchy, failing to take seriously new ideas and new areas of investigation is indeed detrimental to the Academy.

Let me make an analogy. In agriculture, farmers increasingly are realizing that monoculture not only is uninteresting, it isn’t creative. It stifles innovation and productivity. It’s bad for the environment. It even can foster the more rapid spread of diseases and lead to rapid extinction. Monoculture in the Academy is no different. The white Western European male culture that still prevails in higher education tends to privilege specific topics and ways of thinking and conducting investigations that comport with the male and Western European-American sense of the world. Other ways of knowing or topics not within that mainstream are not considered serious, “hard” or worth investigating. I remember when the only time gender figured into research topics was as a variable that affected other, more interesting variables, such as income levels or voting preference or propensity to purchase a particular brand of peanut butter or pickup truck. Science was supposedly neutral, so that it was a given that studying a topic like menstruation could never be taken seriously. It was unimportant because it only happened to women—and also because it was something icky—and any concerns of women shared the same lack of esteem that the women themselves experienced in society. So for centuries, and in most societies, menstruation was deemed by biologists to be an explanation for women’s low status: It weakened women sufficiently to make them unfit for leadership roles or careers. Not till women joined the academy and women biologists actually began to study menstruation did that most normal and necessary of phenomena begin to get the respect that it, and the women who studied it, deserved. Similarly, racism wasn’t a topic of serious study—until people of color got into the academy and began doing it. And then it got to be such a hot topic that white people were left with only their own white privilege to deconstruct. The negative effects of colonial exploitation were ignored or viewed as collateral damage until people who had been colonized started teaching classes on what it did to them and their people.

Further, a white male monoculture tends to privilege specific ways of being. So leaders have to look and act like men—even when it’s begun to be obvious that the collaborative leadership style more natural to women is better than top-down management styles at fostering the teamwork and distributive cognition most productive of much innovation.

So what does this mean for academic freedom? My point is that intellectual diversity—and the creative spirit in general–requires and is fostered by the contributions of people who are different….from each other, but especially from the perspectives that have so predominated in the academy. Thus, academic freedom fosters a healthy contestation of and interaction with divergent and different ideas. And those divergent perspectives must be protected by academic freedom. Academic freedom protects the capacity be divergent, to question conventional wisdom, and to contest the canon. Good science requires that. Thus, good science requires academic freedom. I think we can all agree on that. So it is in the interest of all of us to make sure not only that diversity persists, but that it is protected by academic freedom and promoted and encouraged in every modality of diversity that exists.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s