American Renaissance

Diversity and the “Fichtner Principle”

KC Johnson, National Association of Scholars Online Forum, Jan. 21

One of the wisest people I have encountered in the academy, Paula Fichtner, retired professor and former chair of History at Brooklyn College, once relayed to me a compelling analysis of faculty hires. First-class departments, she argued, hired first-class candidates, because talented professors wanted colleagues of scholarly quality. Second-class departments, on the other hand, make third-class hires, because mediocre professors want an environment that does not contain colleagues whose performance reminds them of their mediocrity.

I was reminded of the Fichtner Principle when reading a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article regarding a program for “diversity” cluster hiring at the University of Arizona. A campus “diversity committee” has proposed “recruiting not just one or even two diverse faculty members as isolated ‘targets of opportunity,’ but rather a critical mass of diverse professors who have shared intellectual interests.” “Diversity,” therefore, becomes little more than a mask to ensure ideological conformity among the new faculty.

The plan is part of a broader emphasis on diversity in hiring at the U of A, one that envisions a university in which “diversity” rather than academic quality becomes the primary motive for hiring, promotion, and tenure. According to the diversity plan of the campus, in faculty personnel matters, “In order to make significant progress in creating a more diverse faculty and a campus that truly embraces diversity, the advancement of diversity must be established as a primary indicator of quality.” Until diversity, the report concludes, “is included in the institutional family of primary indicators of quality, other indicators will continue to trump it — especially in the hiring of new faculty.” The U of A contends that “this does not mean lessening our commitment to excellence in research and teaching,” but such a claim is absurd: research and teaching, according to the “diversity” plan, will have to meet an ideological litmus test before being judged on their quality. Indeed, the plan argues, “Depending upon the discipline,” new faculty should be required to “conduct research and contribute to the growing body of knowledge on the importance of valuing diversity.”

The U of A is one of two major universities (Virginia Tech is the other) that has committed itself to implementing the diversity theories of Harvard Education School researcher Cathy Trower. In a talk at Chicago summarizing her findings, Trower listed a variety of subtle developments in the academy that she contends undercut efforts at diversity, including the “single-minded devotion to professional pursuits” and excessive value placed on research. “To compound the problem,” she continued, “some members of the majority, for reasons of self-interest or self-defined notions of ‘quality,’ are reluctant to grant newcomers a toehold.”

According to the Trower/U of A worldview, traditional academic conceptions of quality — peer-reviewed publication, lecture-and-discussion style teaching — is a negative. Colleges instead should stress fidelity to a particular ideological agenda in their hiring processes. In another recent address given by Trower, which I attended at Brooklyn College, she offered the following assertions:

  • “even if we don’t think we are biased, there’s a good chance that we are”;
  • academic culture emphasizes values “congenial to a white, middle-class orientation”;
  • women “are normed against males and trapped by sex-role stereotypes where masculine traits are favored over feminine”;
  • an “accumulated disadvantage” for faculty of color is that they find that their teaching and scholarship don’t meet the requirements for tenure;
  • “merit is socially constructed by a dominant coalition”;
  • “improvement of society as well as advancement of knowledge” is necessary for excellence in research;
  • colleges should “require job candidates to demonstrate a commitment to furthering diversity on campus”;
  • among the “excuses” for colleges not enacting diversity agendas in hiring, arguments of affirmative action opponents; opponents of affirmative action will ignore all evidence contrary to their beliefs and just gather all evidence to support their view;
  • opponents of her ideas content with “20th century university”; need “21st century university.”

There are a couple of ways to approach the Trower analysis. The first, of course, is that it envisions a radically different type of university, one based on the promotion of a specific ideological agenda, and designed to train a generation of social activists rather than teach students knowledge from traditional academic disciplines.

There is also, however, another way to approach the Trower agenda: it is little more than an updated version of the Fichtner Principle. It’s no coincidence that no prestigious research university has adopted this approach to hiring. For mediocre scholars, however, it must be awfully tempting to pretend that the assault on quality is not a case of second-class departments making third-class hires, but instead a commitment to “diversity,” as if, somehow, Trower is correct that the only way to produce a “diverse” faculty is to abandon a commitment to quality scholarship.

Public money is funding this ideologically driven application of the Fichtner Principle. It makes me wonder whether Arizona state legislators, when they appropriate funds for the U of A, intend that the university should “require job candidates to demonstrate a commitment to furthering diversity on campus” or believe that “merit is socially constructed by a dominant coalition.” If not, perhaps they should start asking questions of U of A administrators as to exactly what type of education Arizona students will receive from this new generation of “diverse” faculty.