An EEO perspective on why the unique nature of the Academic workplace makes it so hard to enforce the standards of our civil rights laws

By Paul Igasaki, Featured EEO Columnist


Academia, that is college and graduate level education, has generally committed itself to diversity.  Affirmative action in admissions has been approved by the Supreme Court, subject to shifting political alignment, for the purpose of providing a diverse educational environment.  Unlike the corporate world, where practice led many to become true believers only after it became an economic imperative, educational diversity, following the end of legal segregation, was pursued in many areas as a good idea whose time had come.  The most visible educational civil rights decisions focused on college admissions, with disappointed applicants challenging school diversity programs.  But academic diversity is also an issue of employment.  Diversity in faculty positions and administrative positions will have an effect on the range of role models available to students, as well as the variety provided by different  perspectives and research emphases held by teachers.

I recently spoke with an administrator for my alma mater about hiring processes.  He explained that even when Presidents and Deans are convinced about a desirable candidate, there are still departmental votes and academic senates to be won over.  The complex politics of a college often demands heavily-weighted input by committees of future colleagues to a candidate for a faculty position or, ultimately, tenure.  This democracy can be a good thing for maintaining quality and cooperation among professors.  At the same time it becomes difficult to plan or negotiate at a wider level.  And, despite strong commitment to diversity among many institutions, it can serve as a barrier to bringing in groups that are unrepresented or under-represented.

A candidate’s research foci or methodology, scholarship or publishing outlets may unintentionally be devalued, deemed less “rigorous” by reviewers in more traditional programs unfamiliar with in-community subjects.

Faculty employment decisions such as hiring and tenure can be very subjective, to a degree that might surprise those who work in other sectors.  Even initial job offers for tenure-track positions are generally subject to group approval, through a vote by one’s colleagues.  While getting in the door is hard, the tenure decision can be harder still.

With tenure, faculty members in some institutions may be further reviewed by college-level committees that include colleagues from departments well outside their own disciplines.  If granted tenure, professors find their job security dramatically increased. Without it, teachers are very vulnerable, especially in times of economic pressure.  Whether it’s due to teaching evaluations, the demands of “publish or perish,” or even to personality conflicts and inconvenience, a professor denied tenure may find himself or herself jobless – and sometimes “damaged goods” on the job market — with little recourse.  Of course, if there is evidence of unlawful discrimination, there may be remedies, but the unique nature of the tenure process, one of peer review and closed-door group deliberation, makes it very hard to prove.

It is this sort of environment where the glass ceiling has its greatest effect.  Those participating in academic hiring and tenure committees consider who they believe will be effective teachers, rigorous scholars, and productive contributors to the department and the university.  But beyond this, human beings tend to identify positive qualities in people that are most like themselves.  The more different a person’s experience and work, the more of a risk that person could be.  This is the same sort of decision often made at the top levels of law firms, where partners consider who to offer partnerships to, or at the top levels of many corporations.  Rarely is race or gender the overt reason for these decisions, and sometimes, depending upon the rules and culture of the school, diversity must be addressed.  Nonetheless, the result is under-representation of minorities in higher faculty levels at most universities, and especially of tenured faculty.

Part of the dynamic, especially in small departments, is the question of who would “fit in with us.”  The potential for the first woman admitted to an all male department, for example, changing the environment significantly could  cause some, consciously or unconsciously to hesitate before hiring her.  A professor who does not excel at professional socializing or is stiff in individual communications may also be at a disadvantage.  This is akin to the example I used in my column on the glass ceiling, where one firm used the question, “Which candidate would you most like to be stranded on a desert island with?”   The potential for discriminatory effect, even unintended, can be great.

Tenure decisions raise all the issues we consider with glass ceiling barriers.  But it’s hard to gauge discriminatory considerations in such a generalized review process that is, by its nature, very subjective and behind closed doors

There are other issues that may not amount to discrimination, but might in some cases, and certainly could affect diversity.  For example, not feeling that a particular candidate’s scholarship is as important or as rigorous as someone else’s may reflect a particular background that the reviewer may not share.  Where, for example, a candidate’s research has emphasized particular minority communities, that scholarship could be ignored or devalued by those not familiar with or respectful of that community.  It is this sort of situation that led to the ethnic studies movement.  This could work against any person who is out of the mainstream of the academic establishment for a given unit.  Where race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age are involved, however, the results could be discriminatory and illegal even if difficult to prove.

I have served for some time now as a member of an alumni advisory committee for my undergraduate alma mater.  To its credit, the school set up an Asian American Studies unit, although not a full department.  Because of that, AAS professors need also to be hired through and significantly attached to other more established departments and traditional disciplines such as Literature, History, Journalism or Social Science.  In these departments, however, the complex and academically rigorous aspects of AAS are not well understood and the value of the scholarship may not be as fully respected.  Even where it is, criteria for judging meritorious performance may be vary greatly between the two disciplines.  For example, the most desirable research publications, research paradigms, and even language used in AAS may be very different from those stressed in the traditional department.

Where such conditions are the case, the likelihood of tenure is diminished.  Even where there is an administration commitment, the politics and the values of each involved department and decision-maker must also be considered.

Tenure decisions bring into play all of the issues that we can consider with the glass ceiling and other promotional barriers.  What stereotypes do people hold about someone of a different race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or age?  What biases do we have about our areas of study or our methodologies, and what are valid or more important to areas of inquiry?  Who is a good teacher and what styles are effective?  What effect do accents, or physical or mental disabilities, have on someone’s teaching styles?  Sometimes one or more of these factors may go into appropriate standards for hiring or tenure.  The more general the assumption, though, the more likely we are dealing with prejudice that should be bracketed out of consideration.

The difficulty, however, is between the ideal and practical.  It is hard to even be aware of discriminatory considerations in a generalized review process such as a tenure decision, which is, by its nature, very subjective and behind closed doors.

For this reason, there is little ability in such cases to enforce the standards of our civil rights laws. Even if discriminatory motives were hinted at or apparent in the decision, or even stated as a reason, it is difficult under these conditions to prove the motive was an effective part of the decision-making process.

The ramifications of this are fundamental to the purposes of our educational system.  Role models can inspire people of one’s own background, and they can help those of different backgrounds overcome stereotypes and develop respect for difference.  Moreover, if diversity becomes part of an educational culture, it will increase the acceptance of diversity in society at large.


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Paul M. IgasakiPaul Igasaki is a consultant in diversity, equal opportunity, government and community affairs.  Recently, he edited A Call to Action, a historic policy platform for a coalition of national Asian Pacific American organizations.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, he served as Vice Chair or acting Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1994 to 2002, gaining recognition for restructuring the agency to eliminate a crippling case backlog and for building credibility in protecting the rights of immigrant Americans and victims of sexual harassment.  He previously served as Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco and as Washington, D.C. Representative of the Japanese American Citizens League. He also worked for the City of Chicago, his hometown, as a liaison to Asian American communities and as a Mayoral advisor on human relations and affirmative action.  His career also included efforts to provide civil legal services to the poor, both at the national level for the American Bar Association supporting collaborations between legal aid and private attorneys and at the local level as a legal services attorney in Sacramento, California.  He is an attorney in California and Illinois, and was a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of California, Davis. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.