Reader query: Misguided ‘diversity’ efforts in recruitment

A reader writes:

Given the expertise of this blog and its readers, I would like to ask for some help. I have a philosophy student who is currently considering offers from several graduate programs. She returned from a recent campus visit feeling traumatized after school representatives marginalized her through efforts to demonstrate their “inclusiveness” and “commitment” to diversity.

I apologize for the vagueness of the details and understand the specifics may affect responses. The student liked the idea of presenting her situation to this blog, but for the purpose of protecting my student’s identity, I’m not going to name the “diversity” groups(s) or the specific graduate program. For now, I’ll include that the program is a highly interdisciplinary, social justice-oriented program. She is a member of a community with protected status and has been offered significant scholarships reserved for school-specific diversity initiatives.

Some examples she provided for how the school treated her as a token and exotic other:
– Planning events with unrelated “diverse others” that erased significant differences between heterogeneous identities
– Focusing on her “diversity status” in every encounter and putting her in situations to speak for an entire community, which distracted attention away from her work as a scholar
– Being told that if she had problems meeting admission requirements, including standardized testing, that the school has a “diversity exception” permitting them to accept lower scores, GPAs, etc. for diverse applicants, even though SHE HAS ALREADY BEEN ACCEPTED to this program!

Advice she has requested from us:
1. The economic incentives and research opportunities are substantial, but she’s concerned about working with and being mentored by people who treat her this way. What thoughts do you have on navigating this conflict?
2. How to respond to the program. She is considering turning down the offer, but also wants to explain why. How to do this without being reduced to an “ungrateful other”?
3. “Is grad school even worth it?”

Advice I’m requesting:
1. Experience with how to mentor a student through this process.
2. Strategies for using my professional position to help her respond that can deflect some of the focus and energy directed at her personally?

19 thoughts on “Reader query: Misguided ‘diversity’ efforts in recruitment

  1. What an excellent question: 3. “Is grad school even worth it?” Depends on the “it”! If the student means, is the PhD worth the predictable and unpredictable pains and traumas, especially for members of groups currently in the minority in Philosophy, then I can only say those who’ve gone before her report mixed answers. It’s risky, as are a lot of other options. A great graduate program with excellent networks of support can reduce some of those risks, though, and it sounds like this may not be one. (But it might, ultimately.)

  2. It sounds like what might be useful is some mechanism for anonymously providing feedback on the diversity initiative in question. I’m UK-based so not at all au fait with the US system. But if that happened here, I would suggest that the student got in touch with the students’ union – there might even be a student group specifically relevant to her – and speak to them about how to approach the matter. They could take her concerns to the department anonymously as general feedback without her having to do so, and thus without her having to bear the burden of appearing ungrateful, etc.

    Who were the School reps? Were they academic staff or people from some other bit of the uni? Here, e.g., we have Marketing people who conduct some parts of open days. If they weren’t academic staff, it is possible that the people who will actually be working with your student won’t have such attitudes, and so things could potentially be fine.

    Final thought: if the opportunities etc. of the program are great, then I wonder if it would be worth your student accepting her place? One possible scenario is that the people in the department are genuinely well-intentioned nice folk who just need a bit of education. If so, then it might be that going there and gently speaking out – e.g., when asked to speak for all x’s, saying, ‘well, like everyone else, I can only really speak for myself’ – might be all that’s needed to get folks to reflect on their behaviour?

  3. If the student has other offers that are financially comparable and from comparable universities, and if those experiences have been less uncomfortable, then I would suggest she go elsewhere. However, I know that not all programs are created equal, and a program that acknowledges diversity is a goal and that structural inequality is a thing, even if they do it in the world’s worst way (and she is not wrong to be insulted!), can potentially be better than a program that is openly racist/discriminatory on relevant fronts, or a department where colorblindness/its equivalent is the rule of the day.

    So, I would echo Monkey’s point about whether this came from the faculty she’d be working with, or from others; I’d also ask whether people seemed educatable. If it came from some people, and not others, how would she balance that? I’d ask if she spoke to other students with identities like hers or parallel to hers, and ask about their experiences, and whether this level of dismissal continues past admission. And I’d ask her to compare her experiences across other programs, to see what her experience would be like elsewhere.

    If she turns down the offer, I would definitely have her explain to *someone* why, because this is an issue, and a school that is trying to recruit diverse graduate students needs to know that it’s not getting it right. It may be that other students who belong to similar groups have less of an issue with this approach, but she should take the opportunity to talk about why it is problematic for some.

    As for whether the PhD is worth it…that’s an entirely separate issue, and can continue to be debated while in a PhD program. I’ve a new tenure-track faculty member 2 years post degree and I’m *still* not sure. :)

  4. I think the location of the program makes a big difference. I’ve seen people fail in graduate school because of how incredibly alienating it can be for the students integrating these spaces. But it is certainly easier to handle if the program’s location allows one to form a social support network outside of school. Where I went to school, in central Virginia, this was kind of difficult, but it always seemed to me that people in, say, New York City, had an easier time. (Also this type of experience can happen in a lot of different workplaces, which is why the tone-deaf boss could become a trope of workplace comedy as in The Office.)

  5. She should accept this golden offer. The person who told her the school accepts lower admission scores and grades is saying in effect their program will graduate her no matter what. She will be able to take advantage of her protected status in lots of ways. After all, if “the economic incentives and research opportunities are substantial”, what does she think the reason for that is? She needs to get her head around how this works. The school is falling all over itself to give her things because she is DIVERSE. They know it’s true. She knows it’s true. I mean, surely she’s not dense enough to think everyone who applies to philosophy programs gets these privileges.

    She’s going to be able to ride this wave her whole career. Quibbling about exactly how the school expressed these thoughts is like fretting because a lottery win was paid by certified check instead of a bank draft. If they were blunt, it’s because they are trying to make sure she knows how good things are going to be for her there so she will choose their program over others. Asking the school to do a better job of pretending it isn’t so is really looking their gift horse in the mouth.

  6. Firstly, if this is a Master’s degree she should consider if she thinks the courses are useful and if there is a good fit with staff. In a short program she might never have to deal with these diversity people again. Secondly she should consider the current situation of Alfred Duckett, the African American professor in the Cameron University. Does she want to learn how to deal with a possibly hostile climate in a Masters program since she might have to work in one at some point in her career ?
    If it is a PhD then she might have to deal with the diversity people again. Is it possible that she could take some of the scholarship money with her if she decides to transfer to another program half way through?

  7. “She’s going to be able to ride this wave her whole career.”

    If you could fill us “protected status” people in on how this generally works, many of us might appreciate it–since we clearly haven’t learned to ride that wave very well. (I am sorry that you’re feeling the yearly philosophy-job-market-season blues. But rest assured that the Jesse Helms “white hands” ad bears even less connection to reality today, especially in the philosophy profession.)

  8. Just in case anyone’s in doubt: Anonphil is making a rhetorical point (and a good one). Please do NOT start offering instructions on how “protected status” people can learn to ride that wave.

  9. I have a friend who belongs to an ethnic minority and declined Middlebury’s offer of acceptance as an undergraduate for the exact same reason; during her visit as an accepted student she was constantly referred to, with great excitement and pride, as a diversity admit, lumped together with other diversity admits, and made to feel like her ethnicity was the sum of her identity/worth to the school. She had been to other accepted student days, including ones specifically for underrepresented minority students, and had never come away feeling so uncomfortable.

    I’m saying this to alert (white) people to the fact that this sort of discomfort is not unique to the correspondent’s student and to dismiss it as the unreasonable nitpicking of a woman who doesn’t realize how good she’s got it is to trivialise an unpleasant experience many people of colour go through. You can guess where I’m going with this, I hope.

  10. I appreciate the questions and I am very sorry for the experience the student had. The seeming “pass” on admission requirements seems to me the most obviously egregious and unreflective of all the errors committed during that visit. Yet as a faculty member who makes an effort to work with our admissions and orientation staff to prioritize social justice I wonder about the events held with “diverse unrelated others.” The student population on my campus is majority white and faculty in women and gender studies, african american studies, and latin american studies, have worked together to try to build smaller learning communities for students of color (and “diverse” students). We have organized retreats and special orientation events specifically identifying them as events for “Students of Color.” This effort stems in part from survey data collected from alumni of color who clearly criticized the lack of opportunities to network and build community with other students of color on campus. At large orientation events we would be less likely to distinguish between heterogenous communities of color but that does not mean that more distinctive and particular opportunities do not follow during the year. In fact campus visits and orientation events are opportunities for different student groups and programs to outline efforts aimed at students of color. In any case, I just wonder if others think there are better ways to highlight community building efforts at campus visits and orientation events that would not make the student in this case feel so uncomfortable but nevertheless would directly address the efforts of areas studies faculty and social justice programs to create welcoming space and community building opportunities for “diverse students?”

  11. I’m going to answer *your* question #1 from the perspective of a grad student. I’m not that diverse, but I have had the experience of getting good grades that I didn’t earn for papers that I never finished. I don’t know why this started happening to me, but I can say that it did not help my confidence as a philosopher at all. In fact, it did just the opposite. It made me think that I was in grad school for some reason other than my philosophical ability. And that made me doubt myself and the profession as a whole. If you think that this student is bright and capable of making useful contributions to philosophy and you still have hope for the profession, then keep asking her about her work. Ask in detail. Read her work. Give comments. Meet with her. Ask her if she’s getting useful feedback from her advisors. If she comes to you with climate or career concerns, answer her as best you can, but always redirect her back to her work. We are there to work and learn. We often flip out about climate and career- and often our flip outs are justified. But ultimately, we want to be good thinkers, colleagues and mentors. We want people to show us how to do that.

  12. This is advice to her once she has accepted *some* offer- and I think she should- even if this is the only offer she gets. Grad school is emotionally and intellectually difficult, but so long as it’s funded and doesn’t throw someone into debt, it’s still the best thing that can happen to a young person who likes to use their* mind to solve problems and make sense of the world. *”their” wasn’t a grammar mistake- it was intentional.

  13. It would make an enormous difference to me whether the people who behaved this way were the specific faculty members with whom she anticipated developing a mentoring relationship or writing a dissertation, other students, faculty and staff in the department, or other faculty or administrators outside the department – listed in order of the concern I’d have about them. If someone with whom you’d like to study, or who knows you’ve already been admitted, is offering “help” with admissions qualifications, then I wouldn’t accept the offer. Otherwise, I would accept the offer if I wanted to go to that school for other reasons, and I’d be prepared to be polite but firm if such incidents were repeated later.

    If she turns the offer down, when she writes to thank the department for the visit, a line could be added explaining that one aspect of the prospective visits they might want to improve is not putting students in a position to feel singled out for diversity status, much less patronized for it. Students should always feel primarily valued for their potential as researchers and colleagues, and while it’s good to be provided information about ways the campus values diverse groups, that shouldn’t be the dominant focus.

    I think people are able to hear that message better if it’s presented in a context involving other positive observations about the program, or perhaps other reasons the student might have had for pursuing another offer instead. Advocating a “soft sell” here is a controversial claim for good reason, but if the goal really is to encourage change I find it happens more effectively that way.

    If she’s going to accept the offer, next year the prospective visits will roll around again and she can present her advice about improving them. Hopefully by then she’ll have a sense of who can help her accomplish this task, or at least would be a receptive audience for the message.

    The idea that anyone rides a wave of special treatment is laughably absurd. I see why people say such things, out of a combination of ignorance and frustration, but it’s not a nice thing to say and it also happens to be false.

  14. If it makes the student feel better, many of us “diverse” students have been there. There is even a new web-series about this very phenomenon (tracking the micro-aggressions that people of color and people with disabilities face in graduate school):

  15. If she feels this bad about it from one visit, drop the whole idea of going to that place. If there is an offer just decline it politely with no explanation. No excuses, no explanation. Words will do no good in this situation.

  16. “She’s going to be able to ride this wave her whole career.”

    I’ve never seen any kind of affirmative action (or protected status–what is that?) in any graduate program I’ve been affiliated with. It must be a new thing. In the graduate programs I was familiar with, there would be perhaps 4-6 people of color among the 75 or so graduate students. In my own PhD program, 2 of us managed to graduate. The other one dropped out of academia.

    People tend to ride the wave right on out of academia. That should be obvious, given the statistics.

    I wish the original poster would offer better details so we could find out what is going on here. It is very unusual even for affirmative action to play much of a role in graduate admissions for PhD programs in philosophy. There is almost never a ‘diversity exception’ and the like.

    I also don’t know what ‘protected status’ is. In the United States, I have not heard this phrase.

    Can this student visit other campuses before she has to decide? When you say “treat her this way” I am thinking of the alternatives to being treated in an alienated way that acknowledges difference. One of the alternatives is for the faculty to somehow assume she has less ability and to doubt her but never acknowledge difference. You imply she is a racial minority. If so, there will be racist people around her, even if they aren’t going to be openly racist.. If she is the kind of person who does better in that situation than in the pity/paternalist situation (and some people do better in the former, in fact) then she might consider another program where she can avoid pity/paternalism/othering, etc.

    Without more detail, there are simply too many factors to know how to advise the student. The dummies who made up these idiot diversity events might not be the ones she works with. All the usual things for graduate students matter even more for a student of color–she needs a supportive and widely respected person to advise her thesis. Were the people she plans to work with tokenizing her and are those the only ones she can work with in that program? If so, she should probably stay away. If there are other people on the faculty who she is interested to work with, then the scholarship would be a good reason to enter into the program.

    Should she give up graduate school because there is such ignorance and there are huge obstacles to overcome and she’ll always have to work with such people? Clearly, it depends on how much she wants this as a career and what her other options are and how attractive they are to her. These kind of people will always be around her in academia. They will be around in other fields, but in philosophy she will probably be more singular and the alienating treatment can feel more personal than in law or medicine, particularly on the tenure track. There will still be many good experiences in there and it can be a rewarding career but it is impossible to avoid this unpleasant aspect of the profession in some form or other unless you are white.

  17. “It is very unusual even for affirmative action to play much of a role in graduate admissions for PhD programs in philosophy.”

    That is definitely not true — it’s quite common. Unless you mean that, e.g., African American candidates are very unusual. But I don’t think this applicant’s experiences are atypical at all, though perhaps the people talking to her are a bit more blatant and clueless than most. This is not something we can write off as unique or rare.

    “I also don’t know what ‘protected status’ is. In the United States, I have not heard this phrase.”

    In the United States, a class has protected status when it would be prima facie illegal to discriminate on the basis of membership in that class.

  18. Does she feel comfortable asking someone at the department that made her feel uncomfortable about what is up before she makes a decision? She might learn something from their response to her impression of the process, though of course her level of comfort asking them matters. It sounds like were this worry not in play,she would otherwise take this department seriously. If that’s how she sees things, it might be worth trying to find out more before writing them off completely. Checking with those responsible or someone not responsible whom one feels comfortable asking could provide further useful information. But this may take a good deal of courage to do.

  19. I submitted the questions being discussed. First, thank you! I appreciate the feedback. Second, I am hesitant to provide more information about the student, but the student is reading the thread- so if she wants to add more information I’ll let her take the lead.

    I should clarify that the “highly interdisciplinary, social justice-oriented program” is not a philosophy graduate program. She is a philosophy major considering interdisciplinary graduate MA programs.

Comments are closed.