"Diversity" in Academia: How the Ivory Tower Stays White

Academia wants diversity without diverse people.

One of the peculiarities of academia is that it preaches diversity while at the same time locking its doors to people of color. This problem has only become worse in recent years, with the academic job market crashing just as new cohorts of non-white PhD Candidates are beginning to seek tenure-track positions. This has not been helped by the fact that universities have tried to address the issue of job scarcity with solutions that perpetuate academia's lack of diversity. Indeed, in attempting to address the lack of available tenure-track positions, universities have barred people of color from the Ivory Tower and secured its status as a white institution.

One example might be the growth of "diversity" programs adopted by several PhD-granting institutionsI put diversity in quotes because they are not speaking about race or gender diversity, but career diversity. These programs attempt to re-imagine PhD programs, making them less about preparing students for academia and more about funneling them towards jobs outside of the academy.

There are many ironies to this. The first is that it seems unwise to task programs originally designed to prepare people for academia with the contradictory goal of pushing them into the "real world," if only because many of the people running such programs do not have adequate experience outside of the academy. If anything, perhaps PhD programs should place less emphasis on "career diversity" and more emphasis on solving its lack of actual diversity, which limits its ability to effectively cater to students of color (as evidenced by Tiffany Martínez's story and others like it).

Some would say that career diversity initiatives are not antithetical to the goals of a history PhD program—indeed, they would argue that such programs make one a better candidate on the academic job market. In my opinion, however, this would only be true at universities where one was already nearly guaranteed a job in academia after graduating. At my institution, career diversity has been implemented in a manner that sharply defines the two potential career paths—you're either on your way to the Ivory Tower, or you're destined for something else. And, more often than not, whether someone is destined for academia is determined based on how dedicated they are to the traditional path—not on whether they are "diversifying" their skill-set. 

And so, in cases like this, "career diversity" feels more like a tool PhD programs can use to weed out those who don't fit the mold, especially since most graduate students are resourceful enough to explore career options existing outside of academia on their own. If "career diversity" is to become a permanent part of PhD programs, there needs to be an understanding on the part of everyone involved—from department chairs to incoming first years—that academia isn't necessarily the goal. In other words, if PhD programs want to envision themselves as preparing graduate students for alternate career paths, then they need to be more accepting of graduate students who don't fit the mold of the traditional R1 tenure track scholar. 

The second—and more troubling—irony lies within the naming scheme, which commodifies the term "diversity." This has been a growing trend of late, with "diversity" statements becoming more common on a variety of applications as universities seek to become more "inclusive." These diversity statements are problematic for three reasons: 1) they force people of color to perform their otherness for a chance at receiving more equitable treatment, 2) they typically sidestep the issue of race and gender in general by asking applicants how they "understand" issues of diversity, rather than how they themselves experience them, and 3) they allow institutions to claim that they are becoming more progressive when, in reality, no real change is occurring.

Thus, the term "career diversity" is upsetting because it seeks to commodify the experiences of people of color—to commodify the term "diversity"—in order to sell a program that, in effect, bars people of color from academia.

How does it accomplish that? Simply put, these career diversity programs target graduate programs ranked outside of the top-10 (the top-10 usually consisting of Ivy League or Ivy League equivalent institutions—of the twenty institutions given an AHA Career Diversity Implementation Grant in 2018, 85% are ranked outside of the top-10, with the exceptions being UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan). And, these are programs which, like my own, often contain a higher percentage of people of color.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: career diversity programs are designed to re-direct people, often of color and from institutions outside of the top-10, to jobs outside of the academy. Meanwhile, white men and women from the Harvards, Yales, Stanfords, and Princetons of the world continue to receive the vast majority of tenure-track positions.

This gets back to my discussion on the commodification of diversity. My fear is that they are using the term "diversity" to fool marginalized graduate students into associating such programs with "diversity" as it is traditionally defined: diversity of race, gender, or sexuality. This seems to be the case, given that these programs are implemented in lower-ranked schools with graduate cohorts containing larger percentages of men and women of color (this is related to another problem with academia—the assumption that higher-ranked schools automatically produce better scholars. The truth is far more complicated of course—people in such programs tend to have a number of systemic advantages allowing them to attend in the first place, usually related to having money or having parents who are already part of academia). 

This misleading naming scheme has the subtle effect of pointing white graduate students towards the academy while simultaneously pushing graduate students of color out the door. Ironically then, if graduate students of color choose to take advantage of these "diversity programs," they will ensure that academia becomes far less diverse.

Articles on this topic typically side-step the issue of diversity in academia by pointing to how white women now make up a far larger proportion of tenured professors than they did previously, or by using statements like "underrepresented minorities have achieved three times the rate of growth" in the academy as compared to white faculty members in recent years.

Including white women in the Ivory Tower is a start (and is indeed better than faculties consisting of predominantly white men), but like second-wave feminism and its tendency to exclude women of color, it is only a start. And to say that people of color have achieved "three times the rate of growth" is not saying much, especially if our rate of growth was tiny to begin with. And at any rate, the data demonstrates that regardless of any increase in "rate of growth," the vast majority of faculty members continue to be white and male, with white women edging them out only in the field of education. 

I have no idea if there is a solution to this problem. I only wish to demonstrate that it is still a problem, and to show that universities might be unknowingly contributing to the problem by the very nature of their "diversity" programs.

The problem is complicated by the fact that the Ivory Tower desires extremely well-qualified people. It just so happens that these well-qualified people typically come from a privileged pool of applicants who have received their PhD from an Ivy League school or an Ivy League equivalent. And for reasons systemic and otherwise, these people tend to be white and from wealthier demographics.

A problem that is as self-perpetuating as this one, and one that must be tackled by the very people who benefit from the problem, cannot be solved by a single article. But perhaps we can take a decent first step towards progress by ensuring that we do not discourage graduate students of color from pursuing a job in academia so early in their careers.


It has been argued by some that articles like this one prove that people of color, more than any other group, feel entitled to tenure track positions, and that, because of that sense of entitlement, they refuse to explore alternatives. Based on personal experience I can say that this (quite possibly racist) sentiment could not be further from the truth. I do not expect a tenure track position, nor do I feel entitled to one, nor do any of the other graduate students of color I know. This article is simply pointing out that there may be systemic factors at play here contributing to a present reality—a lack of professors of color in the United States. 

That problem goes deeper than "career diversity," which, if implemented correctly, would probably be helpful to the majority of graduate students given the current job climate. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean we shouldn't highlight the inherent contradictions or ironies of such an endeavor, and it doesn't mean that we can't question its motives. 

It's beginning to feel like we are standing on the precipice of great change with regards to PhD programs. If they can be reformed into something that ensures equal attention and opportunity is given to graduate students who aren't pursuing the tenure track, then great. My fear, however, is that "career diversity" will become something that is merely tacked-on to the existing system, ensuring that it will continue to cater to those with the tenure track in mindwithout doing anything of substance to support and encourage graduate students who wish to apply their skills to careers outside of the academy.

The true goal of "career diversity" should be to change the culture of PhD programs at their core. In doing so, "career diversity" might eventually come full circle and contribute to achieving more actual diversity in academia, if only because a more supportive environment means more people of color receiving PhDs, and more people of color with PhDs hopefully means a few more break into academia than exist there today.