Yesterday’s post examined the peculiar career of Wahneema Lubiano, a figure who has parlayed “forthcoming” books and a heavy dose of fringe political activism into a tenured position at Duke. In turn, she has used this position to rally opposition to her own institution’s students, the “perfect offenders” whose conviction she believes will advance her pedagogical and ideological agenda.
Over the last eight months, we’ve seen Duke professors producing a good deal of case-related commentary that most people would consider of marginal intellectual quality—raising questions of exactly what these faculty members teach in their classrooms and write in their scholarship.
That the academy tilts disproportionately to the left, and even to the far left, is common knowledge. Most people who follow higher education also realize that the trinity of race, class, and gender dominates most humanities and many social science departments.But through what kind of process would a
Manipulating Search Committees
Departments conduct searches for new hires in two ways. At the senior level, the department chair and allies often will have a desired candidate in mind to invite to the department. The experience of the African-American Studies program illustrates the point.
In 1996, then-dean William Chafe persuaded Karla Holloway to accept the appointment as AAAS chair, with a promise to boost the number of faculty positions in the program. “Too often in the past,” said Chafe at the time, “we have failed to realize the potential that the AAAS has for becoming a bright and shining star in the firmament of our academic enterprises.” This, of course, is the same William Chafe who published a late March op-ed suggesting that the whites who lynched Emmett Till provided an appropriate historical context for interpreting the actions of the lacrosse players.
Upon accepting the position, Holloway explained her personal academic approach: “Like many African-Americans I am bi-dialectal—proficient in both standard (acultural) English and in a dialect that identifies my ethnic community. As an academic linguist and an African-American woman, my public (academic) performances about what was essentially my private (community-based) identity were schizophrenic nightmares. Even though my physical appearance—the fact of my dark skin—called forth lurking prejudices, my standard dialect contradicted those prejudices.”
Armed with the administration’s support and her own, dubious, conception of “quality,” Holloway recruited several senior scholars to the program. Lubiano was in the first batch that arrived; Houston Baker followed shortly thereafter. Holloway’s apparent goal: add professors who shared her vision of mingling professional and ideological/political activism.
Far more common are entry-level searches for tenure-track assistant professors. In such cases, the department chair will normally appoint a three-person search committee, whose members screen all applicants, conduct preliminary interviews, and (in most instances) decide on three finalists to invite for an on-campus interview. The decision on who to appoint as search committee members decides the type of person who ultimately will be hired: the search committee, in effect, defines what constitutes scholarly “quality.”
Imagine, for instance, a U.S. History position, with a search committee composed of Chafe, Thavolia Glymph (who lamented that things were “moving backwards” when DNA tests revealed no matches to lacrosse players), and Peter Wood (who has gone out of his way to appear to slander his own students). Based on what we’ve seen from this trio over the past eight months, is there any reason to have confidence in how they would define a “quality” applicant?
Search committees can screen out any prospective applicant likely to challenge the “groupthink” mentality predominant on campus. At a university like Duke—where even now only one member the nearly 500-person arts and sciences faculty has either publicly criticized Mike Nifong or defended in any way the lacrosse players’ character—this “groupthink” mentality is pervasive.
In the hard sciences and math, quality is based in large part upon quantifiable research accomplishments. The concept is much more subjective in the humanities and social sciences, however. Events of the last eight months have demonstrated that many humanities and social sciences professors define “quality” in ways that few outside the academy would recognize.
Awarding of Faculty Positions
Administrators can most directly shape the faculty’s ideological tenor by disproportionately awarding lines for new hires to favored departments.
Take, for example, the African-American Studies program—recently elevated to department status. As of now, the program has 15 full-time faculty, out of the 471 tenured or tenure-track arts and sciences faculty at Duke. (That’s 3.2 percent of the total.) According to the Chronicle, the program currently has 33 undergraduate majors, or 0.5 percent of the total number of undergraduates.
Because African-American Studies is an interdisciplinary program, its roster of permanent faculty actually understates the number of professors eligible to teach its classes. According to a Duke press release, 50 more professors are “affiliates” of the program. So 13.8 percent of the arts and sciences faculty can offer classes in a major that attracts only 0.5 percent of the school’s undergraduate body as majors.
Those figures would suggest that no curricular need exists for expanding the program’s full-time faculty. Yet, astonishingly, Provost Peter Lange announced last week that AAAS is “slated for growth.”
AAAS had the highest percentage of Group of 88 signatories (80.0 percent). It also has featured three of the most irresponsible anti-lacrosse faculty: Houston Baker (since departed to Vanderbilt), Karla Holloway, and Lubiano. So the Brodhead administration can harbor no illusions about the kind of person the department is likely to hire.
Curricular need, of course, isn’t the only reason that Universities allot new faculty positions. Yet the issue almost always plays some role in such decisions. In this case, it’s extraordinary that the Brodhead administration would commit itself to hiring more members of a department that already, based on enrollment figures, seems wildly overrepresented in number of faculty.
Prioritizing Ideological Conformity
“Diversity” is a prized commodity on contemporary college campuses. In recent years, some institutions have used the concept to mask redefining quality away from standard measurements and toward ideological conformity—of the type that we saw from the Duke faculty last spring.
Take, for example, a program for “diversity” cluster hiring at the
The plan, part of a broader emphasis on diversity in hiring at
The U of A is one of three major universities (Virginia Tech and
Trower’s proposals are extreme—but they illustrate how standard notions of quality have been displaced in the academy in recent years. Her analysis 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. Someone like Cathy Trower would consider Wahneema Lubiano an ideal appointment.
No major research university will—or could—state that it has removed “intellectual quality” as the preeminent factor in hiring. But such a move isn’t necessary to implement what Lubiano has termed an agenda of “sabotage” in the “knowledge factories.” Redefining “quality,” stacking search committees, or awarding new positions to ideologically acceptable departments can all lay the groundwork for a faculty oriented around groupthink. Over the past eight months at Duke, we all have witnessed the pernicious effects of such a development.