The Two-Step of the Elite Professors

Grave calls for the end of systemic racism are echoing throughout academia, broadcast in open letters and in-house emails, official declarations on college websites and commentaries in campus newspapers, pledges by college presidents, and promises by professors to remedy longstanding injustice. If one were to grade these self-righteous expressions, they would earn a D- for credibility, but an A+ for brazenness.

The lack of credibility we can prove by consulting the Left’s own measure of disparate outcomes. The now-famous list of demands issued by a good portion of the Princeton University faculty in an open letter to President Christopher Eisgruber has several signatories from humanities departments. Among the demands is this:

Redress the demographic disparity on Princeton’s faculty immediately and exponentially by hiring more faculty of color.

We might point out the illegality of reserving jobs by race, but the credibility problem lies elsewhere. In order for systemic racism to exist in the hiring process at a prestigious university such as Princeton, there has to have been a pipeline of African American job candidates who have faced discrimination. If a group identity is not proportionately represented in the professoriate and more individuals in that group need to be hired, we presume that a pool of persons from that group is waiting to be tapped for a job.

But here is the situation in the humanities. According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in 2016-2017, of the 1,347 individuals who earned a Ph.D. in English, only 54 of them were “black.” That’s a rate of 4 percent. The following year yielded a better number, but not by much: 65 out of 1,295 doctorates (5 percent). Both ratios fall way below the national African American share of the population, just below 13 percent. 

In foreign languages and literatures (several professors in these areas signed the Princeton letter), things are much, much worse. In 2016-2017, the tally was 12 black honorees in a total of 1,168 doctorates granted—barely 1 percent. The following year’s result: 20 out of 1,213.

And here is what happened in the field of history. In 2016-2017, 41 out of 925 Ph.D. recipients were black (4.4 percent), while the following year the rate was 48 out of 911 (5.2 percent). 

The question to pose to our humanities signatories is this: why have your fields proven so discouraging to African Americans? Why aren’t you recruiting and graduating more African American scholar-teachers? Certainly, it is not the poor job prospects a black Ph.D. would enjoy once she finished her degree. Selective universities are desperate for African American academics, and the rarity of candidates only makes the competition among departments more vigorous. Why, then, have so few African American undergraduates chosen a path that would lead them to become your colleagues? What is it about you that they find unappealing?

It can’t be the curriculum. English and history have made African American literature, history, and culture a central feature of their courses for decades. In the 1990s, too, French went big into Francophone material. Why has there been so little payoff? 

It is up to the humanities professors to answer this question, not Princeton University. They run undergraduate majors and graduate programs, they inspire students to pursue the fields and consider post-graduate work, and they impress upon sophomores the relevance of the disciplines to their personal ambitions. It is they who have failed; all of their indignant empathy cannot hide that fact.

This is where the brazenness comes in. It takes quite a bit of cluelessness and self-regard to deflect your poor performance onto others. Maybe reaching the heights of academia has convinced them that they can’t possibly be so incompetent about matters they consider to be so important. But how smoothly do the professorial elite sign on to a condemnation that should put them in the dock! One is inclined to envy them—such tenured complacency is a rare privilege. It wouldn’t be so irksome, though, if the phoniness weren’t so transparent.

When everybody does it, of course, the deflection isn’t so hard. Shamelessness becomes a habit reinforced by distinguished colleagues in the room. I just took a look at the web site of the American Association of University Professors, which has this statement on the home page:

The inequities, systemic racism, and implicit bias evident in U.S. higher education institutions reflect out country’s failure to redress the harms caused by slavery and by centuries of violence and discrimination against black and indigenous people and other people of color. In spite of efforts to diversify their student bodies and faculties, colleges and universities too often help to perpetuate the privileges of white and wealthy people.

But if we run through the 12 members of the Executive Council of the AAUP, we find not a single one of them is African American. Spare us, then, your high-minded talk of efforts to “diversify” and your regret over the continued “privileges” of white people. You can’t even meet your own call.

Jordan Peterson lays out a worthy rule: don’t tell others how to live until you put your own life in order. Don’t try to change the world until you’ve cleaned your room. Our academic highbrows are playing a self-serving game. The right answer to their protests against systemic racism is this: “You run the system—fix yourselves.”

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