2012 fall columnists Credit: Justin Cohen , Kurt Mitman

Last week, senior faculty of the Africana Studies Department incited a heated debate on campus in their letter to Amy Gutmann bemoaning the lack of diversity in appointments to senior administration officials at Penn.

Gutmann and the Board of Trustees responded with letters published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, which I found to be uninspiring.

First, I want to focus on Gutmann’s original comments about the availability of qualified candidates. I don’t pretend to know the qualifications of the minority faculty at Penn, nor anyone specifically that may have been considered for the position, but I want to think about numbers.

Top administration positions in any university are generally selected from senior faculty members who have held leadership positions in their various departments or at lower levels in the university.

Senior faculty members are promoted from the pool of junior faculty, who are hired from the ranks of graduate students, who come out of the pool of undergraduates, who are generally high school graduates.

Positions at the administrator level, then, are at the end of a very long funnel. Since high school, college and graduate school graduation rates are lower for minorities than for whites in the United States, by the time you get to the top, there will be a much larger disparity in representation than in the population in general.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should sit on our hands. But perhaps the appointments that Gutmann has made reflect that disparity in numbers.

The question then becomes: at what lower levels does it make sense for Penn to intervene and ameliorate inequalities?

The University has made significant strides in terms of recruiting and retaining minority undergraduates. At the same time, Penn has placed a priority on recruiting minority graduate students, postdocs and faculty members.

These efforts to increase diversity are laudable. But we need to remain cognizant that it will take time for these interventions to filter down the funnel to the administrative level.

That begs the question: should Penn be doing more?

I think a compelling case can be made that hiring and retaining diverse faculty members is very important.

Imagine a minority undergraduate student that is very interested in a subject and would like to become a professor one day, but notes that there are no minority faculty members in that department.

This lack of faculty may cause the student to infer that there is discrimination. As a result, that student may decide not to continue on in that subject.

I don’t see a similar dynamic in play at the dean level. As such, Penn doesn’t need to intervene at that level, meaning that Penn should continue to select the people it thinks are the best candidates.

Taking a step back, I think professor Camille Charles, one of the authors of the letter to Gutmann, was right when she spoke of a need to clarify how we define successfully increasing diversity.

Charles made her position clear in a 2011 interview with the DP: she will only be satisfied when faculty diversity “reflect[s] the racial constitution of the United States.”

Her statement would seem to imply that a single threshold is the only measure by which to compare Penn’s diversity. If that is actually her belief, I think it is a rather closed-minded one.

Further, her statement exhibits a fundamental lack of understanding of the direction of higher education.

The faculty of Penn will never reflect the racial constitution of the United States, nor should it.

In today’s world, access to higher education is global. As a leading global university, Penn attracts — and will continue to attract — the best talent from across the world for all its programs and faculty positions.

Over time, I would expect that the faculty of the University will have a racial composition that looks even less like that of the United States than it does today. But that doesn’t mean that it will be less diverse than it is today.

There’s no single definition of diversity and no way to achieve it without working together. As such, I would hope that the signees of the letter rethink their decision to boycott Gutmann’s dinner.

Kurt Mitman is a sixth-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is kurt.mitman@gmail.com. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every Friday.

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