Lip Service

Do you remember the scene in Hidden Figures when the characters portrayed by Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst find themselves together in the recently de-segregated women’s restroom? The Dunst character says something like “I know you don’t believe me, but despite what you all must think, I’m not a racist,” and then the Spencer character replies, “I believe you really believe that.” This scene was playing on HBO when I turned on the TV in my room at a hotel on a large Midwestern university campus last night, the scene memorable for its biting irony. And for its truth: well-meaning white people (a category to which I admittedly belong) can honestly believe that they are not racists even as they support the structures of systematic oppression that limit opportunities for people of color, such as the heroines of the film.

spencer dunst

As events of the last year- or five – have made blatantly clear, those structures of systematic oppression are still in place more than fifty years after Katherine Johnson calculated John Glenn’s trajectory. I was on the campus of the university, coincidentally home to a school named for the astronaut and Senator, as part of an external departmental review team. While it would be inappropriate to publicly share the observations and conclusions of the review of the department, I feel it is appropriate – or even necessary – to share my observation of a disjuncture between the university’s mission and university structures because it is a disjuncture that I have seen throughout higher education and throughout many arts organizations. Here is an excerpt from the university mission statement:

“Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens;
Fostering a culture of engagement and service.
We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential components of our excellence”

If diversity and inclusion are essential components of excellence as defined by this university (and so many others), why was there no (as in “zero”) observable diversity among the midlevel and upper level administrators we met with (deans, vice provosts, and so on) and why were so few of them women (maybe 20%)? I love a good mission statement, one that guides decision making, leads to action, and explains why an organization exists, what it does, and for whom. But a mission statement is just lip service if it is not reflected in the people charged with executing it.

Observation having been made, what can be done? In Hidden Figures, Spencer’s character is given managerial responsibilities without the title or salary to accompany them; she spends much of the movie waiting for an overdue promotion. So here’s a simple way to change my observation: promote more people of color and women. “But,” says the academic administrator on my shoulder, “what if there are no qualified people of color or women in the pool?” Two responses: 1) create a professional development pipeline and 2) actively seek out and recruit, rather than waiting passively for the strength of the mission statement to draw people. Then there’s the third step: hold the people responsible for executing the mission statement accountable. If the middle-aged white men who currently hold 80% of these positions (nationally, not just at this one university, which is merely a representative sample) are not doing the job of fostering diversity, hire people who will. Perhaps this particular university has a leadership development program already in place that will eventually help to diversity its leadership ranks; if so, I applaud the effort.

As I write this, I acknowledge the Kevlar vest represented by my long tenured position and that the untenured, precarious positions of women younger than me and people of color just entering the professorial ranks make it harder to talk publicly about this issue, much less suggest that administrations should be held accountable to metrics and missions in much the same way that individual departments undergoing revision are.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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