Diversity Tensions At The Top At Penn

Ann McClure's picture

It's an odd moment in American race relations. Recently, minority coaching and general manager hires in the NFL went a stunning 0 for 15, despite the league's efforts to make its coaching ranks and front offices as diverse as its faces on the field. Our first black president has thus far assembled a second-term cabinet of all white males. And, locally, African American professors at the University of Pennsylvania, in a letter to the school newspaper last week, criticized president Amy Gutmann - who has boldly stood for diversity in her speeches and scholarly writings - for yet another appointment of a white male dean. (In her nine-year tenure, Gutmann has never appointed a minority as dean of one of the university's 12 colleges.)
In the past, minority strides for equality were made against ideological foes who literally blocked access to university doorways. Now, minorities are feeling passed over despite the fact that the institutions in question share their goals. What's going on here? Are we in a moment that is essentially the last gasp of white male privilege? Or is this what actual color blindness looks like? "It's ridiculous to suggest that this is color blindness," says Camille Charles, chair of the department of Africana studies at Penn. "It's too soon for that."
Here's the Penn backstory. Under Gutmann, student diversity is up nearly 50 percent and minority faculty representation is up, as well. Gutmann's Diversity Action Plan calls for $100 million to be spent over five years to make the face of Penn look more like the face of America and Philly.
Both sides agree that diversity is an educational good. But at a tense dinner with the minority faculty last year, questions were raised about Gutmann's own hiring practices. When she said that she wouldn't just hire someone of color who is unqualified, those in attendance took offense: There were some academic heavyweights in the room, after all, many with administrative experience. Gutmann emphasized her record: "A show beats a tell," she said.

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