Commentary Magazine

Who Knew Diversity Was So Complicated?

As students, faculty, and administrators return to campuses with Charlottesville on their minds, we can expect them to double down on “diversity” initiatives.

I put “diversity” in quotation marks because it means, here, increased representation of and protections for groups deemed marginalized. In this context, gains for Asian students and faculty barely, if at all, register as a gain for diversity.

There are reasons for wanting a diverse faculty even in this narrow sense. It is not hard to see how, in the absence of examples of women doing physics, undergraduate women who otherwise have the interest and capacity to excel in that field might get the impression that it is not for them.

However, the results of a recent study (I link to the working paper because the published version is gated) of professors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and non-STEM (education, English, sociology, and the humanities) fields at forty selective public universities challenge those who expect that doubling down on diversity efforts will strike a blow against what they call white supremacy. First, efforts to increase faculty diversity have already made considerable headway. Second, areas in which we are not seeing gains may prove hard to crack. And third, we don’t understand well why we see striking differences across fields.

Diyi Li, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Cory Koedel, an associate professor of economics and public policy there, conclude that “black, Hispanic, and female professors are underrepresented and white and Asian professors are overrepresented in [their] data,” even among assistant professors, who have been hired recently. However, “comparison of senior and junior faculty suggests a trend toward greater diversity in academia along racial/ethnic and gender lines, especially in STEM fields.”

Moreover, when we consider representation relative to Ph.D. production, rather than to the overall population, we find mixed results. Among Hispanics, there is “no indication of systematic over- or under-representation among assistant professors.” Asian faculty members are “significantly overrepresented as assistant professors relative to domestic degree-production rates in all fields except in sociology.” White assistant professors “are overrepresented relative to Ph.D. production in biology, and to a lesser extent educational leadership and policy; but underrepresented in all other fields, most notably in economics.” As for gender, “representation among assistant professors . . . is generally fairly even.” Finally, “black faculty are consistently underrepresented as assistant professors in STEM fields” and “overrepresented . . . in . . . non-STEM fields.”

The fact that the picture changes dramatically when we look at representation relative to Ph.D. production rather than to the general population reinforces a familiar finding: those who want to increase faculty diversity have a “pipeline problem,” at least in some fields.

In 2015, according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 73 doctorates were awarded in chemistry to black candidates, 2.9 percent of the total. Not all of those Ph.D.’s plan a career in academia. In many of the nation’s vast number of colleges and universities seeking to diversify their ranks, quite a few searches will come up empty. Institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, which is pouring $100 million into efforts to attract candidates from under-represented groups, will probably get somewhere. But poorer institutions are likely to be disappointed. Even when it comes to championing social justice, it is good to be rich.

But, Li and Koedel observe, even when the pipeline problem is accounted for, black faculty are surprisingly scarce in the fields of biology and chemistry at the selective public universities they studied. In 2014-15, black candidates earned 2.5 percent of the Ph.D.’s awarded in chemistry by the top fifty colleges and universities, as rated by U.S. News. But they constituted less than 1 percent of the assistant professors in Li and Koedel’s data set. They earned 3.6 percent of the Ph.D.’s awarded in biology but constituted less than one-half of 1 percent of the assistant professors.

This scarcity does not carry over into economics, the other STEM field considered, in which black candidates earned 2.7 percent of the Ph.D.’s and constituted 2.4 percent of the assistant professors. As already noted, we find over-representation in other fields. For example, black candidates earned 1.8 percent of the Ph.D.’s awarded in English but were 8.6 percent of the assistant professors in Li and Koedel’s sample.

Whatever these complex and in some ways puzzling results indicate, they do not suggest that a new push is needed to drag reluctant colleges and universities, complicit in white supremacy, into a diversity fight they have plainly been waging with some vigor. Rather, assuming Li and Koedel’s results survive scrutiny, close attention should be paid to the disparate outcomes they find across groups and across fields.

But at a time in which the urge to do something is strong, their results will probably be ignored.

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