Questioning Diversity in Higher Education

The Civil Rights Movement is often held up as the grand moment in US History. It was a moment full of potential and promise that the country was moving towards equality and fully realized democracy. Such a framing of the era follows a linear approach to looking at history, in which the United States progressed and ascended until it hit the pinnacle during the Civil Rights Movement. At this apex, anything seemed possible. People of different color, gender, and sexual orientation, were the closest they would ever be to achieving recognition and rights in this country.

It is popularly assumed and accepted that after America peaked in the 1960s and then began a steady decline. This declension narrative looks to the 1980s as the death of the Civil Rights Movement and all the gains made in earlier decades. Conservatism took a hold during the Reagan administration. Backlash against progress undid everything that was good and promising about the 60s. Something was lost, and the United States entered a steady process of decline. Since the pinnacle of equality in the 60s, the US continually slides back into a state of inequality and oppression. This narrative is not uncommon.

This view of ascension and declension in US society also extends to views on higher education in the 20th century and beyond. After the 60s, affirmative action provided a means to create an equality of access to a college education. Demographically speaking, college campuses became more diverse. Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies programs began to emerge, as the new population of students demanded representation in the academy. All this potential in higher education too declined. Affirmative action was overturned. Access to higher education for people of color was negatively impacted, and this was represented in another shift in demographics. Budget cuts in higher education began to dismantle the academic disciplines that are attentive to and reflective of the experiences of marginalized people. After all the gains of the 1960s, higher education is now left in disarray, and is slowly moving further away from any prior promises of equality.

Roderick Ferguson, in The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, critiques these assumptions about social movements and The University. Ferguson, a Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, has consistently critiqued these narratives of race and difference in America. The Reorder of Things specifically challenges the way so-called “minority” populations are dealt with on the university level. Ferguson argues that many assumptions held about inclusion and diversity are far more complicated. Any over simplified view of the 60s and its social movements, and how they impacted higher education, are refuted by Ferguson’s analysis of The University.

Ferguson opens the work with a discussion of theory on the academy. Kant, Derrida, and Foucault all come up in discussion on the power and role of universities. It is easy to get lost in this heavily theoretical discussion of the University as an institution with the power to institutionalize. However, Ferguson’s purpose seems to be revealing the power of the University and its relationship to society. It is neither completely separate, nor entirely reflective of larger society and its institutions, but holds an important place and power. It is a bit curious that Ferguson would use the standard philosophical cannon to prove a point, as big names like Foucault do not necessarily reflect the experiences of the marginalized populations spoken about in this book. Ferguson does not simply accept these arguments without critique. An example being Ferguson’s critique of Foucault’s failure to see the irony of exploring power from a singularly Western perspective. It is also possible that diverse opinions matter less in his exploration of the University and its approaches to diversity and inclusion.

One of Ferguson’s major interventions is the assertion that the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent social movements were not exactly outside the institution entirely. It became the best interest of the State and the University to incorporate these movements. These social movements allowed an opportunity for the academy to institutionalize difference and struggle. One example given is of the institutionalization of ethnic studies programs in universities. When university campuses became increasingly diverse, their students began to demand representation in what was being taught and researched. Students at San Francisco State University famously fought for the nation’s first Ethnic Studies program. The establishment of Ethnic Studies marked an important paradigm shift in higher education. The incorporation of these studies programs allowed for the institutionalization of difference and social movements.

The Civil Rights movements and other such social movements that fought against the establishment and power became incorporated into society’s powerful institutions. Ethnic Studies in particular allowed for the institutionalizing of ethnic difference. Any lack of ethnically diverse authors in a survey course on the American Novel, could be absolved by the presence of a whole department dedicated to the representation of minorities. Difference is not a threat when it can be negotiated and organized by an institution into a separate discipline. This is a false inclusiveness, as all inclusion exists in a separate discipline from all the other disciplines that exist in the academy. Ethnic Studies exists as a pressure valve for all the discontent about the Western bias in the American academy. Minorities only exist in the ghetto of the university. These programs are underfunded, under attack, and usually the first to be cut during budget crises. The larger problem is that the University favors Western epistemology, and canonizes the thoughts of society’s elite, and does not work to incorporate other ways of knowing, and other perspective, but simply lets Ethnic Studies serve as a container for all that is different.

This allows the University to tout how progressive and forward thinking it is, without looking at the larger problems that must be solved. The University is an institution and space for thinking that is thought to exist separate from larger society. Although universities do enjoy a level of separation, and a degree of removal from politics and society, they are not completely separate. The University’s ability to manage difference is also reflected in the way the US, as a nation, responded to Civil Rights.

The social movement struggles that emerged were first faced with opposition from large institutions. The visuals of non-violent protestors being met with excessive violence from police and military forces easily come to mind in thinking about the Civil Rights fight. However, the eventual acceptance of the movement served a strategic purpose in reshaping a national identity for the country. The State became benevolent and accountable to issues of equality and freedom. The nation then left behind its homogenous national identity, and instead partially embraced multiplicity. Difference was something to be celebrated. This is again reflected in the University and its ethnic specific disciplinary divisions. Both the nation and the University embraced a new image of diversity.

In a mainstream historical narrative, Civil Rights triumphed. The struggles became a part of everyone’s United States history. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech represents a key historical moment in 1960s America. These images and ideas not only invoke triumph for those fighting for their rights, but also represented a triumph of democracy in the country. This image of freedom and democracy would be co-opted by the nation to justify its international policy and frequent interventions. Vietnam, Guatemala, and Afghanistan were all imposed upon on the premise that they lacked democracy, and the US must bring it to these places. Equality was embraced as a means to bolster a new national identity of a progressive, virtuous and diverse nation. The University both reflected this shift, and contributed to it as well.

Ferguson argues that the social struggles of the 60s were eventually embraced in order to manage difference, and create a new national identity. These arguments not only refute the ascension/declension narrative around the 60s, but also present larger questions about higher education. If the management of ethnic difference does not do enough to address the deep inequality of The University, what larger problems must exist? While the idea of diversity is readily embraced, actually diversity in ways of knowing, and in more traditional disciplines is not present. Difference is attractive, and easy to celebrate. It detracts from deeper systemic issues that plague higher education. A prime example is a controversy that took place in 2000 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where a African-American male was photoshopped into a brochure. Images of diversity are not only misleading, but also sideline real issues of concern at The University.

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