Image: Natalya Balnova For The Chronicle
By Zachary Michael Jack
Look across the ranks of faculty at many colleges today, and it’s easy to see how senior faculty members replicate themselves, to a fault, in the next generation of academics they select in hiring committees, engendering the elusive “corporate DNA” sought after by efficiency-minded administrators and managers. So unerring is this replication that, on many campuses, ideological pairs, one a generation removed from the other, can be seen moving across campus together on their way to faculty meetings, the more seasoned often slightly out front of their protégé, as if serving as a windbreak. More often than not, the more recent hire shares the politics and pedagogy of their longer-serving doppelganger, an affinity all but guaranteed at the selection process.
Too often in choosing new colleagues, search-committee chairs fall in love with their own image, finding in deep pools of hundreds of well-qualified candidates someone that, for all intents and purposes, is a version of themselves. Something in the applicant reminds them favorably of themselves, and, if there is much of the egotist in them, they are smitten.
To their credit, campuswide diversity efforts have disrupted the practice of chairs choosing a demographic twin. And certainly it’s crucial that committee members are discouraged from, in essence, picking themselves for the job. But the dangers of selecting for sameness, or making sameness the basis for personal affinity and institutional support, run deep. Now the chair of the search committee often chooses an intellectual or ideological twin. Even this practice must be questioned if our aim is greater diversity.
Instead of choosing faculty members who think like them, search committees must prioritize candidates who bring intellectual or ideological diversity. Thus the ruralist chair does well to seek an urbanist or suburbanist — someone nearer the chairs’ opposite in terms of academic expertise and even, perhaps, life experience. The diversity of the new hire’s scholarship in turn benefits those subscribing to the academic major or minor, including students of diverse demographics and intersectionalities, who have the right to expect inclusion. Once made, the choice for diversity reverberates across the institution, resonating with members of the wider academic community seldom seen on campus, from alums to trustees to donors, who have quietly waited years for a public embrace of the difference they proudly represent.
Faculty mentors must also be careful to avoid favoring students who are versions of themselves. Too often the faculty-look-alike student is taken under the wing of the enamored educator in a fashion similar to the way the look-alike faculty member got the job. When it comes time to nominate students for accolades or to provide letters of recommendation, the cause of the faculty replicants is often championed at the expense of students lacking the requisite demographic, intellectual, or ideological affinity to the would-be mentor. So that by the time the faculty nominator stands at the podium at the perennial honors convocation, it is as if the professor is lavishing praise on a younger version of him- or herself in the form of the blushing disciple.
The college is an ecology that performs best when the quasigenetic replication that once happened within departments, schools, and divisions is called out and curtailed. Ecology means the system works best with built-in difference, imbued with a diversity that makes the system more robust and resilient as a whole. In practice, real diversity means that decisions that were once unanimous are now likely to be contentious. Diversity well-practiced means that previously homogenous departments, which once naturally agreed on what they must do to meet common challenges, may still achieve the hard-won consensuses they seek, but only if they are willing to devote the increased time and intrinsic respect necessary to incorporate the views of those who see the world differently.
Committees, departments, and divisions that make the courageous choice for diversity over institutional DNA help remedy the ideological suppression that afflicts academic units where existing geodemographic similarities among faculty harden over generations of hires, until the members that remain constitute a self-reinforcing, uncritical monoculture that damages students and produces little more than weak copies of the original. If the popular notion of the college as loving “family” is to endure as preferred metaphor long into the 21st century, its epitome must no longer be the family whose public-facing agreeability and affinity are achieved via injurious expectation of in-house conformity.
Zachary Michael Jack is a professor of English at North Central College.