Departments look for new faces to head the class

When Annie Wooldridge talks about affirmative action in faculty hiring at GW, she knocks on wood.

“We do pretty well for ourselves,” she explained, rapping on her desk. “We have the policies down pat. Any change has to happen in that department, in that search committee, that office. The trick is to close the gap between intentions and results.”

As assistant vice president for administrative and information services, Wooldridge is a watchdog, charged with keeping an eye on the process the University goes through in hiring and tenuring its faculty members. GW casts a line for new faculty between 150 and 170 times a year. Wooldridge oversees the searches – it is her job to make sure the departments flesh out their teaching staffs with minorities and women.

But GW’s efforts have not been enough. A reaccreditation team that visited campus last month wagged a finger at GW for its comparatively low percentages of women and minority professors.

In the fall of 1995, 31.1 percent of the slots for full-time professors were filled by women. Thirteen percent of full-time faculty members were minorities – black, Asian or Hispanic. Of those, 60 percent were Asian, and no full-time professors were of American Indian descent.

In recent years, the tensions and questions that plague the affirmative action debate have caused headaches from playgrounds to the U.S. Supreme Court. But despite all the debate, wood-knocking and finger-crossing, no resolution has appeared on the horizon.

Higher learning

The need for affirmative action, professors and students argue, intensifies on college campuses. Homogenous teaching staffs, some students claim, cannot offer an education that properly reflects the rich layers of social reality.

“Diversity brings more perspectives,” School of Business and Public Management Professor Susan Tolchin said. “We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, and you absolutely must get the whole picture in the classroom.”

Within the University’s departments, a staff with various backgrounds can mean the chance for a broader range of course offerings.

“There are a good number of courses that are simply less credible if taught by a white male,” philosophy department Chairman William Griffith said. “It would be nice to have a black professor who could take up some subjects that would not otherwise be available to students.”

Freshman Maiga Dorval, a pre-law student from Miami, said she was startled upon arriving at GW by the lack of diversity among her professors.

“Every single one of my professors is a white male,” Dorval said. “And I’m fulfilling core requirements now, so I’m taking classes in a lot of different departments. It is really shocking – my friends and I talk about it a lot.”

Critics worry that students like Dorval will miss out on the benefit of diverse role models as they face a progression of white men. Others argue that courses should be judged by their content, not by their teacher.

“When I was in graduate school, there were just white males,” Tolchin recalled. “Men have always been terrific to me, but women absolutely must see the possibilities. They must see their own upward mobility.”

Others point out that students need to accustom themselves to dealing with all different types of people.

“African-American professors are not only good for the black students, but also for the whites,” said Clemmont Vontress, a former professor in the department of counseling and human and organizational studies. “Many of my students told me it was the first time they had ever had a black professor.”

Voice of dissent

Vontress retired last year after a 28-year career at GW. He was hired in 1969, the second African American in the campus’ history to be hired and tenured.

“That was a different period in American history. Everybody was optimistic after the civil rights movement,” Vontress said. “When we moved into the ’70s and on into the ’80s, the mood of the country started turning more conservative, and what has happened at GW is in part due to that shift.”

Vontress, who now works as a private psychologist and clinical director of Professional Network Group, is openly critical of GW’s faculty.

“I was tenured three years after I arrived at GW,” Vontress said. “This was fortunate, because many of my colleagues became very hostile toward me during my years there – there were cases of overt racism in meetings. It was awful, the way I was treated.”

Vontress said he remembers sitting on a search committee four or five years ago that recruited applicants for a full-time opening. The top three applicants were black, and the committee submitted the names to the dean for approval, Vontress said.

“The dean turned down all three, suggesting that their publications were plagiarized – all three,” Vontress said. “I found that very difficult to believe. And I was terribly disheartened by that experience.”

Vontress called GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg “proactive” in his efforts to improve the numbers of minorites in the faculty, but said that good administrative intentions alone cannot solve a complicated problem.

“It’s built into the system. We have academic freedom, which includes (old) faculty screening new faculty based on subjective criteria,” Vontress said. “That includes how comfortable they feel, and people tend to be more comfortable around people of their own ethnic or racial background.”

“Professor Vontress was very vocal on affirmative action issues, and active within the Faculty Senate,” Wooldridge said. “We need people like him to keep our feet over the fire.”

Preference

Vontress paints an ugly picture – one of cold shoulders and closed doors in the privacy of the departments. But others at the University offer a very different view – departments clamoring for minority and women applicants for open positions.

And the complaints of both sides are grave. Some professors are up in arms over perceived racism, and others decry what they consider preferential treatment.

“I do hear complaints among the junior faculty,” Griffith said. “When I’m interviewing very recent Ph.D.s who have not yet found a full-time job, it’s not unusual to hear them say that they were on the short list (one of the finalists) for a position, but that it went to a woman instead. And the assumption is that the nod went to the woman because she was a woman.”

Search committees may find themselves vying for applicants, and this can mean making steeper offers to avoid losing the chance to hire the professor.

“In a situation where there are few, we have to pay a higher price,” Wooldridge said. “That’s a reality; that’s supply and demand.”

Sometimes a department stumbles upon a particularly bright minority candidate who does not fit the existing job opening. Departments may then reshuffle, creating a new job for the applicant – one they had not originally intended to fill. These “targets of opportunity” are viewed differently by those on opposite sides of the issue – either as classic examples of inequity or the best way to boost numbers and enrich the staff.

“The department of academic affairs has let it be known this year that if you find a minority who isn’t what you’re looking for but seems good, we’ll try to make a place for them,” Griffith said. “They’re that desperate to try and find somebody.”

“You never get away from preferences,” Wooldridge said. “In a sense, you always have to choose somebody.”

Wooldridge insisted that targets of opportunity are used to reel in not just minority and women professors, but also scholars who work in unusual disciplines. She said the number of people hired this way in a given year can be counted on one hand.

“I trust the faculty to speak up and out about what they find objectionable,” Wooldridge added. “I run into faculty that question the way the University does things on both sides. I listen and we discuss it, but that doesn’t guarantee a meeting of the minds.”

Shallow pool

Most faculty agree that the troubles that have choked the number of minority professors hired by GW are essentially different than the forces that keep
percentages of women low. The issues involved in ensuring equal representation change from group to group, and from department to department.

“When it comes to minorities, the single major problem is that there are so few blacks who are in the market equipped with a Ph.D. and looking for a teaching job,” Griffith said. “Although there are a lot of able blacks out there, they don’t see their best chances in academia.”

Griffith said that since he joined GW in the mid-1960s, the philosophy department has only had one black applicant. Griffith recalled interviewing the man for a full-time position in the ’80s.

“We gave him an offer, which he refused,” Griffith said. “The competition for these people is just so fierce. They get a lot of offers.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman acknowledged that the pool for some departments is almost void of qualified minority applicants.

“My own field is physics, and if you ask how many black physicists there are, the answer is not many,” Lehman said. “It’s not really a natural thing for some groups to go into, particularly women. And that’s partly cultural.

Bringing up baby

If there is still a shortage of minority Ph.D.s ripe for recruitment, Griffith said the shortage of women is a problem of retention.

“It can still be hard for women to balance their demands,” he said. “They get married somewhere along the line, and feel that if they’re going to have children that will create a conflict with the tenure clock.”

In response, GW’s Faculty Senate recently approved a change; professors now will be able to delay tenure clock for health leaves – including maternity leaves.

“With women, it’s more of a problem of getting through the probationary period,” Griffith explained.

Tolchin, on the other hand, said that women who balance their roles properly should be able to have full teaching careers and home lives.

“I have two children and have written six books and dozens and dozens of articles,” she said. “It’s possible – but my husband has also been terrific, doing a lot of the child rearing my own father wasn’t expected to do.”

Resolution

For equality to be reached among GW’s faculty, improvements are essential at every level, Wooldridge said.

“I’m part of the problem, of course I am,” she said. “There are things I could be doing better, things the vice president can be doing better, definitely things the departments can be doing better. They are the gatekeepers of the university.”

Minority and female students should be encouraged from their undergraduate days to pursue doctoral degrees in their fields, the professors said.

Solid mentoring programs should help guide professors through the years between hire and tenure, the senate said.

Everybody needs a pinch of patience, and both sides of the argument need to scrutinize the methods used in hiring, Wooldridge said.

“The track needs straightening, maybe, but we still need the train,” Wooldridge said. “You get beyond it person by person, brick by brick. It’s a daunting task.”

Wooldridge has a daughter of her own.

“You can’t race alone,” Wooldridge said. “I teach my children to be sponges, to soak up whatever anybody has to offer. It’s not as simple as a black role model for a black daughter. It’s somebody comfortable with differences – that’s what you need.”

The window in Wooldridge’s office faces a stark brick wall. She sits with her back to it, and over her desk hangs a painting. In the picture, front porch greens and whites melt into rioting May sunlight.

The painting may not be real, but it keeps her from looking behind.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.