There is a serious problem in GW’s classrooms. If you are like me, a white man, you probably won’t notice what this problem is. But if you pay more attention when peering into classrooms, you’ll likely see a straight cisgender white male at the head of the room.
Despite the University’s hiring statement declaring that they are “committed to recruiting, interviewing and hiring faculty, staff and senior administrators drawn from varying backgrounds and identities throughout all departments and schools,” the numbers tell a different story.
As of fall 2012, the last time the University’s public statistics on faculty diversity were updated, just under six in 10 faculty members were male and more than 75 percent were white, while only 5.6 percent were black and 3.3 percent were Hispanic. College’s with particularly egregious diversity records include the School of Engineering and Applied Science, where only 17 percent of the faculty were female and in the Elliott School of International Affairs there was only one hispanic professor and no black professors. Notably, the University didn’t publish any information on faculty members who are LGBTQ or women of color. Although the University did hire a vice provost for diversity and inclusion in 2011 in an attempt to increase faculty diversity, the number of minority professors has barely changed since then.
Even to someone such as myself, there have been several instances at GW in which I have noticed how the identity of my professor impacted the course, both in what was taught and how it was taught. In my African politics course, which was taught by a straight white man, the assigned books were almost exclusively written by white men from Western Countries. This isn’t to say that white male scholars have nothing important or notable to say about a subject, but given that this was a course about African politics, it may have been useful to have read works written from the viewpoints of Africans. Additionally, we never touched on important and timely issues that affect minority groups – like female genital cutting in Guinea or the persecution of LGBTQ people in Uganda.
It is important that professors from various backgrounds constitute a greater percentage of GW’s faculty. A more diverse faculty would allow for both a greater and wider understanding of various topics. Given this, GW should hire as many faculty members from diverse backgrounds as possible, because they add value to courses and make minority students feel welcome in classes.
Studies have shown that the quality of the education students receive is significantly depreciated by a lack of diverse faculty. After all, a lack of diversity leads to a significantly limited diversity of thought because there is little variation in understanding and experiences. By virtue of professors being white or straight or male or belonging any combination of privileged groups, they have had different life experiences that impact their understanding of certain issues and topics. These different viewpoints are not something that can be learned – they must be experienced.
The lack of minority professors at GW can perhaps be best seen in humanities classes, where this uniformity among faculty members can be particularly damaging. For the past two semesters, the English department offered courses titled “Intro to Black American Literature II” and “Morrison and Faulkner” – but both courses were taught by white professors. Given the relevance to the black experience and the understanding of black history to the subject, it is illogical for these classes to be taught by white professors. Having white professors teach these courses presents the same troubling problems that a straight, cisgender professor teaching a course on LGBTQ literature or a male professor teaching a class on Friedan and Beauvoir would.
I’ve taken two courses in which novels by Toni Morrison, a black female author, were part of our assigned readings. One course was taught by a white man and the other was taught by a black woman. Looking back, the simple fact that my professor for the latter course was not just black, but a woman of color, altered my perception of the readings and enhanced my understanding of the work. This is not to say that the white male teacher did a poor job, but by virtue of his identity, he didn’t have the same grasp of the novel.
The lack of diversity might also have an additional negative effect on minority students. Research has shown that the percent of female professors at a university has an outsized effect on the success of female undergraduate students. These studies show that the correlation between a diverse faculty and the success of students is especially pertinent to women of color – we do best as students when we see others like us succeed. Given the recent increases in the diversity of GW’s undergraduate student population, the need to increase the faculty’s diversity is particularly important.
Despite the steps that the University has taken to increase faculty diversity, little to no progress has been made. Given the consequences of this issue, it is essential that the new University president prioritizes increasing faculty diversity.
Stefan Sultan, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.