Diversity, with a Capital “D”


A group of UCLA graduate students captured national attention recently by complaining about the unfair grading practices of Professor Emeritus Val Rust.  I am not surprised that Rust has “emeritus” in his title, because he is one of a dying breed: a faculty member who painstakingly comments and corrects his students’ papers. And therein lies the unfairness of it all. The aging academic, say the students–all pursuing advanced degrees in education–has launched a vicious, micro-aggressive campaign against “politically motivated” capitalization.

In preparing a paper for the professor’s review, one student consistently capitalized “indigenous” when using the word as an adjective to describe “people.” She was furious when Rust patiently corrected the capital to lower case. The argument goes something like this: “Indigenous” is the same as “Irish” or “Italian”; for example, “the Indigenous people who live in Indigenisia are famous for their Indigenous art.” Got it?

UCLA graduate students complain that Professor Rust's recommended texts are too difficult.

UCLA graduate students complain that Professor Rust’s recommended texts are too difficult.

Apparently, Professor Rust didn’t get it. He suffered the consequences of his ignorance when the Indigenous students of his dissertation prep course staged an Indigenous sit-in and read aloud a letter detailing the unjust treatment of their capital letters by the red pen of Professor Rust. The details are available at Inside Higher Ed.

To understand how truly reprehensible Rust’s behavior is, you have to know something of the context in which it is taking place, the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, a well-known hotbed of racial discord. The Indigenous sit-in comes in the wake  of the just-released Independent Investigative Report on Acts of Bias and Discrimination Involving Faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Independent Investigative Report (not to be confused with the as-yet-to-be-written Indigenous Investigative Report) came about because

high-profile incidents of racial and ethnic bias and/or discrimination have roiled the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in recent years. In 2012, the UCLA Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost
were approached by a group of concerned faculty about perceived racial bias, discrimination and intolerance at the university. In response to these concerns, Chancellor Gene Block authorized Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott L.Waugh to appoint an independent review team to conduct an assessment and present recommendations to address issues that the team discovered. Executive Vice Chancellor Waugh, in cooperation with faculty, formed the External Review Team to undertake this task.

For months, the review team, made up of lawyers, faculty, and expert consultants, scurried around campus, interviewing faculty and gathering stories of unparallelled abuse and racism. If you have the stomach, you can read them here:

  • Discriminatory remarks leveled at minority faculty members such as “I thought Asian women were supposed to be submissive.” (This took place sometime in the 2000s.)
  • Failure to make efforts to retain tenured faculty members of color who had received offers of employment from other universities. (This egregious example of blatant racism also took place in the previous decade; what it means is that when a faculty member went looking for another job, UCLA failed to pump up his or her salary to match the competing offer.  In order to avoid racism, discrimination, and intolerance, the faculty member should have been given a huge raise and other sweeteners. The question of salary equity among departmental peers never comes up.)
  • A female faculty member of color, told the Review Team that she threatened to sue the university after the department voted to deny her promotion to full professor. After receiving a settlement from the university, she retired because she had no further desire to remain in the department.

    The professor retired after receiving a settlement in lieu of promotion.

    The professor retired after receiving a settlement in lieu of promotion.

  • A faculty member…told the Review Team that he had been passed over for consideration for the department chair position despite his perceived seniority and leadership credentials. The faculty member stated that he believed that this had been due to his ethnicity. (NOTE: “Perceived credentials” and the faculty member “believed” his failing to be named department chair had been due to his ethnicity. Of course, perception here is all that matters–after all, what else could the perceived slight be be but racism?)

As you may have noticed by now, the “assessment” undertaken by the Review Committee had to reach back five or more years to come up with suitably horrific examples of racial bias as these instances illustrate. You might also have noticed that the crippling suffering of the faculty in these examples is such that the Review Committee required no further “assessment” of the perceived incidents beyond the whimpering of the grievously injured parties.

So perhaps you will share my skepticism regarding the two additional examples reported by the Review Team:

Other UCLA faculty members described egregious incidents of racism. The first involved a Latino faculty member in the health sciences. In 2008, soon after the professor was hired as a fully tenured faculty member at UCLA, a “senior faculty member” in the professor’s department, upon seeing him for the first time in the hallway, asked loudly in front of a group of students, “What is that fucking spic doing here?” Upset, the professor went to his assistant dean, who expressed sympathy but advised him that going to the dean of the school would only cause more trouble. The assistant dean promised that he would talk to the senior faculty member. The professor is not sure whether the assistant dean ever did so. The professor stated that he still feels threatened by the faculty member, who is still at UCLA, and that he believes that the man left a screwdriver in the Latino professor’s faculty mailbox in 2010.

I’ll not mince words: I do not believe this report. Assuming the “senior faculty member” was stupid enough to let loose with a stream of vulgarities, are we really to think that he is so ultra-stupid as to do it in front of an audience? Are we seriously to believe that not a single student, overhearing this tirade,  raised a ruckus? Or that the assistant dean did nothing? I have a good imagination, but I simply do not believe this happened. At all.

I have no trouble believing the second incident; sadly, it probably did happen exactly as reported to the review team:
The second incident involved an untenured professor at UCLA. Several years ago, she received an anonymous communication that criticized her work in vitriolic terms, attacked her for focusing on race-related issues, and contained racist statements regarding African-Americans. The professor told us that she contacted the UCLA Police Department but was told that there was nothing that could be done at that point in time. The professor informed her faculty colleagues of the incident, but knows of no official action taken by her department or the university, such as further investigation of the incident.

The professor did just what she should have done: turned the letter over to campus police and informed her colleagues of her receipt of it.Where I lose track of the story’s point is in figuring out what “official action” was supposed to have taken place. Should the cops have collected hand writing samples from everyone in the department? Compared the type in the letter to each computer (home and office) to which faculty, students, and staff had access? An anonymous letter is unpleasant to receive, scary even, but absent continuing harassment or obvious perpetrators, what public safety told the professor was true: there was nothing that could be done. The answer would have been exactly the same had the untenured professor been white, because there is no other answer to give.

The review team by now has thoroughly warmed to its task:

Several faculty members described incidents of which they knew in which UCLA department heads failed to match offers made by competing institutions to faculty members of color at UCLA. In both cases an informal resolution (i.e., an increase in salary or research funding to retain the professor) was effectuated, in one case by the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity, and in the other case by the Executive Vice Chancellor and Chancellor. However, the faculty member personally involved in one of these retention events was still upset about the incident, and in the other case a faculty member close to the situation described the solution as a temporary “workaround.”

In other words, UCLA bribes a faculty member to stay after he or she has received an attractive offer from another school. The bribe, while accepted, is nonetheless dismissed as a “‘workaround,'” and the faculty member is still pissed.

There are many reasons why a department might not choose to raise a faculty member’s salary in such a situation. It might not have the money.  It might not want to reward one faculty member while others–who have not looked around to jump ship–at the same rank and achievement receive nothing. It is also possible that the department hopes the faculty member will accept the other offer and leave. So what?

The review team concludes by recommending UCLA establish a one-stop office for aggrieved minority faculty. An office that will handle all complaints of racism, bias, discrimination, hurt feelings, workarounds. This office will augment the dozen or so offices that already exist to help minority faculty in their hours of need. But the one-stop shop will be different, because it will avoid making the faculty member choose from among the other offices. Figuring out which diversity office to visit can get awfully confusing, especially when apparently there is one on each floor of each building on campus.

I was troubled, though, by the lack of foresight in the review team’s recommendations.  The next generation of Indigenous faculty will be arriving soon, and director of diversity diction has yet to be appointed.

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