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Politics

Ivory tower needs to make a true commitment to diversity hiring

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- In May 2018, 26 female professors signed an open letter to the media asking that coverage of a celebrated Latino author's #MeToo scandal be treated with restraint and fairness. They did so not because they doubted the veracity of the allegations, but because his characterization as a sexual predator would add to the degrading and stigmatizing stereotypes of Hispanic men and women.

It was a controversial but important message that sparked discussion about how to react when one of the leading lights of a historically marginalized and underrepresented group gets in trouble and his or her fall threatens to undermine all the other members of the group.

Part of the open letter's power came from the stellar credentials of the signatories -- a long list of distinguished scholars of color with a professional and personal stake in ensuring fair treatment for all people of color, even those accused of sexual misconduct.

Whether you agree or disagree with this premise, it is a matter for contemplation. And the letter was an act of courage and intellectual leadership by scholars of color who often don't wield the same kind of power at their institutions as their white colleagues.

Among the co-signers was Lorgia García-Peña, an internationally renowned scholar and the Roy G. Clouse professor of romance languages at Harvard University.

García-Peña, who has been described by many students as "a monument on campus," was denied tenure even though she was awarded Harvard Professor of the Year in 2015, the Roslyn Abramson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and Harvard Professor of the Year by the Graduating Class of 2017.

 

García-Peña has other honors to her name, but the teaching awards are especially notable considering that college professors have been singled out for prioritizing research over the craft of teaching.

And the awards speak to the subtext that underlies far too many conversations about people of color in higher education -- that they waltz into positions that should go to more accomplished white candidates and then bring down the quality of the greater group's work.

By these measures, it seems like making García-Peña a tenured professor would be a slam-dunk, checking off the boxes for excellent teaching as well as diversifying the faculty. Given that only 1% of full-time professors at degree-granting postsecondary institutions are Latina, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, you'd think that Harvard would jump at the opportunity.

It didn't.

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