Visit Modern Campus

The Trouble with Quality in the Academy

We need to redefine quality in less elitist terms and ground it in race and class awareness to offer more equal opportunities.
We need to redefine quality in less elitist terms and ground it in race and class awareness to offer more equal opportunities.

The word quality is often used by white people to dismiss people of color who are otherwise competitive for faculty positions as well as other opportunities. Even faculty who appear to be dedicated to access and equity in their research or speech will often point to quality or lack thereof as a reason for not hiring a person of color just as qualified as the white candidates.

Typically, questioning quality means that the faculty candidate does not have the right pedigree. They did not go to one of a few elite or highly selective institutions for their PhD, or they were not mentored by a prominent person in their field—someone known and highly respected by members of the search committee. These people are typically white men and occasionally white women but rarely people of color. What we forget is that attending an elite institution and being mentored by a prominent person is linked to social capital, and systemic racism guarantees less of it to people of color. Although having the so-called right pedigree may seem like a vestige of discrimination in the past, having the right pedigree—and gatekeeping against those who don’t—is a current issue.

Unfortunately, many search committees operate under the assumption and practice that their desired qualifications are neutral and nondiscriminatory. In fact, those desired qualifications can be discriminatory because they are an indication of an individual’s economic and social status, rather than a candidate’s potential. For example, mentors can be directly linked to the student’s socioeconomic background and access to social capital. Often, to get the most well known and respected professors to serve as an advisor, a student must come from a narrow set of undergraduate institutions. These institutions typically include Ivy League universities, elite small private liberal arts colleges and a few public flagship universities. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva gets to the root of the issue in his book Racism without Racists. He explains that institutions established in whiteness and led by whites reproduce whiteness across their culture, symbols, curricula and traditions while pretending to be race-neutral environments free of racialized decision-making and policies. They may claim to seek change, often recognizing how systemic racism curtails opportunity, but they will continue to resist it.

Lauren Rivera, author of the book Pedigree, warns us that elites may rig “criteria in their favor to preserve privileges for themselves and their children; they also may do so to keep out members of groups they consider threatening” (p. 9). She urges: “Ask anyone—regardless

of social class—what constitutes a good student, parent, or even driver, and typically the response will be a description of the type of student, parent, or driver they are” (p. 9). When all-or majority-white search committees define quality, the definition typically reflects who they are. Rivera also reminds us that since elites typically “set the rules of the game,” it is not surprising that however quality is “defined and measured in society’s gatekeeping institutions, elites seem to have more of it” (p. 9). Thus, when the pool of faculty candidates comes from a narrow group of PhD-granting institutions, those in places of privilege—mainly whites—continue to prevail in hiring processes.

So, what do we do?

One of the most important things we can do is have the courage to challenge colleagues when they bring up the word quality during discussions related to diversifying faculty. An immediate assumption that quality will suffer as a result of increased diversity is racist at its core, and we must be steadfast in making sure colleagues know that these types of conversations are unwelcome. Diversity increases rather than decreases quality. Search committees need to keep in mind how candidates rise to the top of a search pool. Is their ascension a result of their research and teaching qualifications or a result of who they know? Search committees need to recognize that CVs are not neutral data sources. They are a product of who candidates know, of their social capital. Likewise, search committees should measure the time involved in doing research against the type of research, not merely the outputs. We should consider that being able to educate and serve a diverse nation is vital to any faculty member in the twenty-first century. Part of being a high-quality candidate for a faculty position includes not only having content expertise but also being able to communicate that expertise to myriad students from different backgrounds. It means situating one’s content expertise in the larger context of one’s field.

When discussing quality, it is also important that search committees acknowledge that we have consistently moved the bar regarding issues of quality, making it harder for people of color to succeed. And as Lauren Rivera reminds us, since elites and those with power usually determine the rules of the game, it is not shocking that however quality is defined, discussed and measured in institutions, elites have more of it and more access to it. Moreover, when they notice that others are gaining more access to opportunity, they will often change the rules of the game.

People of color will have more opportunities if we work to expand the definition of quality to be more inclusive and base this expansion on empirical data and not on intuition and connections. One of the most effective ways to expand the definition of quality is to push back against faculty members’ efforts to limit recruitment to a predetermined list of institutions from which candidates can hail. It’s important to discuss the results of this practice and the limits it puts on faculty diversity, given the access that most people of color have to these types of universities.

Across research universities, we should be asking, “What happens if we step away from this practice of only hiring from a small group of institutions? What do we gain? What do we lose? What new ideas will surface? How does the institutional environment change? What will be the impact of upsetting the status quo in this way? Will we achieve more equity by being more inclusive of various types of institutions? Having this conversation will lead to more inclusivity and a broader, although not less rigorous, definition of quality.

And, yes, there will be profound resistance to the idea of broadening the definition of quality, but if colleges and universities truly care about the diversity and equity that they discuss in statements, it is essential that proclamations and definitions of excellence have racial and ethnic diversity at their core.

Lastly, when our definitions of quality are narrow and based on who one knows, we limit our possibilities by excluding people who could possess some of the most novel and innovative ideas.

Marybeth Gasman is the author of Doing the Right Thing: How to Undo Systemic Racism in Faculty Hiring (Princeton University Press, 2022). This essay draws from the book. 

Author Perspective: