I burst into laughter when I sat down at dinner last Monday and, for once, it wasn’t just because I’d caught sight of the table tents. Rather, I was enjoying the absurdity of the idea that Helen Keller had been appointed dean of Yale College in a move to demonstrate the University’s commitment to women and to the deaf-blind, as the News wrote in its annual joke issue. At the heart of this humor, of course, lay the fact that the University’s obsession with promoting diversity in its administrative structure has become a campus joke. And it’s a typical example of the ways in which affirmative action is most detrimental to the very groups that it is most supposed to support.
I’m not normally one to laugh at jokes about the disadvantaged. I’m too squeamish and too melancholic, often plagued by the thought that there really may be dead babies lying in dumpsters all over the world. Inspired by the family of the highly-strung Linda, heroine of “The Pursuit of Love,” my family would regularly tease me as an adolescent by taking a small match out a matchbox, leaving it on a table on its own, and chanting,
“A little, houseless match, it has no roof, no thatch,
It lies alone, it makes no moan, that little, houseless match.”
It’s still capable of leaving me with my hands over my ears to drown out the sounds, shaking my head and thinking, as child-Kate so often did, of the “all the real people in the world who are homeless.”
I’ve never laughed at a Helen Keller joke before in my life — and I’ve heard plenty. So even if I am reduced to tears of mirth, rather than tears of woe, I’ve clearly been more jaded by the idea of diversity in the administration that once seemed possible.
It’s not difficult to find the inspiration for this cynicism. Speaking to the News in late September, members of the search committee looking at the appointment of a new College dean gave six criteria on which to evaluate candidates. The first three were scholarship, student friendliness and managerial experience. So far, so good. But then came race, gender and academic discipline.
Now, as a feminist, I’m well aware that there are serious difficulties for women who want to be taken seriously in the academic world. And I don’t underestimate the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities either. I see, for example, that the presence of senior black administrators in the University sends a message of opportunity to black students and ensures that diverse experiences are represented in policymaking. I recognize, too, that academics from different disciplines may unconsciously prioritize those elements of academic life most necessary for their own fields.
But an overemphasis on diversity leaves all concerned with an unhealthy misconception that diversity has become the chief factor in this decision. In an editorial statement on Sept. 30, the News itself added to this obsession with diversity, complaining that “Yale College still lacks a top female administrator of color. We’re falling behind peer institutions.” Only four days before, an anonymous commenter on the News’ Web site complained about the possible appointment of Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway: “He’s being considered yet again for a post because he’s a token Black man at Yale.” Given Master Holloway’s campuswide reputation as an accomplished scholar and popular master, this sniping from the sidelines is self-evidently untrue. Yet it’s not hard to see that the two lines of thought are entirely symbiotic. The more the public discourse focuses on the need to appoint minority candidates, the less recognition those candidates are going to get on their own merits.
The Helen Keller joke came three days after I learned the final choice had settled on my own college’s master, Mary Miller. I still chortled merrily with my friends at the jokes, like this one, inspired by the University’s desire to appoint a woman — and yet, more than many, I am well aware that Master Miller fully deserves her appointment, regardless of gender. She has been a fantastic college master, sympathetic yet sharp, dedicated to academia yet sensitive to her students’ wider lives. Saybrook will miss her. And Yale College will benefit from her appointment.
Nonetheless, I’ve already heard friends of mine — none of whom have interacted with her — mutter that she must have received the job to “fill the gender quota.” None of these people are flaming misogynists. In fact, I’m fairly sure they would have been neutral had they not been subjected to the administration’s constant reminders of the preeminence of diversity concerns. At times it almost seems the University wants to create a paint-by-numbers senior administration that exactly reflects the ethnic and sexual make-up of the student body. “Do they have a quota of left-handers?” one of my friends asked.
The University’s vocal support for affirmative action in administrative promotion does a disservice to women, minorities and the institution.
Kate Maltby is a junior in Saybrook College.