A couple of faculty members at the Elliott School of International Affairs sent me an email yesterday from their dean, former Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety, II that they found unsettling and unwise. The school has adopted a policy that all panels in the future at the school cannot be composed of a single gender and that “Non-adherence to this policy could result in cancellation of the event.” The policy raises serious questions of academic freedom and the subordination of intellectual content in favor of the diversity policies. No one has suggested that Dean Brigety is likely to impose mandatory quotas and disciplinary actions. He is an experienced diplomat at a nationally respected graduate school, though he has had controversial moments during this tenure as dean. However, there has been no real discussion of the implications of these policies and how they impact the academic mission of universities like George Washington.
The email below notes that there are other diversity concerns including race, sexual orientation “and beyond,” but the current policy would extend only to gender. However, that means that an academic panel may have to drop a male moderator or panelist who is viewed as more influential or knowledgeable simply because of his gender. Academic panels have long been driven by their intellectual content regardless of the sex or race or other characteristics of the participants.
I have seen an increasing application of de facto quota policies at other institutions. A few years ago, I was on a panel at the World Bank that had been long arranged and composed of international leaders in the field. World Bank officials however panicked at the event when they realized that the four of us were all white males. They solved “the problem” after some delay by randomly taking an African American woman from the audience and having her introduce everyone on the panel. The draftee had no knowledge of the backgrounds of the panel or much involvement in the subject matter of the event. However, it was viewed as essential if the panel was to go forward.
To the credit of Brigety, he is being open about a policy that is widely applied informally at schools. I have been reportedly told that panels were changed because there was a need to add a panelist due to their race or gender. In truth, I have generally found that the replacement was equally qualified as the person dropped. However, the eliminated panelist often is not told that they were removed because of their race or gender.
The concern of my colleagues at the Elliott school is not a desire to exclude people on the basis for gender or race or other criteria. Rather the message is clear that they are not to assemble panels based solely on the work and influence of the panelists. Indeed, under the policy, they are expected to bar a person based solely on his gender to achieve diversity goals. That could easily be viewed as a form of discrimination against someone who would otherwise be the most qualified participant.
In Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 525-526 (1980), the Supreme Court ruled that immutable characteristics “bear no relation to ability, disadvantage, [or] moral culpability.” In academia, intellectual content and contribution is the coin of the realm. We are judged by our scholarship and our work, not by our race or gender or other immutable characteristics. Indeed, minorities face such discrimination from those who could not look beyond their personal characteristics. Like all professions, we have fought prior discrimination and advocated for color and gender blind policies. Many academics came to this profession to enjoy an environment that celebrates the mind and where intellectual ability is the sole criteria for advancement and success.
Dean Brigety is not the first to demand that academic events be tailored to the race or gender of the participants rather than the quality of their work. As discussed recently, a new study has called for a concerted effort to cite academics of color and greater diversity to make from the hold of “white heteromasculism” on research. Geographers Carrie Mott (professor at Rutgers University) and Daniel Cockayne (professor at University of Waterloo in Ontario) has identified the reliance on research by white males as a “system of oppression” benefitting “white, male, able-bodied, economically privileged, heterosexual, and cisgendered.”
Professors are reluctant to publicly question policies like the one at the Elliott School because they do not want to be called insensitive or worst yet sexist. As a result, there has been little debate over such policies and discriminating on the basis of immutable characteristics becomes the more in the name of diversity. Many professors believe that intellectual contribution should be the sole basis for inviting speakers — a standard that rejects discrimination of any kind beyond the content of one’s work. The focus of this traditional approach has been identify and counter any decisions that discriminated against academics on the basis of other grounds. The clear message sent by deans like Brigety is that no only are events subject to being cancelled but that academics responsible for such “Non-adherence” could face repercussions.
There are important diversity objects underlying this policy that are worthy of discussion and debate. However, there is little real dialogue occurring on this difficult issue.
What do you think? If panels must now be constructed to guarantee gender diversity, why should not race or sexual orientation also be required?
Dear Faculty and Staff,
As we begin a new semester, please be aware of the following new policy for all Elliott School sponsored events:
Gender and Diversity Policy for Elliott School Events
Policy: Effective July 1st , 2017, for any panel, symposium, or multi-speaker event (3 or more
speakers) held at the Elliott School, there should be no single-gender discussion panels. If a panel consists of a single-gender, please ensure that the moderator is of a different gender.
Context: The George Washington University and the Elliott School recognize the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion within and beyond the university. To underscore the importance of this mission, we are actively looking for ways to encourage diversity throughout the school. We know that diversity spans a wide range of factors including race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, political beliefs, gender, and beyond— all of which contribute to a thriving intellectual community. In order to advance greater diversity at the
Elliott School, a new policy regarding gender at Elliott School sponsored events is outlined above.
Note: Non-adherence to this policy could result in cancellation of the event.
Thank you very much for your on-going efforts to make the Elliott School a welcoming place to work and study.
Reuben E. Brigety, II, Ph.D.
U.S. Ambassador (ret.)
Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University