Diversity tensions at the top at Penn

Penn president Amy Gutmann, left, and professor Mary Frances Berry. Berry was among those who signed a letter titled "Guess Who's (Not) Coming to Dinner," part of a dispute over Gutmann's hiring practices.
Penn president Amy Gutmann, left, and professor Mary Frances Berry. Berry was among those who signed a letter titled "Guess Who's (Not) Coming to Dinner," part of a dispute over Gutmann's hiring practices.
Posted: February 04, 2013

It's an odd moment in American race relations. Recently, minority coaching and general manager hires in the NFL went a stunning 0 for 15, despite the league's efforts to make its coaching ranks and front offices as diverse as its faces on the field. Our first black president has thus far assembled a second-term cabinet of all white males. And, locally, African American professors at the University of Pennsylvania, in a letter to the school newspaper last week, criticized president Amy Gutmann - who has boldly stood for diversity in her speeches and scholarly writings - for yet another appointment of a white male dean. (In her nine-year tenure, Gutmann has never appointed a minority as dean of one of the university's 12 colleges.)

In the past, minority strides for equality were made against ideological foes who literally blocked access to university doorways. Now, minorities are feeling passed over despite the fact that the institutions in question share their goals. What's going on here? Are we in a moment that is essentially the last gasp of white male privilege? Or is this what actual color blindness looks like? "It's ridiculous to suggest that this is color blindness," says Camille Charles, chair of the department of Africana studies at Penn. "It's too soon for that."

Here's the Penn backstory. Under Gutmann, student diversity is up nearly 50 percent and minority faculty representation is up, as well. Gutmann's Diversity Action Plan calls for $100 million to be spent over five years to make the face of Penn look more like the face of America and Philly.

Both sides agree that diversity is an educational good. But at a tense dinner with the minority faculty last year, questions were raised about Gutmann's own hiring practices. When she said that she wouldn't just hire someone of color who is unqualified, those in attendance took offense: There were some academic heavyweights in the room, after all, many with administrative experience. Gutmann emphasized her record: "A show beats a tell," she said.

Wharton professor Ken Shropshire wasn't having it. "I remember thinking, in the jobs that you're directly responsible for hiring, you're zero for eight years," he says. "And this year makes nine."

Fast-forward to last month's Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice. That's when, in front of Penn grad John Legend, Gutmann informed Charles that she'd be announcing the new dean of the School of Arts and Sciences the next day - another white male. This news, coming on the heels of that charged dinner - and the fact that the announcement was to be made just before Martin Luther King's Birthday - had the senior faculty of the Africana studies department feeling disrespected.

Mary Frances Berry, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, sent out an e-mail: "Having been an adviser to presidents of the United States, the nation's chief educational official . . . and a professor at Penn, I am aware of many qualified people for academic administration posts. . . . I fear President Gutmann and the people she hires are tone deaf when it comes to employment diversity. She seems to think that diversity and inclusion means diluting credentials, which is precisely the way opponents describe it."

Berry was among those signing the letter to the Daily Pennsylvanian, which was titled "Guess Who's (Not) Coming to Dinner" because the signatories pledge to boycott Gutmann's annual dinner with minority faculty members. "If I have to stand in front of her house and turn faculty away, we're not going to that dinner," Charles says.

Shropshire points out that "diversity" and "inclusion" should go hand-in-hand. He and other professors suggest that, if there were more people of color around Gutmann - there is one African American vice president - maybe someone would have said, "Hey, let's not announce this on the Friday before the King holiday."

The inclusion part is the toughest. I know this firsthand. When I've been charged with hiring, firing, and managing people, I made diverse hires. But I still relied on a small circle of people who looked like me when road-testing top-down decisions. I knew my intentions were good; it never dawned on me to go outside my own comfortable echo chamber. Gutmann's critics suggest the same might apply to her. "In my interactions with her, President Gutmann believes herself to be consistent with that person who writes about the importance of diversity," Charles says.

On Thursday, Gutmann answered the letter in the DP, underscoring her commitment to diversity generally. But, in a later phone conversation with me, she was more forthcoming: "The 12 dean positions, we have not made any progress," she said. On her critics: "They and I share a commitment to diversity and we have more work to do. I need their help and I'm going to reach out to them. A large part of my professional career has been dedicated to promoting diversity. We're not there yet."

These are all incredibly smart people who actually agree on the big stuff; unlike yesteryear's racial conflagrations, this shouldn't be too hard to work out. Amy Gutmann is no racist and mild-mannered Ken Shropshire is no Rev. Al Sharpton. Here's what I suggest: Instead of the faculty boycotting this year's dinner with Gutmann, both sides ought to take a page from President Obama. When a friend of Obama's, Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, was arrested for trying to enter his own home, the president hosted the "Beer Summit" at the White House with Gates and James Crawley, the arresting officer.

How about Penn hold its own little beer summit, Philly-style? President Gutmann and her faculty critics cut out early one afternoon and head over to Marty Grims' White Dog Cafe - the site of some legendary race dialogues back in the day - to get their drink on and to talk. After all, if these brilliant scholars can't have an honest discussion about race, what hope is there for the rest of us?


Larry Platt's column appears regularly

in Currents. He can be reached at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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