‘The Unbearable White of Medieval Studies’
by

I put my title in quotation marks because it does not originate with me (I wish it had!). It is a jibe coined by history professor Rachel Fulton Brown of the University of Chicago, who appears to delight in provoking her colleagues. She admires the wildly unfashionable ideals of chivalry — and she says so. In 2016 she posted on her blog a piece entitled, “Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men.” And she insists that Western Civilization is “the source of those things which even [my leftwing colleagues] profess to value (tolerance, separation of Church and State, women’s rights).”

So, I wonder if the “Unbearable Whiteness” phrase was aimed at Dorothy Kim of Vassar College, who describes herself as a medievalist, digital humanist, and feminist. Professor Kim has asserted, “Medieval Studies has become the historical belly of white nationalism and white supremacy.”

Kim says that when she looks around a room full of medievalists, the crowd is just too pale. Assuming that is a problem — and I do not concede that particular point — what does the good lady have in mind? The answer is always the same: recruit more scholars of color for the faculty. That should be easy, right?

I am old enough to remember the late 1960s when student protesters held sit-ins at the offices of college presidents, or occupied entire campus buildings, demanding (among other things), a more racially integrated faculty. Fifty years later, once again we are hearing expressions of outrage that the percentage of faculty members at colleges and universities does not come close to the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies itself as people of color.

According to the 2016 stats from the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.3 percent of the American population is black, 17.8 percent is Hispanic, 5.9 percent is Asian or Pacific Islander, and 76.9 percent is white. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of Fall 2013 (the most current data), 6 percent of faculty at colleges and universities were African American, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 10 percent were Asian or Pacific Islanders.

Why are there so few black, Hispanic, and Asian faculty members? Is race prejudice barring the post-secondary schoolhouse door against people of color? Tune in to campus protests on social media, listen to the chants of the mad-as-hell activists and you would think that is the case. But PBS NewsHour dug a little deeper. In a 2016 story entitled, “The shortage of non-white professors is a self-perpetuating problem,” Matt Krupnick reported that the National Science Foundation asked the same question, and after studying the case issued a report in 2014 that undermined the assumption that institutional racism is the nefarious cause of the low numbers for faculty of color at America’s institutions of higher education.

The NSF found that in 2014, 6.4 percent of recipients of doctoral degrees (in all fields) were black, and 6.5 percent were Hispanic. As Krupnick put it, “While many [colleges and universities] want to live up to their promises of hiring more non-white professors over the next few years, the small number of nonwhites in the doctoral pipeline will make that difficult.”

Now, the NSF numbers are a national average. Krupnick points out other factors in one place or another may skew the stats in the opposite direction. For example, in 2014, at Texas A&M International, just a few miles from the border with Mexico, 38 percent of newly hired faculty was Hispanic, while that same year at Florida A&M University, a historically black school, 70 percent of new hires were African American.

Krupnick also found that some colleges have initiated special programs to attract non-white candidates to their doctoral programs, especially their doctoral programs in the sciences. Among the more aggressive recruiters are Duke, the University of Maryland, and the University of California, Berkeley.

The gold standard for activists is not just more people of color in the faculty lounge, but that those instructors be tenured faculty. But here again an influential factor comes into play that is not based on racial bias. Since the economic collapse of 2008, colleges have trimmed, sometimes even slashed their budgets. One way to save money is to reduce the hiring of tenure-track faculty and hire much cheaper part-time or adjunct professors. And a lot of schools have been doing just that.

Why Professor Kim has taken aim at her own field of study mystifies me. Would she be alarmed if she wandered into a reception at the African American Studies department and found that most of the faculty were black? I have the same question regarding the faculties of the Latino and Asian departments.

Kermit the Frog once crooned, “It’s not easy being green.” It seems for some people on campus, it’s unbearable to be white.

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