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The Vanishing Race

The Vanishing Race

For some years educational institutions have been experiencing a fairly steady increase in the percentage of students who choose not to declare race. We had thought this trend might be modified by new census categories that allow multiple race identifications, but it has not.

Now the trend is affecting faculty, bigtime. This year about 200 of our roughly 1,400 full-time faculty are not reporting race (which means, among other things, that some who used to report have probably changed their minds). Opportunities to report two or more races are not widely pursued (grad assistants show slightly greater willingness, but not much). Admin faculty are even more reticent than regular faculty. Staff, however, are much readier to report—only 4% hold back.

I mention all this mainly because it’s so interesting, as a change in culture and possibly a political comment as well (though of what sort is hard to fathom). Conceivably it’s a “good thing,” in suggesting less racialized thinking, but it may also be a highly, if racial, quiet protest against diversity programs—interpretation is challenging.

But it also does complicate the lives of us foolish few who try to run universities. We really do want to improve our faculty diversity, and we know that we face steep challenges in the process. Our governing board, students and others recurrently ask why we’re not doing better than we are, and it must be admitted that progress in recent years, though measurable, has been quite slow.

The obvious fact is that our efforts to monitor results and assess our deficiencies will be increasingly complicated by lack of information, with 14% non-reports and rising. We can speculate about the racial composition of the non-reports—my own personal guess is that they’re mostly Caucasian but, for one reason or another, just don’t like the reporting notion—but the fact is that we’re by definition unsure. (It would be nice to assume disproportionate minority affiliation, but this would be unrealistically comforting.)

So we discuss whether there is anything we can or should do about the current trend. It’s surely a personal right not to disclose, and pressing harder might simply annoy those affected. It does make this already demanding aspect of our job more difficult— but I’ve never assumed that faculty place high value on easing administrative tasks. Possibly a fuller realization of the impediment the trend poses to the goal of diversity gains might change a few minds, which is one reason to venture this blog.

But mostly I report the interesting change in attitude, which has intriguingly moved up in age brackets from its inception among students themselves. And this returns us to the contemporary-history challenge of figuring out what the shift means, and what longer term impacts it might have. Opinions welcome.