"The Only Work I Can Get Here Involves Diversity Programs"

Margaret Matthews

Editor’s note: Two weeks ago, NAS broke the story about Virginia Tech’s imposition on faculty members of a new tenure and promotion requirement (see “Free to Agree”) that makes it mandatory that faculty members report their contributions to diversity.  Since then several important organizations, including FIRE and ACTA, have urged the administration to change course; the Chronicle of Higher Education has reported the story; the Virginia Tech student newspaper has taken a stand against the policy; our affiliate, the Virginia Association of Scholars, has protested the policy to the university president; and the university’s Board of Visitors has announced a “comprehensive review” of the tenure and promotion policy.

But our original article also touched an individual reader at some distance from the troubles at Virginia Tech. Margaret Matthews is a pseudonym for an assistant director of student affairs at a university in the South. Hers is the story of an administrator who longs to escape the racial labeling that characterizes her department.

It looks like Virginia Tech is pulling out all the stops to show faculty they mean business when it comes to diversity conformity. Policies like this don't leave room for diversity.  Although I'm not a faculty member, the VT article (section VII-C-5) hit pretty close to home. It’s the kind of fallout from diversity policies that I haven't heard or read much about.  I want to tell you about a conversation I had late last year with a senior administrator at my institution.

I met with the Vice President for Student Affairs (SA) and I asked about a transfer from Multicultural Affairs to another department, almost any other department so long as my every duty and every interaction with students didn't have to be centered on race. It was risky but I told her I had nothing to give to the job, and that I was tired of seeing students being labeled before we even talked to them.   

I'm also tired of how we ignore the obvious reason for "failed" identity dialogue programs; tired of directors encouraging grad students to send me emails asking me to recommend "a few students, preferably of color, to give campus tours" as though white students don't know the campus; tired of pretending there's nothing wrong with programming that excludes whites, while at the same time putting "all students are welcome" on the flyer; tired of the division and enclaves that everyone says don’t exist; tired of too many things to mention here and now, but you get the point. 

Very casually, the vice president said that a transfer would be difficult because my departure would leave two same gendered people of the same race in that office, and there would be some difficulty "finding another black woman to replace you."  Very nice. Just what I wanted to hear. If there was ever any doubt, it was now clear that just showing up at my interview seven years ago gave me an "advantage"; my experience and degree were secondary. She followed with "of course that wouldn't have anything to do with my decision." Sure.   

Then she asked if I'd be interested in working with students who are first in their family to go to college. She basically suggested the same job I have now; the offices just have different names. She forgot the purpose of my visit: TRANSFER, PLEASE. Perhaps she couldn't reconcile my looks with the difficulty I was having with campus diversity practices. There I was, just one person sitting there, but she was seeing a group. I don’t understand how Virginia Tech or any other institution fails to see the anger, resentment and the racial hostility promoted by diversity mandates, or the harm they do to individuals who reject the notion that skin color defines who they are. This is what that "advantage" has done for me.  I can't get out of this quagmire. An Ed.D conferred in June and my experience as a manager mean nothing.  The only work I can get here involves diversity programs.  

I do not associate my "work" with that of the Virginia Tech faculty, but it looks like they'll be joining me in terms of career stagnation if they don't toe the line. Obsession with diversity programs is essentially a way to level the vocational playing field between administrators and faculty, especially since student affairs “professionals” already proclaim to be on the same professional platform as faculty members. Diversity mandates will confirm their institutional significance, and then full speed ahead. 

Ms. Matthews agreed to answer some additional questions.

NAS: You are disenchanted with your current position in student affairs. How did you happen to go into this field in the first place? 

Ms. Matthews: I was in my 30's when I started taking courses at the community college where I worked. Back then, student affairs programming was just activity programming. Things were advertised and any student who wanted to be bothered with the programs just showed up. Programs were open to and for everyone.  No racial designators. I thought my current job would be the same kind of come-one-come-all programming, only with a larger student body. I was told "multicultural" (a new word for me at the time) students worked very well together, and the office of multicultural affairs’ budget allowed them to create “great quality programs for the campus community.” It took me a while to understand that this was not really true.

NAS: Would you have accepted the position had you known how the office really worked?

Ms. Matthews: Would I have accepted the job had they told me about the racialized programming, the silence, distrust and animosity? Probably. I probably would have accepted it if the people who hired me acknowledged the problem but said I might have a chance to rectify it. At the time, I did not know higher ed diversity jargon and I had no university experience, but I was chosen over 40 other applicants.

NAS: You are criticizing your university administration for making racial identity too great a factor in higher education. Clearly the administrator you spoke to views her actions as grounded on wholesome principles. Where do you think she has gone wrong?

Ms. Matthews: From where I sit now, I would've appreciated an open-ended "we have some real problems." I don't want my bread and butter to depend on all things racial. I'm disturbed by pitiful people who do you a favor by throwing you in the swamp, and expect you to be grateful. So, my convictions come from what I see at work and from what I'm expected to do, who I'm expected to be, and from what I'm not allowed to say.

NAS: What do you think the consequences will be of our making your statement public?

Ms. Matthews: I have a feeling that if this is made public, “Margaret” will have to endure name calling, arm chair psychological assessments about how she hates herself, etc.

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