Race, “white privilege,” and student success

Tonight I moderated a Student Government-sponsored discussion of race and diversity on campus. Turnout was terrific–it’s always good to have more students than chairs. My job was fairly easy: Introduce the topic and its importance, describe how the evening would unfold, encourage a certain attitude toward participation, monitor four small group discussions, and then help each group share their findings with the others in a large group setting.

Rotating through four small group discussions, I mostly kept quiet. But I did have a chance to share with one group about a story I heard this morning on NPR’s Morning EditionResearchers at the University of Pennsylvania sent emails from fake students requesting some sort of mentoring, guidance, or advice to more than 6,500 professors at more than 250 colleges and universities. The names of the fake students varied… and the responses varied, too. They varied according to perceived race and gender:

VEDANTAM: Brad Anderson. Meredith Roberts. Lamar Washington. LaToya Brown. Juanita Martinez. Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen. Do you see something, David?

GREENE: It sounds like a diverse group. I mean these are names that come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

VEDANTAM: That’s exactly what the researchers were trying to establish. And all they were measuring was how often professors wrote back agreeing to meet with the students. And what they found was there were very large disparities. Women and minorities systematically less likely to get responses from the professors and also less likely to get positive responses from the professors. Now remember, these are top faculty at the top schools in the United States and the letters were all impeccably written.

Now it is in some ways cruel to fill inboxes with emails from fake students asking for relatively a significant investment of time and energy from faculty. Nevertheless, it is a clever research design. Sure, these were “cold call” emails from students the professors didn’t know, but they were all cold call emails from students the professors didn’t know. And they were all written in the same style by the same people. So it may be that some or many professors are not likely to respond positively to these inquiries, but if it has to do with the cold-calling, then that would apply to everyone. No one knows these any of these students. All of them are cold-calling because none of them really exist.

So finding significant differences indicating that faculty, even faculty of color, are more likely to respond positively to requests for guidance and advice from white and male students reveals in concrete ways what many of our students were struggling with tonight–the often nebulous concept of “white privilege.” It also calls into question how and to what extent hiring minority faculty actually helps minority students. As Milkman says in the interview:

There’s absolutely no benefit seen when women reach out to female faculty, nor do we see benefits from black students reaching out to black faculty or Hispanic students reaching out to Hispanic faculty.

It is important to note that hiring faculty of color and women is not primarily about helping students of color and female students to succeed. It is also important to note that this does not mean that there are no benefits to students of color when we hire faculty of color, or that there are no benefits to female students when we hire more women into faculty positions. Indeed, other research may show that, from a student perspective, guidance, advice, and mentoring by faculty is more successful than Milkman’s research suggests. But if Milkman’s findings prove out, then we may have to revise some expectations we have about how faculty hiring provides scaffolding for student success.

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