Liberal Education

Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward: Must This Be the Future of Diversity?

My title, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward,” expresses the “wicked problem” of diversity writ large as a concrete goal in higher education. At the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Network for Academic Renewal conference in November, as I listened to the exceptionally inspiring and on-target keynote address given by Dean Herb Childress of the Boston Architectural College, I was reminded of the concept of the “wicked problem,” a term coined in the late 1960s by social planners. As Dean Childress discussed the kinds of learning students need in order to address “wicked problems,” I thought, “That’s it! That’s why we have research today that repeats findings from twenty to thirty years ago on the experience of faculty of color in higher education! It’s not only that diversity presents protracted problems that will not be solved in our lifetimes or, as I frequently have said, that diversity work requires an ‘eager patience’; rather, diversity is a wicked problem!”

Consulting Wikipedia, as so many of our students do, we find from the entry for “wicked problem” that “wicked” does not connote “evil” in this instance, but refers to problems that resist resolution. “Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” Defining a wicked problem is itself a wicked problem. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem…. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.” Yet, “wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.” As I listened to Dean Childress, I thought, “How depressing! A wicked problem is worse than a vexed problem!”

The wicked problem of diversity

It could be said that we in the United States are still solving wicked problems spawned by the solving of the problem of being ruled by England without also outlawing slavery. That solution led to the wicked problem of maintaining the Union and to the Civil War, which led in turn to the problems of Jim Crow, the denial of women’s rights, jingoism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, and heterosexism—each of which has spawned other wicked problems. Today, we have an African American president in his second term of office. However, it could be argued that the push for state’s rights and the recent surreptitious gerrymandering by the legislature of my home state of Virginia are wicked problems spawned by the solving of the wicked problem of never having elected an African American—or a white woman, a woman of color, a gay man or lesbian, or another man of color—as president of the United States. The notion that diversity is a wicked problem that spawns other wicked problems is familiar to anyone who has been actively involved in advancing diversity in higher education over the years and has attempted to solve the problems this noble cause has spawned.

Faculty diversity, a wicked problem spawned by efforts to address the problem of minority access to higher education, has in its turn spawned several wicked problems for faculty of color. In her 2012 dissertation, Tamara Stevenson explored the “extent to which full-time male and female African-American faculty at public community colleges experience Racial Battle Fatigue because of racial microaggressions.” Stevenson defines “microaggression” as “the exchange and response to race-related mental, emotional, and physical tensions.” Microaggression, she explains, acts in concert with the “racialized stressors associated with their faculty role.” Stevenson notes that “African Americans remain disproportionately underrepresented in the faculty ranks at institutions of higher education in the United States” and observes that “the extant literature documents how ‘chilly’ campus climates and racially charged encounters can be harmful to African-American faculty. Moreover, along with the traditional responsibilities and demands of the faculty role, African-American faculty members contend with racism, discrimination, and an anti-Black sentiment in academia as a microcosm of society, likely resulting in race-related role strain” (Stevenson 2012, ii).

Stevenson’s study of full-time African American faculty, male and female, at two-year institutions is complemented by the personal narratives and qualitative studies presented in Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Gutiérrez y Muhs, et al. 2012), which detail the microaggressive, oblique, and directly racist, ethnocentric, discipline-based forms of prejudice and discrimination experienced by women of color in the academy. Fourteen years ago, similar forms of aggression were detailed in Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower? (Lim, Herrera-Sobek, and Padilla 2000), a collection of essays that argued variously for, as Sandra Gunning put it in her contribution, “programmatic attention to the recontextualization of department life that we all have to face in the wake of [hiring for diversity]” (172). In that same volume, I observed that

the environment of careerism and racist backlash and the specter of militias portend the academic shutdown of teaching and learning that explain our world and allow students time to think about how to live well with one another. We have no blueprints, no memoirs, no institutional stories to guide us now, for we all are in situations that we, as a nation, as a people, have never experienced. We have crossed borders, and we don’t know how to work with one another, how to speak with or listen to, really hear, one another honestly—and the color line persists (in the borderlands). Stereotypes, ostensibly denied and cast away have been reformulated to maintain the status quo. In addition to the lazy, laughing, and dangerous darky or the model minority Asian, we have a contrived master stereotype of the white liberal, a stereotype that many people of color are accused of employing when they attempt a critical assessment of the race problem that remains. (Butler 2000, 28)

But now, Presumed Incompetent provides the memoirs and the data that had been lacking. In the final chapter, Yolanda Flores Niemann extracts lessons from the narratives and offers recommendations for women of color and their allies and for administrators. These recommendations are organized according to several categories: general campus climate; faculty-student relations; social class, tokenism, and the search process; tenure and promotion; and network of allies and mentors. The recommendations are concrete and clearly explained. Together, these two books—Presumed Incompetent and Power, Race, and Gender in Academe—along with Daryl Smith’s Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education (2009) provide a blueprint and the tools needed to significantly weaken and, in some cases, dismantle the power of truly wicked problems at the departmental and institutional levels.

Every faculty member and administrator of color can attest to the expected, and sometimes exhilarating, components of her or his own academic journey: the first publication; tenure and promotion; the joy of guiding students as they learn, achieve, and grow; the pride and hope in graduate students; the opportunities to lead; the grants, the awards, the recognitions of the hard work of teaching, research, and service. And then there are the unheralded achievements, such as the pride taken in often vilified and certainly unrecognized advocacy and work for a program that created the space for the first African American student to become the student government president at a mostly white, elite institution. Then, too, there are the courses you cannot find the time to teach, the articles and books you do not have time to write, the committee you appointed that disappointed you, the class that just did not click.

These achievements, aspirations, struggles, and shortcomings are all part of the experience of being a professor or administrator. What should not be part of the experience, however, is the stress that results from or is exacerbated by the presumption of incompetence, the sense of not belonging, or the stereotypical exceptionalism and all that follows from it for a person of color as she or he engages with everyday departmental and institutional concerns and the politics of higher education.

In 2010 and 2011, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of the University of California–Los Angeles conducted the eighth in its series of triennial surveys of undergraduate teaching faculty. The resulting report provides valuable data on the top sources of stress for faculty members. The survey found, for example, that budget cuts are among the top sources of stress for all faculty members at public universities and four-year colleges. But the results also reveal significant differences in the levels of stress experienced by men and women. Women reported more stress than men on twenty-two of the twenty-five survey items. More women (66.3 percent) than men (56.8 percent) identified students as a source of stress, for example, and more women (65.3 percent) than men (52.8 percent) identified the review and promotion process as a source of stress. More women (58.4 percent) than men (43.8 percent) also identified change in work responsibilities as a source of stress (Hurtado et al. 2012, 4).

For female faculty of color, these already higher levels of stress are further compounded by the higher levels of stress experienced by faculty of color as compared to their white peers. Among those surveyed, 72.5 percent of black teachers and 69.2 percent of Latino/a teachers reported stress associated with personal finances, compared to 64.7 percent of white faculty. This mirrors the national norm for low-income populations. Subtle discrimination (e.g., prejudice, racism, sexism) was identified as a source of stress by 63.6 percent of black faculty, which was more than twenty percentage points higher than for any other racial or ethnic group. “The next most prominent group to report subtle discrimination as a source of stress is Latina/o faculty (42.6 percent) followed by more than one-third of American Indian, Asian, and multiracial/multiethnic faculty” (Hurtado et al. 2012, 5–6).

What does all this mean for faculty and administrators of color and for efforts to advance diversity within higher education? It would be redundant for me to list recommendations for institutions and individuals. Daryl Smith has already provided such a list, and the contributors to Presumed Incompetent have provided rich contextualization for it. And, of course, both build on work done over many years and on decades of shared experience. However, I do have one overarching recommendation and one philosophical suggestion.


Most of the data over the years have shown that the effects of the harsh realities of negative departmental and institutional experiences lessen when there exists a critical mass of faculty of color within an institution—and the personal experiences of many support these data. As faculty and administrators of color, whatever our rank or position, we can find ways to assist the process of networking, whether by meeting for coffee, planning dinners together, or establishing a formal organization. Diversity officers need to be particularly attuned not only to the student experience of diversity, which spawns its own wicked problems, but also to the faculty experience.

I would not have become the first black woman to be tenured at Smith College were it not for the support and mentoring I received from a few white male faculty members who knew the institutional minefields awaiting me and, just as important, the critical mass of black faculty at Bowdoin College, Brown University, the University of Rhode Island, Salem State College, and Wellesley College that was brought together by John Walter, who was then at Bowdoin (and who had the good sense to marry me). Together, we made sense of what was happening to us as first-generation black scholars on predominately white campuses. We identified the few senior black scholars in our fields who could comment on our work, and we neutralized the often confused but negatively effective black faculty who had become institutional icons and “sat by the door,” so to speak.

Networking can occur across racialized ethnic groups, but in many settings the institutional history makes this difficult. Diversity officers can help here by knowing the institutional history of each racialized ethnic group, identifying their allies, and taking into consideration the complexities within each group—complexities related to factors such as class, regional difference, and gender identity. In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson (2010) describes the fragmentation of African Americans into four more or less distinct groups: a small transcendent elite (the Colin Powells, Condelezza Rices, and Oprahs of the world), the mainstream middle-class majority, the newly emergent (recent black immigrants and those of mixed-race heritage), and the abandoned (those trapped by poverty and dysfunction). I disagree with Robinson in that I don’t believe this fragmentation is new or that it is particular to African Americans or that it means African Americans have had less in common since desegregation. His is basically an economic analysis. Asian Americans have long espoused the differences among those placed under that umbrella—class and cultural differences arising from different national origins.

However, I do think that recognition of such fragmentation within racialized groups speaks to the mirroring of class divisions and the difficulties of assimilation and racism in America at large. It also implies the replication of such fragmentation in higher education, along with thick overlays of discipline-centrism and racial, gender, and cultural divides within disciplines and fields. These divides can affect what is accepted as scholarship and what is not, and they are strongly felt by minority and female scholars whose work counters mainstream scholarship or when white faculty and administrators fail to distinguish between, say, being Mexican American and being a Chicano/a studies scholar.

Taken together, networking, engaging allies, and taking the initiative to address—as a group, when appropriate, and as individuals, when necessary—instances of prejudice or racism in scholarship, committee work, and the everyday institutional encounters all comprise the unasked-for job that solving the wicked problem of faculty diversity demands of faculty and administrators of color. Untenured faculty can provide support for one another and can connect with tenured faculty and administrators in order to learn the terrain or simply to get periodic boosts in confidence.

Engaged diversity, the first liberal art

When I began teaching in 1970, armed only with a master’s degree, I was among the first people of color to teach in predominantly white institutions. Over the years, I insisted on leading from within as much as possible—promoting institutional change through grant-funded projects, facilitating workshops, and creating positions for myself and others in order to bring about change. I continued in that environment, and within that reality, until I chose to move to Spelman College. Inspired by my own experiences and those of my colleagues, and consistent with the recommendation, made by Daryl Smith and others, that we treat diversity in higher education as we treat technology—that is, as something that must be all pervasive, something that is a top priority—I suggest that diversity is best understood as the first liberal art.

This suggestion is inspired by Robert Hagstrom’s book Investing, the Last Liberal Art and his discussion there of Charles Munger’s concept of “stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom” (2013, 2). Rooted in Benjamin Franklin’s concept of liberal education, this notion of “worldly wisdom” mirrors the AAC&U definition of liberal learning as a form of education that “empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement.” As for the need to engage diversity, the notion of “worldly wisdom” is also entirely compatible with the AAC&U claim that “by its nature … liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives” (AAC&U 1998).

According to Munger, worldly wisdom is constantly evolving, but is gained by connecting the latticework of models of knowledge within the context of the history of human affairs (broadly speaking economics, literature, history, physics, mathematics, the arts, and humanities) and then arraying one’s own experience on that latticework. This is not unlike the learning process we try to create for our students, as we encourage them to make connections among the different aspects of what they’re learning—in the disciplines, through interdisciplinary forms of engagement, from experiential learning activities, and as a result of other features of a contemporary undergraduate liberal education.

Arguing against the exclusion of breadth in college education, and asserting that understanding context is an art, Hagstrom expands Munger’s model of “worldly wisdom” and speaks of diversity in terms of bringing different experiences and a range of intellects to the table. The broad view informs in-depth decision making. Therefore, Hagstrom makes the case that investing is “the last liberal art” because it requires of the investor an understanding of context and the ability to connect knowledge; that is, it requires “worldly wisdom.”

I, on the other hand, propose that engaged diversity for worldly wisdom is the first liberal art, because engaged diversity is the wellspring of worldly wisdom. Such diversity has as its goal the understanding of context in order to solve problems, seize opportunities, and bring together knowledge and experience in the creation of new knowledge. Therefore, it is through a deliberate and engaged diversity that we understand context—globally, pluralistically, and intellectually. I define “engaged diversity” in the context of liberal education as the process of studying, analyzing, and exploring through scholarship and active engagement the varied experiences, practices, and cultures of people over time in order to extract the best lessons and traditions for the purposes of promoting and fostering a humane, civilized society. Engaged diversity is both compositional and intellectual, and it builds on the synergy among individuals and communities. It connotes embracing the creative tensions inherent in the complexity of human life, experience, and culture. Engaged diversity incorporates sameness, difference, contradiction, similarity, conflict, and agreement, as well as assimilation and pluralism.

I have suggested that diversity is a wicked problem that spawns other wicked problems. Engaged diversity is its own wicked problem, spawned by advancing diversity. And it, too, begets many other wicked problems, such as how to support economically the changing financial model that compositional diversity demands; how to meet the diverse pedagogical needs that result from diverse student demographics; how to structure and compensate interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship; how to achieve both compositional diversity and scholarly, intellectual diversity in an essentially white, Western-oriented, homogeneous intellectual environment that merely dabbles in engaged diversity but makes no substantive change.

Most important, engaged diversity presents the wicked problem of ensuring that all students in higher education—whether they enroll at liberal arts colleges, for-profit institutions, public research universities, or community colleges—have access to a liberal arts curriculum of engaged diversity. And to break this particular wicked problem down: How can we achieve and maintain compositional diversity across higher education, while also ensuring that all students are provided with an education that connects knowledge with the diversity of human experience?


I urge faculty and administrators of color, in particular, to come together around the qualitative and quantitative data that tell us that, unfortunately, the experiences of forty years ago still hold true for us today. I urge us to assess our positionalities on our own campuses and to decide, in concert with others, which pieces of the problem—and the possibility—each of us can tackle in order to advance engaged diversity as compositional, intellectual, philosophical, social, cultural—and as an imperative.

To paraphrase a key question asked by the African American author John A. Williams in his contribution to Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower?, why should a college or university hire a minority teacher, send her or him before a class to educate all our students, and otherwise treat him or her with contempt? We have moved from being “strangers in the tower” to being “presumed incompetent.” Two steps forward, one step backward? My generation has to continue moving forward as long as we can, in true baby boomer fashion. However, the torch has been passed to the generations that follow us. We all must continue to work together so that diversity—that is, engaged diversity—will no longer be a wicked problem, but a wicked possibility.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 1998. “Statement on Liberal Learning.” Washington, DC: AAC&U,

Butler, J. E. 2000. “Reflections on the Borderlands and the Color Line.” In Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower?, edited by S. G. Lim, M. Herrera-Sobek, and G. M. Padilla, 8–31. New York: Modern Language Association.

Childress, H. 2012. “One among Many: STEM-Work as a Partner in Civic and Professional Leadership.” Keynote address to the Network for Academic Renewal conference, “Next Generation STEM Learning: Investigate, Innovate, Inspire,” Kansas City, MO, November.

Gunning, S. 2000. “Now That They Have Us, What’s the Point? The Challenge of Hiring to Create Diversity.” In Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower?, edited by S. G. Lim, M. Herrera-Sobek, and G. M. Padilla, 171–82. New York: Modern Language Association.

Gutierrez y Muhs, G., Y. F. Niemann, C. G. Gonzalez, and A. P. Harris, eds. 2012. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Hagstrom, R. G. 2013. Investing: The Last Liberal Art. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hurtado, S., K. Eagan, J. H. Pryor, H. Whang, and S. Tran. 2012. Undergraduate Teaching Faculty: The 2010–2011 HERI Faculty Survey. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.

Lim, S. G., M. Herrera-Sobek, and G. M. Padilla, eds. 1999. Power, Race, and Gender in Academe: Strangers in the Tower? New York: Modern Language Association.

Smith, D. G. 2009. Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stevenson, T. N. 2012. “Racial Battle Fatigue, Role Strain, and African-American Faculty at Public Community Colleges.” PhD diss., Eastern Michigan University,

Wikipedia. 2013. “Wicked Problem.” Last modified July 1.

Johnnella E. Butler is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Spelman College. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the networking luncheon for faculty and administrators of color at the 2013 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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