Diversity at Undergraduate-Oriented Departments

In the 50-plus years of its existence, the philosophy department has offered only one tenure-track position to a woman, and zero positions to people of color.

So writes undergraduate Emily Beszhak, about the Department of Philosophy at Western Washington University, in a letter to the editor of the school paper. The occasion of the letter was a recent hire by the department of one of its own graduates, which continued the trend described above.

Ms. Beszhak, a senior philosophy major, said that she and other students have no objections to the professional qualifications of the person hired (Neal Tognazzini, currently at William & Mary), nor do they include him when they describe their “faculty’s irresponsibility.” Rather, they object to the fact that the hire was not used as an opportunity to add diversity to the department, which Beszhak says is rather homogenous not just in race and gender, but also in philosophical interests and religion. She adds: “Students consider the deficit of diversity among majors, minors and faculty to be to the detriment of underrepresented individuals and groups, the objectivity of our philosophical education and the quality of our academic and human experience.”

The letter, Beszhak reported in a conversation with me, was not well received by the university, and she was asked to meet with the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science, Dr. LeaAnn Martin, and philosophy department chair Ryan Wasserman. At the meeting, the dean, while sympathetic with Beszhak’s position, expressed “disappointment” that she had written the letter. Wasserman said that the department had taken “every measure” to make sure that the hiring process was not biased.

As a way of responding to the concerns of the students, Wasserman organized a forum this past Monday for students to ask the faculty questions about diversity in the department and the hiring process. Beszhak says that the meeting was fairly superficial and diplomatic, and seemed like a “political response as opposed to a discussion to spearhead change.” At the meeting, Beszhak says, Wasserman claimed that Western Washington’s philosophy department is “quite normal” in its lack of diversity. Of course, normalcy is not itself exculpatory, but perhaps more was said on that point.

In any event, is Wasserman right that his department is normal in this regard? Western Washington is one of nine undergraduate-only departments that is recommended by name in the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Obviously there are other very good undergraduate-only departments, but to keep things simple let’s look at just those nine, and, again for simplicty, just at gender. (Feel free to provide other relevant information in the comments.) 

Excluding visiting faculty, adjuncts, and emeriti, here are the number of women faculty in these departments:

Amherst College: 1 out of 6
Caltech: 1 out of 5
Claremont-McKenna: 2 out of 8, will be 3 out of 9 next year*
Dartmouth: 3 out of 10
Pomona: 3 out of 8
Reed College: 1 out of 6
University of Vermont 2 out of 10
Wellesley: 5 out of 8
Western Washington: 1 out of 6, will be 1 out of 7 next year

Of these departments, four have just one woman, and three have similar ratios (1:6-7) of women to total faculty.

There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of women in philosophy, yet a lot of this seems to have focused on departments with graduate programs. If Eddy Nahmias is correct about the role of introductory undergraduate philosophy courses in generating the gender disparity, then we should be discussing all types of undergraduate institutions.

At this point, Beszhak, who had considered graduate school in philosophy as a possible option for herself, is rather discouraged. “Given the present state of the discipline, I’m not sure I want to go into philosophy.”

Discussion welcome (though please refrain from commenting on the qualifications of particular philosophers for particular jobs).

*Claremont-McKenna numbers updated, thanks to the reminder from an anonymous commentator.

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