Last November, student activists at Pomona College, a selective liberal arts school in Southern California, demanded a change in the way that professors are evaluated. Alleging “unsafe academic environments,” they wanted future candidates for promotion or tenure to be judged in part on “a faculty member’s support of a diverse student body.” College President David Oxtoby dubbed it “an idea with merit.” And a semester later, faculty were set to formally vote on the matter.

The language before them: Should tenure candidates be judged in part on whether their teaching is “attentive to diversity in the student body” and whether they have fostered “an inclusive classroom where all students are encouraged to participate”?

The faculty overwhelmingly voted yes.

“The college is now asking you to think about who your students are,” Eric A. Hurley, an associate professor of psychology and Africana studies, told Inside Higher Ed. “For the people who already do this as a perceived responsibility anyway, this officially acknowledges that as contributing to your promotion.”

Ashley Thorne, executive director of a higher-education advocacy group, retorted that the change at Pomona “may subvert faculty members' academic freedom to teach a subject according to their best judgment and field of expertise,” adding that “a college should be encouraging its faculty to prioritize books and ideas that are intrinsically good, true and important, regardless of whether they count as 'underrepresented.' Students deserve an education that is guided by intellectual worth,” she told Inside Higher Ed, “not topics that merely fulfill a diversity requirement."

Both of them may be overstating the change.

It may be that, contra Hurley and Thorne, the new language will have no appreciable effect on academic governance at Pomona, that faculty members will cast votes for or against tenure based on their own judgment about whether it is deserved, regardless of new criteria added to the relevant part of faculty handbooks.

Still, the change is worthy of closer examination, because a great many students at the college chose this cause, for better or worse, as a focus of their social-justice activism.

Prior to the vote, roughly 400 Pomona students had signed a petition urging the change—this on a campus where there are only about 1,600 students total. They declared:

We are extremely encouraged and hopeful to hear that you are considering the incorporation of the ability of professors to foster "inclusive classrooms that support diversity and equity outcomes" into your criteria for promotion and tenure.

At the same time, an opponent of the change emailed me, knowing that I’m an alumnus, to solicit my opinion, writing, “I can tell right away that this will cause a freeze on intellectual curiosity and make it more difficult for young professors to do good work. The wording is far too vague, and it will probably be used ad hoc by aggrieved students as a way to depose professors. And this is coming from a student of color...”

He urged me to publicly oppose the proposal.

I needed more information before taking any side. On the one hand, Pomona is a residential teaching college with small classes where professors are deliberately chosen for their ability to excel in the classroom. As an undergraduate, I benefited tremendously from faculty members who were inclusive toward me despite not sharing my politics. Professors Brown, (Paul) Hurley, Creighton, Bok, Menefee-Libey, (Valerie) Thomas, and others ran intellectually generous classrooms and office hours where I could thrive even as (unbeknownst to them) my campus journalism drew a few threats from fellow students and ideological hostility from one administrator and a few faculty members. I know the value of inclusivity and the cost of its absence; I want my alma mater to strive for racial, religious, socio-economic, and intellectual diversity; and I believe that every undergraduate,  regardless of identity, should be treated with respect and encouraged to participate in classes.

What’s more, everything I know about Pomona leads me to believe that tenure would already be denied to a professor known to single out members of a particular group for abusive treatment, and I can see why faculty members might have found it tempting to vote for the new language as a symbolic show of support for already-entrenched campus values.

On the other hand, the whole thing is rather vague. What were students who alleged “unsafe classroom environments” taking about? What exactly does it mean to be “attentive to diversity in the student body”? Beyond being a place where all students are encouraged to participate, what creates or spoils “an inclusive classroom”? What consequences, intended or not, might this new language have?

Since students were the impetus for the change I sought out their views.

Pulling names from the online petition urging the new language, I emailed a couple hundred Pomona College students just prior to the vote. I invited them to explain their understanding of the new standards. If they passed, how could professors meet them? How might faculty run afoul of the new criteria? What specific "diversity and equity outcomes" should be looked at when professors are being judged for tenure? How did they understand “inclusiveness” and “diversity”? Did that mean racial and gender diversity? Or did it also mean socio-economic diversity? Religious diversity? Diversity in country of origin or ideology or political party?

Three impressive students replied prior to the faculty vote.

All three were thoughtful, eloquent proponents of the language that would soon win approval. Yet all three had different understandings of what the language meant.

* * *

Christina Tong, Pomona’s incoming student body president, wrote that professors could meet the diversity and inclusion standards by “using inclusive examples and language (e.g. asking for and using students’ preferred gender pronouns, using problem set questions that include non-normative identities) or by acknowledging power dynamics and the histories of marginalized communities.”

“In an introductory computer science classroom,” she wrote, “this could look like prefacing the semester with an awareness of the rich history of women’s contributions to computer science, compared to the current state of unequal gender representation in the field. In media studies, this could look like exploring how race is portrayed in television advertisements. Professors can also promote inclusivity by serving as faculty mentors for cohort programs… that support underrepresented students.”

How might professors run afoul of the new criteria?

“Some examples would include a professor expecting all students to be able to afford attending a field trip (or even to forego a work-study job to attend),” she explained, “referring to students using incorrect gender pronouns, refusing to give accommodations to a student with documented disabilities, or making explicitly discriminatory (e.g. racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, etc.) remarks.”

What "diversity and equity outcomes" should be used to evaluate professors? “We’re looking for evidence that students of all backgrounds and identities are succeeding in the classroom,” Tong explained. “For example, a professor who is able to bring down the drop-out rates of underrepresented communities (perhaps in a specific course or field) has reached a desirable outcome.”

How are inclusiveness and diversity defined?

“I understand inclusivity and diversity to include all ranges of human diversity,” she declared. “Students of all backgrounds and beliefs should be supported in Pomona College classrooms—no one should feel threatened because of their identities.”

* * *

Isaac D. Tucker-Rasbury is the student manager for the Office of Black Student Affairs Mentorship Program. How, in his view, could professors meet the new standards?

They could do the following, he wrote:

  • Diversify course reading lists to include scholars of color and women.
  • Situate ideas that have created ripples in society historically (don't teach a genetics course without talking about it's forefather eugenics)
  • Add more frequent writings of shorter length that require students to summarize the idea and situate it in the scheme of the course. This suggestion forces students to understand the material before commenting, often times, on the quality of the idea.

How might a professor run afoul of the new standards?

  • Teaching an economics course on poverty using only white scholars.
  • Teaching courses in ethnic studies using secondary sources by white scholars, particularly because their are black and POC scholars contributing to that discussion.
  • Allowing white, rich, male identified students, in particular, derail class discussions to explain to them ideas that they should have researched.
  • Forcing students to take responsibility for teaching one another when the professor knows that something said was inappropriate.

What outcomes should be considered? He suggested these standards:

  • Diversify curriculums with non-male, non-white, non-US scholars.
  • Mandate a certain amount of history in the sciences and humanities.
  • Require students to submit a small number of assignments that force them to demonstrate their understanding of the idea before analyzing it or situating it within its context.

How does he understand diversity?

“I personally understand diversity to be relative to the field,” he explained. “In economics, non-white, non-male, and non-US scholars constitute diversity, for me. In history, lets say of Latin America in a particular time period, socio-economic diversity may be more important. It is relative to the field. Diversity, in short, means including the non-dominant group that is typically represented in the discipline.”

I followed up with a question: “So in a field like biology, where the vast majority of scholars believe in evolution, and a small, marginalized group of academics, almost all of them from religious groups, believe in intelligent design; or on a subject like climate change, where skeptics are the non-dominant group; or in religious studies, where there are non-dominant strains that believe in an orthodox interpretation of the Torah or the Koran, how would your non-dominant standard apply?”

He responded that an article or two could be assigned “from both sides,” a professor’s analysis could be given afterward, and then students could complete a written analysis that incorporated course material, the professor’s lecture, and their own ideas.

“I'm fond of refining my own point of view by understanding and then analyzing other lines of rationale. It tends to prepare me for future conversations,” he wrote. “This, of course, can bring up potentially problematic topics. In an Africana Studies class, the opinion might be ‘people of african descent are inherently inferior.’ That can be analyzed, historically situated (in a number of periods), and argued over (from a number of academic disciplines). No matter what they write, students have to grapple with the course material and substantiate their argument.”

* * *

A third student would allow me to quote him only if given anonymity. “I'm straight, white, cisgender, upper-middle class, and male, so I don't think I'm really in a position to have the type of negative classroom experiences this motion seeks to address,” he began. “I've heard stories from friends that make me support this, but they're not mine to share.”

How might professors meet the new standard? “One thing that an inclusive classroom does is counteract imposter syndrome,” he wrote. “Professors should encourage quiet students to talk in class and give them preference when calling on students. Professors should encourage students to come to them for help in office hours and generally be supportive when students come in. And generally, professors should be receptive to (or even seek) student feedback about how they could make their classroom more inclusive.”

He continued:

To reduce bias, my professors in writing-intensive classes have graded papers before seeing students' names on them (using student ID numbers to identify them) and tried to make explicit the criteria they look for in their papers. The language from the faculty motion that was included in the petition (I haven't seen the motion) was pretty vague and I'm not sure it really constitutes a "standard" as is. I've given my two cents but other people have different ideas of what inclusive classrooms look like. In order to make it a clear standard (and to actually improve teaching), I'd hope the faculty promulgates examples of the practices that they're looking for that aren't too onerous or micromanaging. Inclusivity is something Pomona values, and I think there's a way to make it count that still leaves wide room for professors' teaching styles.

How might professors run afoul of the new standard?

“Saying things that are blatantly rude or disrespectful to students based on their background, though I can't imagine any Pomona professor doing that,” he wrote. “Basing class discussions totally off of things (e.g. assumed cultural capital) that are off the syllabus; being dismissive when students come with a concern around inclusion.”

How does he understand diversity?

“I understand the definition of diversity here to encompass race, religion, gender/sexuality, and socio-economic status,” he wrote. “Ideological and political, while things I also value, are not covered here based on my understanding.”

* * *

The divergences in those responses support the judgement that the language is “far too vague.” Pomona’s faculty met a demand of student activists and signalled a belief in classroom instruction that values diversity and inclusiveness. But there’s no shared understanding at Pomona of what it means for teaching to be “attentive to diversity in the student body” or for what makes an “inclusive classroom,” even among students who actively urged that these changes be made.

Tong defines diversity in a way that includes ideology and political party; the anonymous respondent excludes it; Tucker-Rasbury believes diversity refers to viewpoints in an academic field that are underrepresented, even if the viewpoint is that “people of African descent are inherently inferior;” many other undergraduates would regard a racist viewpoint like that as antithetical to an inclusive classroom environment.  

The anonymous student believes that professors are charged with encouraging reluctant students to talk; Tucker-Rasbury believes professors should prevent students—especially white, male, rich students—from “derailing” class discussions by asking the professor to explain “ideas that they should have researched.” How would you like to be a tenure-seeking professor trying to manifest both of their notions of what an inclusive classroom is like?

For Tucker-Rasbury, the new standard is mostly about the identities of scholars that professors include in the substance of their classes; Tong doesn’t mention the race or class of scholars—she’s more concerned that professors advance a diversity mission with course content, like highlighting contributions of women to computer science; and the anonymous student focuses not on the content of a given class, but on the way that the diverse students who are taking it are treated by their professor.

These visions aren’t merely very different from and partly in tension with one another—they’re also all defensible interpretations of the language that the faculty passed. Yet hugely relevant questions, like whether the new tenure criteria is at odds with academic freedom, turn in large part on which interpretation prevails.

I wonder what Pomona College’s faculty would conclude if they put more discrete matters raised by these students to a vote. Would they affirm or reject the notion that “teaching an economics course on poverty using only white scholars” is a reason to deny tenure? How about the idea that it should count against a professor if he or she is known to have “referred to students using incorrect gender pronouns”? Or that professors should be judged in part on whether their problem sets feature people with normative or non-normative identities, however those are defined?

The 400-plus Pomona students who signed a petition endorsing the recent changes presumably regard the faculty vote they sought as a victory for the values of diversity and inclusivity. Despite valuing both things, I think I would have voted against the change if I sat on Pomona’s faculty. I’d have done so reluctantly: I know many of today’s students would’ve misinterpreted my vote as a rejection of inclusion, angering them and putting myself at real risk of protests.

But I doubt the new language will do much good; it seems vulnerable to imprudent interpretations; and insofar as campus politics is itself a teaching tool, I want Pomona to be a place where students are taught to think rigorously, to debate precisely, and to fight for change effectively. Instead, I fear that these students were patronized by well-meaning faculty members who chose to symbolically nod at shared values at the expense of rigor, debate, and any chance of meaningful change.

I fear that the faculty, many of whom don’t see facilitating robust campus discourse as part of their job, has signalled to students that there’s no need to define one’s terms, eliding the fact that concepts like “diversity” and “inclusion” are contested.

I fear that the vagueness of the newly adopted language functionally helps the campus community to evade thorny judgments about conflicting values, or even to deny the existence of those conflicts, rather than helping students to flesh out difficult tradeoffs. And I fear that by playing the part of “allies,” the faculty has failed as educators, leaving students with the false impression that the ends they desire are advanced by tweaks to bureaucratic language when, in fact, changes like this are as likely to give false impressions of progress that defuse the energy of activists while preserving the status quo.

Finally, if these new guidelines ever do cause a tenure decision to come down differently in the future, I have no idea what the affected academic will have done to lose out.

Will it be an English professor who is famously disinclined to call on women? An economics professor with too few scholars of color on his syllabus? A sociologist who keeps mangling the preferred gender pronouns of her students? An Africana studies professor who perennially declines to let white men participate in a class discussion on systemic oppression? A history professor who declines to include the non-dominant perspective that Israel perpetrated 9/11 in her course? A calculus professor who does not assign any material about the contributions of women to math? A media studies professor who tells students that Republicans are selfish? A gender & women's studies professor who permits or does not permit a Muslim immigrant student to defend or excoriate the practice of female genital mutilation? A biology professor who effectively fails a scholarship student for not having a smart phone?

How it plays going forward, if the new criteria changes anything at all, is anyone’s guess.