The Hidden Story of Princeton’s Diversity Working Group

by Toni Alimi

In 2004, President Shirley Tilghman appointed a Diversity Working Group led by former Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, and Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Terri Harris Reed.. According to its website, the group was “charged with identifying strategies and potential barriers that affect the recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion of a diverse workforce at Princeton.” As is always the case with hiring practices that deal specifically with issues of diversity, especially race, administrative diversity is a difficult subject because of the threat that more qualified applicants for a position may be overlooked in favor of less qualified applicants who are seen as ‘more diverse.’ Along with these problems, research into the practices of the Diversity Working Group reveals it to be lax in its duties and lacking any verifiable system of accountability.

From the Institutional Equity and Diversity Website alone, it is easy to see problems in relation to the DWG’s management. There is no information concerning the current members of the DWG, and it makes no mention of who has been or will be selected to replace Vice President Dickerson’s position on the Working Group. In addition, the Diversity Working Group has not published any sort of update on their report since 2005, a year after its inception. Since this supposed ‘yearly’ report is the only tangible measure of progress the DWG is making, it is nearly impossible to know for certain what exactly the DWG has done in the last five years. President Tilghman acceded to the problems with the Diversity Working Group, saying “we need to update that, I completely agree with you. If we have not been publishing regular updates I will speak to individuals necessary because we need to keep ourselves accountable.”

When pressed for an explanation as to why the Diversity Working Group had not been publishing regularly, and was not being kept accountable, the only explanation President Tilghman could give was the recession: “I think the answer is the recession. I can tell you that the recession consumed the administration in a very powerful way…we were forced to focus everything we were doing on the impact of the recession. Individuals who are members of the DWG have been working flat out.” Although she went on to say that there were administrative employees who were laid off during this time period, it is important to note that a day after President Tilghman spoke to the Tory, the Daily Princetonian published an article citing that her income had increased almost $100,000 at the trough of the recession. Her compensation climbed from $783,459 in the 2007-08 academic year to $881,151 in 2008-09, representing an overall pay raise of almost 12.5%. While there is no doubt that the recession took a serious toll on the University, it does not reflect favorably on the administration that, while important priorities like the Diversity Working Group were being displaced, high-level officials such as Tilghman were receiving substantial salary increases.

During an interview, President Tilghman insisted that there was no sort of affirmative action process going on. Her claim is that, to foster administrative diversity, the Diversity Working Group seeks to “[increase] the size of the pool. If people aren’t in the pool,” she added, “we can’t hire them. One of the things the group has done is thinking about how we can reach out, both locally and nationally.” According to a 2006 article published in ‘News at Princeton’ concerning the formation of the Diversity Working group, the extension of the hiring pool that Tilghman references is focused specifically on “people of color.”

President Tilghman has often insisted that there is nothing controversial to be said about the hiring processes of the University. While she acknowledged that there are many demographic groups that are underrepresented and disenfranchised, she said that the DWG has focused on race because according to preliminary studies carried out by the University, race was the demographic that had the largest disparity in administrative hiring practices. She was also quick to dispel claims that the majority of her recent hires in upper-level positions have been women as unfounded, saying, “that is not true.” She went on to say, ”if you are talking about the cabinet, which is the most senior level of the administration, you will see there is about a 50/50 ratio in hiring patterns. This is an urban myth that has been perpetuated.” This, of course, does not speak to high-level administrative positions that are not included in the cabinet. For instance, out of the University’s 34 degree-granting departments and programs, 30 currently have a female occupying the position of Department Manager, a significant disparity that seems unlikely to arise out of an appointment system based exclusively on merit. Despite the existence of such imbalances, Tilghman went on to state that the University, even in advancing diversity within the administration, would continue to “do what we always have done…hire the best individual.”

This claim, however, seems to be belied by the fact that in five years the Diversity Working Group has nothing to offer in terms of a tangible measure of the University’s progress in promoting administrative diversity. If the Diversity Working Group is a representation of the University’s hiring practices – in the words of President Tilghman, “[hiring] the best individual” for a certain position – it does not speak well of the administration’s hiring practices that the only tangible function of the Diversity Working Group has not been performed in over five years. On top of all of this, President Tilghman admitted that she did not know if there were data on the diversity of the administration more current than the data that caused the original founding of the Diversity Working Group. If such data is not available and in consistent use, there is virtually no way to tell whether the Group has served its purpose, making the Group immune to any possible disbandment and thus allowing it to continue to exist in perpetuity.

The nature of Princeton University mandates that the best possible candidates be hired to fill the most important positions. In theory, the Diversity Working Group is correct in its goal of expanding the size of the applicant pool to include highly qualified applicants who also bring cultural diversity to the table. In practice, however, the Diversity Working Group is highly flawed. Not only has it been extremely negligent in updating reports on its promotion of institutional diversity, it has not been held accountable to its duties by the rest of the administration. There is simply no way to know whether the Group has been successful in its attempts to increase the applicant pool, and it is impossible to verify President Tilghman’s claims that no affirmative action processes are at work.

In addition, President Tilghman’s explanation for this negligence is dubious. Oversight of the Diversity Working Group does not seem likely to prove particularly expensive or time-consuming, especially considering that the University has a plethora of working groups in motion at any given time, which seem to have no trouble churning out reports even amidst the economic downturn.  Furthermore, if the recession were the sole cause of the Diversity Working Group’s laxity, it should not have affected the publication of progress reports in 2006 and 2007. If the University is to pursue a track towards equality of opportunity in administrative hiring practices, it must be done with greater accountability and stricter management than has been allowed so far.

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