Pam Tellew: Promoting Diversity

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Many years ago, Pam Tellew served on a committee to promote diversity. While much may have changed, she suspects that much has not.

Affirmative action has long faced criticism and when President Biden fulfilled his promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court that criticism was on display. Sitting U.S. Senators called it “offensive,” or “affirmative racial discrimination” and said that Ketanji Brown Jackson was the beneficiary of a quota.

I have a different perspective. Years ago, when I was one of a very few women in my graduate program at Berkeley, we women, who were only about 15% of the enrollees, asked the administration to allow us to help them diversify the next class of grad students. The faculty admission committee, being good Berkeley liberals, agreed to let us in on the process.

What we found, once we started reviewing applications with the committee, was revealing. The faculty members would show us a handful of applications they found acceptable and there wouldn’t be any women or people of color in the bunch.

Then we’d go through the whole stack of applicants. Sure, there were some who didn’t seem qualified, from all groups, but there were some applicants with great qualifications who were from underrepresented groups, and they were being ignored. We’d show the faculty members how these applicants compared well with their original chosen bunch. Why, we’d say, would you let him in but not her?

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"Oh," our faculty committee members would say, "he comes highly recommended by my former advisor. And this man is recommended by one of my grad school buddies."

It turned out the old boys network was putting its thumb on the admissions process. Although this was some time ago, we were shocked then that things still operated this way. I feel pretty certain that in many cases, they still do. For better, and often, for worse, we humans are wired to favor those we know and those who are like us.

Through this experience, I came to a new understanding of the meaning of “affirmative” in affirmative action. If we don’t take affirmative, positive action to make sure we truly consider women and people of color, we’ll overlook them and we’ll wind up with the same non-diverse group we started with.

With a Perspective, I’m Pam Tellew.

Pam Tellew is an educator and activist living in the East Bay.