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my ambivalence about awards

October 10, 2012

It is simply a truism to say that service at research-oriented universities often goes unrecognized, or at least is less valued for promotion, tenure, and salary raises than research and teaching. “Diversity” service, often performed by women and those deemed “minorities” out of a genuine desire to build inclusive communities and expand intellectual horizons, can be seen as even less valuable to the extent that it allegedly serves only certain populations and doesn’t benefit the whole university (which, of course, is flatly wrong, but I’ll save why for another rainy day).

So when I received last spring a university-level award that “is designed to recognize units or individuals that have demonstrated a significant commitment to enhancing diversity” at my institution, I should have been elated, right? I mean, finally, a brown gay guy gets the recognition that he deserves. Umph.

Well, before raining on this pride parade, let me say first that I was and am deeply humbled by the colleagues who nominated me and went out of their way to write supportive letters. I know who they are, and I respect their judgment in this area because I work with them on these issues day in and day out. (You think that’s nepotism? If only we had that kind of power …) I also deeply appreciated the “surprise” conferral of the award when a group of faculty and students — as well as my partner (who doesn’t work where I do) — barged in on a meeting I was at and had a little celebration in front of my stunned face.

But that wasn’t the end of the festivities. There was a luncheon later that spring to which I got to invite some friends. And there’s a recognition ceremony that’s supposed to take place at half-time during a football game this fall. Now aside from getting the details less than two weeks in advance (I truly thought that the football idea was just going to dissipate into thin air, as fantastical as it seemed when I was told about it in the spring), I just can’t fathom why an event meant to congratulate individuals and groups for their diversity and service work is being held on a football field. Maybe some people think it’s a distinguished honor to have the opportunity to set foot on grass grown and trampled on in a ginormous stadium. Maybe at some point there was a connection between athletics and university awards that made the one hosting the other seem somehow appropriate.

I beg to differ.

Here are some numbers about university-level awards:

  • Diversity: $1,200 honorarium
  • Staff: $1,500 cash + $700 increase to base salary
  • Teaching: $3,000 cash + $1,200 increase in base salary
  • Scholar: $3,000 honorarium + $20,000 research grant to be used over the next three years

This breakdown roughly accords with the value scale noted above, with scholarship at the top and diversity work at the bottom. (It goes without saying that research in “diversity” fields — ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, religious studies, and so forth — isn’t considered “enhancing diversity” at an institution, even though it does.) So fine, nothing new there.

But why put us in a football stadium? There, in that setting, the numbers don’t begin to compare. My piddly one-time $1,200 award (minus taxes) looks like a complete and total embarrassment — in fact, a smirk-faced insult — when put next to a coach whose “incentives” for retaining and graduating players and winning various levels of play can reportedly bring him anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000 — on top of his 7-figure base package.

Right, I get it. I’m not a star college football coach. I don’t manage a team that rakes in billion of dollars in revenue. I teach literature, for god’s sake. But then here’s my beef: DON’T MAKE ME MAKE THE COMPARISON BY PUTTING ME IN THAT STADIUM. Cuz it’s just gonna open up that whole pandora’s box about the relationship between athletics and academics and where a supposed institution of higher education puts its priorities. And money.

One last thing. I’m probably not the first one to suspect that these numbers and the values they evidently connote make certain kinds of awards operate as safety valves and cynical covers. What could be a better alibi declaring that the university values diversity than by having an annual award dedicated to it? Look, we even got you onto the football field!

Needless to say, I’m not going to the game.

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5 Comments
  1. Wow. That comparison chart speaks volumes.

    The difference you identify reminds me of something that was shared by members of OSU Stand Your Ground earlier this calendar year. They explained that the student workers who are ambassadors for the university but are NOT designated as “diversity” ambassadors get paid well…while diversity ambassadors don’t. I’m not sure if that’s the actual name of the position, but if you are a student of color who interviews for the position but does not get selected, you are likely to be asked if you’d like to accept the diversity version of this position, which is grossly undervalued (if not completely uncompensated). This is “just the policy.” That is, one position is compensated well and one is not. It’s how the system is set up. You would think that such a discrepancy would strike those managing these programs as unfair and insulting, but apparently, it doesn’t. Otherwise, students wouldn’t have been able to share such experiences in April 2012.

    Why are those in charge so oblivious to the insult and injury? Because the value question has already been settled by the other discourses and practices that shape this institution and this society—as your post makes clear. (I certainly wouldn’t blame you for not being at that game!)

  2. Thanks for the comparison. Yes, I do recall hearing about this strange, unequal system, and I also recall hearing that students of color nonetheless take on those unpaid “volunteer” positions because they genuinely want to act as that ambassadorial bridge. Clearly, the compensation system needs to change. But even equalizing the pay will not eliminate the fact that students of color will be doing “double duty” for the university — selling the campus AND selling “diversity.”

  3. Joe,
    Your voice is golden — smart, cutting, modest, and charming all at once. I am proud to be part of your Rutgers diaspora!
    -Brian

  4. Thanks, Brian. Rutgers did indeed serve us well!

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