More on Distinguished Scholars and the Racist Structures of the Discipline


After having spent a day's labour dealing with the effect of the racist editorial statement made by the RPA editor and Distinguished Scholar Professor Martin J. Medhurst and listening to scholars of colour who have to inhabit the racist spaces of our discipline, I woke up this morning to the letter that was sent by 66 Distinguished Scholars (DS) of our discipline to the leadership of the National Communication Association. The list of colleagues signing the letter includes beloved colleagues and mentors who shaped my own journey as a scholar in the discipline, and colleagues whom I have seen as vital sources of solidarity. It is therefore in much pain that I write this response. This response to the letter is written with humility and in anguish, recognizing that the letter is not addressed to me. 

I write my response shifting between third and first person, aware of the (im)possibility of dialogue as a wider collective in our discipline, scholars of colour and current leadership, rework a transformative framework of change. The letter in full is included below.

The letter opens by informing its reader that the group has had extensive discussion. In what reads like a threatening tone, the EC is made aware that its action to change the decision-making process has aroused concerns among the DS. We are also made aware of the intense feelings of "anger" and "alienation toward NCA" that prompted the responses from the DS. We are not told however why the EC decision generated these intense feelings of anger and alienation among our DS colleagues. I would urge the DS who signed this letter to place these feelings in the backdrop of the rage that scholars of colour have felt at the everyday racisms, erasures, and minimization that form the everyday practices of the discipline. 

Consider similarly the anger that scholars of colour feel everyday with the recognition that their hard work and excellence often goes unrecognized in our discipline. Consider the pain that scholars of colour in the discipline live with, anchored in the knowledge that we are seen as the "diversity case." Consider the anger that scholars of colour feel in the knowledge that often in spite of excelling in the same games that are set up by the structures of Whiteness, we will go unrecognized. Consider the pain and anguish that many scholars of colour bury deep inside, with the knowledge that we must carefully hide our pain and anger so we can even survive in the discipline. 


Just crafting this response to you is intensely alienating, grappling with the 'effect' this letter would produce. The emotional labour that goes everyday into performing your norms of civility so the status quo would remain intact is both tiring and depressing. Examine critically the power you occupy and the politics of affect produced by that power.  

In the backdrop of these deeply felt circuits of anger and anxiety among scholars of colour, the sense of anger and alienation reflected in the letter appear as White fragility. Apologies that you feel so deeply hurt for not "being seen" for your commitments to diversity and inclusion.

You speak of your commitment to inclusion. Yet the response in the letter reflects an underlying politics of exclusion, which translates into the fear and anxiety you so eloquently express. These responses, as the literature demonstrates, are the classic responses of Whiteness, when challenged with arguments that seek to hold it to account and transform its politics of exclusion. These affective responses captured in your letter fail to offer any empirical evidence to back up your feelings in response to what you read as the implicit suggestion that DS decision-making is racist. I urge you to consider then the sense of exclusion that so many of us, scholars of colour, live with, having been excluded systematically by the decision-making processes and structures of our discipline.

You then refer to the absence of consultation processes, invoking the association's commitment to participatory governance.  I am struck by your selective reading of consultation and participation, and equally selective erasure of questions of representation in participatory processes. You communicatively invert a participatory and democratizing move by the EC in response to a deep-seated inequity (lack of representation of scholars of colour among the DS) with the allegation that it is not participatory. 


If the whole point of the problem is the lack of representation of scholars of colour, normative theories of participatory governance suggest that moving decision-making to a democratically elected group that then selects a sub-group based on an explicit commitment to diversity is a solution in the right direction. It is not perfect, but certainly a transformative improvement to the opaque process currently in place with no explicit frameworks of accountability. This is how most disciplines decide on awards, also the case with most of the other awards in our discipline. That somehow the DS is "special" reflects a form of exceptionalism that is often attached to Whiteness.

To keep the decision-making power in the hands of  a select group of DS seems the opposite of participation. That the DS were not consulted forms the basis of your complaint appears more about protecting elite privilege than about the participatory governance of the organization. Critically, this articulation is devoid of reflexive analysis of power that is built into your position as White DS (with one exception) in the discipline. As scholars of communication, we well know how the performance of participation is often used to consolidate and reproduce elite power, especially when these calls to participation are deployed by members of elite groups. Greater democratization rather than reproducing opaque frameworks of participatory engagement is often the first step toward addressing elite capture. An explicit commitment to inclusivity as a guiding principle is key when spaces and frameworks of representation are so lopsided.

The claim that the EC has not been consultative is then used to express outrage at what the DS see as being labelled as non-inclusive. The letter notes: ""Your failure to consult with us makes it hard for us to avoid the implication that your action is a rebuke to the Distinguished Scholars, either because you think we do not share the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity; or because you think we are not disposed to carry it out. Both implications are unwarranted and we find them offensive." Here we notice the outrage the group feels for not having been consulted. This outrage is constituted amid the group's implicit claim that the lack of consultation is reflective of the EC's evaluation that the DS (a) does not share the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, and (b) are not disposed to carry out the commitment. To move from "not feeling consulted" to "we are being seen as non-inclusive" is a rhetorical move that is not backed up by warrant. Moreover, the group then wants us to take it on its face value, without offering any evidence that demonstrates its collective commitment to the principles of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Just saying "I support diversity" does not translate into support for diversity. How are we to assess this commitment of the DS? Commitment translates into evidence of outcomes (more DS of colour over the past say five years). In the absence of evidence, the claim made by the DS that the group is committed to inclusion is juxtaposed in the backdrop of the claim made by many scholars of colour, based on experience and evidence (that many scholars of colour with excellent records are currently not on the roster and that those that have been nominated have been rejected), that decision-making in the discipline reflects an underlying racist ideology that needs to be called out. Just saying we are committed to diversity does not demonstrate commitment to diversity. Moreover, this commitment to diversity is for scholars of colour who have been systematically excluded to evaluate, not for the DS to self-promote. 

The DS then go on to offer some more claims of commitment. They remind us, "In fact, we share the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, and we have discussed on various occasions how to tweak the nomination and selection processes to better fulfill those commitments. It was at our initiative that the nomination process was opened to all members of the Association a few years ago. At our meeting last year in Salt Lake City, surprised that very few members of NCA chose to submit nominations, we proposed a number of steps that we thought could be taken to enhance the diversity of the pool of nominees." The response does not address why from the four scholars that were nominated in the four-year period between 2015 and 2019, only one was selected. A careful analysis of who the nominators were is not offered either. For instance, were all four nominations made by NCA members outside of the DS group? Who made the nomination of the one DS of colour who was selected? Was the nomination made by one of the in-group members? Answering these questions would offer clearer insights into the selection process and equity in the process. 

As if to foreclose further scrutiny of the selection process, the DS notes, "We focused on the nominating process because our analysis indicated that the slow progress on enhancing diversity was primarily the result of the lack of nominations that would make the pool more diverse, not from the selection process for choosing the award recipients." Here, a self study (analysis) by the DS arrives at the conclusion that the selection process is not the problem. This conclusion once again though is not backed by evidence (no evidence is presented; at least not in the letter. It would be worthwhile to analyze the analysis submitted by the group). In the 20+ years of the existence of DS, how many times have faculty of colour been nominated? What is the decision-making process in the selection? How many faculty of colour passed the voting stipulation? In the absence of data that spell out outcomes at each level of decision-making, the claim to inclusivity appears tenuous.

In an earlier post, I had asked, why has the group, in its many years of existence not recognized Professor Nakayama? As a point of analysis, I compared Professor Nakayama's research impact record with that of Professor Medhurst. Similar comparisons can be made between many White distinguished scholars on the list and many scholars of colour in same subfield areas of the discipline. For instance, excellent and impactful scholars such as Professors Brenda Allen, Kent Ono, Mark Orbe, Gust Yep are not on the list, in spite of having research impact that is comparable to if not greater than White scholars on the list in the same disciplinary sub-field. Note that the works of these scholars critically interrogate and disrupt the Whiteness that makes up our discipline. It is therefore a natural conclusion that the nature of the scholarship of these academics of colour does not sit well with the Whiteness of the discipline.

Colleagues of colour have organized and communicated with you, wanting to see changes in the process. How have you responded to these colleagues? How many times in the past have scholars of colour reached out to you individually and/or as a group urging more careful consideration and changes to the processes of selection of DS? What have been the points of communication with the Black caucus, La Raza caucus, and the Asian/Pacific American caucus? How have you responded to these collectives of faculty of colour? Have you reached out to these collectives for inputs into the process for selection of DS? Making transparent your communication with scholars of colour calling for diversity would be one step toward supporting your claim. You could go even further by documenting the actions you have taken.


How many times have scholars of colour been nominated? How many times have scholars of colour been nominated, but not selected? Since the process of nomination changed in 2015, how many scholars of colour were nominated? What percentage of these scholars were selected? What were the reasons underlying the non-selection of those that were nominated? How do these data points compare with the White scholars that were nominated and selected?

With the process of selection being opaque, there is no way for outsiders, say a non-distinguished scholar, to evaluate the process. Perhaps, our DS colleagues just would like us to trust them as they are distinguished. However, it doesn't quite work that way when communities have been historically marginalized. Moreover, when evaluative metrics applied to different scholars of colour compared to the White scholars in the current roster of the DS suggest discrepancies, transparency would be a good starting point. Pushing for transparency and "making visible" the structures of decision-making is the first step toward building trust. Details about the decision-making process, such as how are nominations discussed, how do DS deliberate, how is voting done, and what is the percentage of vote required for selection are not readily available.

The DS observe, "The claim that the new selection process will resemble that for other NCA awards is beside the point. The Distinguished Scholar Award was never intended to resemble other awards. What it does resemble is the process by which full professors are asked to be the evaluators of their colleagues who are candidates for tenure and promotion." This comparison of the process for the selection of DS to the process of tenure and promotion is flawed at multiple levels. First, the comparison assumes that the tenure and promotion process is ideologically and racially neutral, which it is not. Second, most promotion and tenure processes are held to many layers of accountability, with department, faculty and university level decision-making to oversee each step of the process. There are no such structures of accountability in the existing framework of selection of distinguished scholars. Finally, promotion and tenure processes are subjected to legal frameworks within which any claims of discrimination and bias can be handled. There are explicit mechanisms for grievance and redressal. I see no such legal framework available to scholars of colour in the process of selection of distinguished scholars. The entire process of decision-making in the current structure is opaque, with no structures for appeal available to those that might not have been selected through the process (which makes it fundamentally different from the promotion and tenure process).

The implicit bias of the current configuration and why we need change is best captured in the following paragraph, "We also are concerned that the new plan will compromise the selection process itself. No scholarly credentials are stipulated for the members of the new selection committee to be chosen by the Leadership Development Council. The selection committee is then tasked to select a diverse group of scholars, not as the happy byproduct of a fair evaluation of all candidates in a rich pool but as an a priori instruction. This strikes us as a somewhat “ham-handed” way to try to achieve a worthy goal." Note in this analysis the lack of understanding the very ways in which racism shapes what makes up fair evaluation. That the very notion of fair evaluation, articulated in the structures of Whiteness, is implicitly unfair remains unrecognized. The "apriori instruction" to attend to diversity is seen as compromising the selection process itself. This binary between diversity and merit falsely set up here is racist. Unfortunately, in spite of the claim to being inclusive, the very understanding of diversity as a threat to fair evaluation of merit reproduces the ideology of Whiteness.

In all of this, it becomes apparent that the EC has been engaging the DS for a while. None of this therefore should come as a surprise to the DS. It appears there has been ongoing consultation with the DS. It just so happens that the EC went in a direction different from the recommendations made by the DS. The claim therefore that the DS was not consulted does not seem to hold up.


Finally, drawing on the ideology of philanthrocapitalism to make an argument about change is the kind of neoliberal utilitarianism that threatens the academe today. As distinguished scholars, one would hope you understand closely the link between money, power, and control. The reference to the donor appears as an implicit threat. 

In wrapping up, the DS letter reveals a tone of power and exclusion rather than one of invitation. It reflects the sort of play of power that has historically been deployed to keep out communities of colour from the decision-making spaces of the discipline.

Unfortunately for our discipline, the letter from the DS, now in public domain, further demonstrates the uphill task of change. We need an honest recognition of the current biases within our structures to make room for change. Any kind of incrementalism that leaves intact the overarching structures might work eventually to give the veneer of multiculturalism, but do little in transforming the ontological and epistemological anchors we work from. Placing diversity at the front and center of evaluation is a welcome move, one that recognizes the history of injustice and bias that constitute our discipline.


XXXXXX

During the past two weeks, since receiving Trevor’s report of the action of the Executive Committee regarding the selection of Distinguished Scholars, we have had extensive online discussions among ourselves. The undersigned Distinguished Scholars write to share with you our concerns and to urge reconsideration by the EC.
First, we want to be sure you are aware of the concern this action has aroused among the Distinguished Scholars. Some object to the substance of the decision, some to the decision- making process, and some to both. Some have had intense reactions of anger and alienation toward NCA that have prompted them to write to you individually. A very substantial majority of the Distinguished Scholars join in the concerns expressed in this letter.
First, we are deeply disappointed that an important decision of this nature would be made in the absence of consultation with the Distinguished Scholars. The unilateral nature of the action is not in keeping with our Association’s general commitment to participatory governance.
Your failure to consult with us makes it hard for us to avoid the implication that your action is a rebuke to the Distinguished Scholars, either because you think we do not share the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity; or because you think we are not disposed to carry it out. Both implications are unwarranted and we find them offensive.
In fact, we share the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity, and we have discussed on various occasions how to tweak the nomination and selection processes to better fulfill those commitments. It was at our initiative that the nomination process was opened to all members of the Association a few years ago. At our meeting last year in Salt Lake City, surprised that very few members of NCA chose to submit nominations, we proposed a number of steps that we thought could be taken to enhance the diversity of the pool of nominees. We are frankly disappointed that the EC appears to have dismissed these proposals because, according to Trevor’s report, they “felt” them to be inadequate.
We focused on the nominating process because our analysis indicated that the slow progress on enhancing diversity was primarily the result of the lack of nominations that would make the pool more diverse, not from the selection process for choosing the award recipients. It is a truism that people who are not nominated cannot be selected. Trevor’s report indicates that the nomination process will remain unchanged. If this is the case, we fear that even while offending the current Distinguished Scholars, the EC’s actions will not solve the problem. We believe that the proposals advanced by the Distinguished Scholars in Salt Lake offer a better chance of doing so.
The claim that the new selection process will resemble that for other NCA awards is beside the point. The Distinguished Scholar Award was never intended to resemble other awards. What it does resemble is the process by which full professors are asked to be the evaluators of their colleagues who are candidates for tenure and promotion.
We also are concerned that the new plan will compromise the selection process itself. No scholarly credentials are stipulated for the members of the new selection committee to be chosen by the Leadership Development Council. The selection committee is then tasked to select a diverse group of scholars, not as the happy byproduct of a fair evaluation of all candidates in a rich pool but as an a priori instruction. This strikes us as a somewhat “ham-handed” way to try to achieve a worthy goal.
Finally, we are specifically concerned that the Executive Committee took this action without any consultation with the founder and principal donor of the Distinguished Scholar Award to ascertain his wishes in the matter. This action does not inspire confidence in NCA’s stewardship of philanthropic gifts that it wishes to receive.
Most of us believe that there is a clear solution that would resolve these concerns: to restore the selection process that existed before the recent EC meeting, to take seriously the proposals advanced by the Distinguished Scholars in Salt Lake City, and to apologize to the Distinguished Scholars who have been alienated from the Association by the EC’s actions. These steps could be taken at once so that the DS program in 2019 could proceed as in the past. Others of us believe that there is a need for additional conversations about the program in relation to the Association’s diversity goals or about possible tweaks in voting procedures to make them more deliberative, and that these conversations will require additional time. In that case, the Distinguished Scholar Award should be put “on hiatus” until these matters are resolved.
Either of these approaches to a solution, in our view, would be preferable to the action taken by the Executive Committee, which in addition to its other problems seems to have been precipitous. We urge the EC to reconsider its recent action and instead to adopt one of these approaches, with the goal of achieving a mutually satisfactory solution.


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