the pipeline as metaphor

When we talk about the need to attract and support a more diverse population within the university, I often hear others use the metaphor of the pipelineI catch myself sometimes using this language too. The idea is that we want to increase diversity among the faculty, who come from graduate programs that need to become more diverse, who in turn come from undergraduate colleges, high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools that need to prepare a greater number of diverse students for the next stage in education.

One problem with this way of thinking is that it locates most of the blame and responsibility outside the university. Woe are we, goes the story that our own undergraduate admission office presented at the BOND (Building Our Network of Diversity) luncheon a few years ago, the number of underrepresented minorities graduating each year with high SAT scores is small, and some peer institutions offer them larger scholarships and greater name recognition. There is little we can do about this, except raise more money.

So much is broken with this attitude. Not the need for more scholarship funding: I certainly do not deny that. But an obsession with US News & World Report college rankings leads to tunnel vision. High standardized test scores are an important metric to the university’s admission office because they have been a significant factor (7.75%) in determining rankings.

Until last year, the admission office here firmly resisted any notion of making standardized tests optional. I know: I asked. Only after they saw the writing on the wall — that an increasing number of other institutions were abandoning the test requirement — did they begin to reconsider their position. Of course they framed themselves as prophets, enlightening the rest of the university.

This hyperfocus on high test scores even contaminated the summer pre-college programs here, until the academic leaders revolted and extricated the undergraduate admission office from the process. The pre-college programs can now finally admit a more diverse population, allowing them to more fully demonstrate students’ abilities to succeed in our college curriculum, despite low test scores.

The resistance towards increasing the diversity of undergraduate and high-school students at our university is not merely a risk-averse attitude. The conservatism that festers the admission office stems from an attitude of white man’s burden. Indeed, there have been only two people leading the admission office here in the past five decades, and the person being groomed for the position is cut from the same cloth. Provosts and presidents, deans and professors, all of them come and go, so the admission office takes credit for transforming the campus from a regional institution to an international university. Meanwhile, other staff members leave the admission office, dissatisfied with the lack of commitment and vision towards diversity.

The problem with the pipeline metaphor is that it treats individuals as masses, as though they are fluids to be confined and diverted. The pipeline metaphor objectifies our fellow human beings, as though they were part of a manufacturing process.

I suppose it is slightly better than to bottle students up, to contain them, to restrict them to living in dormitories that are separate but equal.

Some days I hope for a mighty river to wash the plain, to carry away the gatekeepers. But I know which voices whisper in which ears and where the power lies. I am not holding my breath.

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