Op-Ed: What do we want? “Diversity.” When do we want it? “After cost-benefit analysis.”

The following is an Op-Ed submitted by Assistant Professor of Economics Jennifer Cohen, who is a member of the Global Studies Initiative Steering Committee.

Two parallel events are in process this week. The first are the #FeesMustFall student-led protests in South Africa around rising fees for university, which would further exclude poor students and stymie post-apartheid transformation. The second is the suspension of Global Studies, an academic program designed to facilitate thinking beyond the confines of our disciplines and canons here at Whitman.

There are numerous connections between these two unfolding stories.

One is that both have transformative aspirations, which may not conform to the narratives of cost-benefit analysis. In South Africa, students are demanding that the government direct more resources towards diversity in education. As an academic program that helps Whitman recruit and retain a diverse faculty, transform our curriculum and community, and grapple with the many meanings of diversity, Global Studies also represents an effort toward increasing diversity in education.

In each case, efforts to diversify have costs in terms of money and time. Diversity may be expensive. The benefits may be difficult to quantify, although messages of support from faculty suggest that the benefits of Global Studies would outweigh the costs were either of these to be genuinely quantifiable. But “cost-benefit analysis” in light of recognizing Global Studies as an initiative that contributes to diversity at Whitman seems bizarre and short-sighted. Cost-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense in a context in which the benefits are cumulative and ultimately transformative.

I don’t want to conflate diversity and Global Studies entirely but it bears noting that well over 50 percent of faculty members of color at Whitman are or were involved in the design of the program or have participated in the program. Targeting Global Studies and reducing its transformative potential to cost-benefit analysis effectively devalues the already uncompensated labor of faculty of color and of women faculty of color in particular.

In the course of thinking about the future, I hope that we neither lose sight of the transformative potential of these engagements nor the years of dedicated labor that they reflect.