Diversity Matters in LAH 102H

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the December 2015 ORANGE Issue IV. 

THE LIBERAL ARTS HONORS PROGRAM at the University of Texas at Austin advocates for a talented, diverse class, but doubts remain on whether LAH is achieving a well-balanced class. The program’s students have expressed concerns about the lack of diversity among the guest lecturers who come in to discuss their specializations for an LAH-required course.

Story by Zoya Zia

According to the program’s description on the UT website, all LAH freshmen take the seminar class “The Idea of Liberal Arts” course abbreviation LAH 102H, where they hear about various liberal arts disciplines through lectures given by a different “leading scholar in their field” every week. Of the 158 students in the LAH class of 2019, 108 are female, as well as 19 non-resident and foreign students, among other minorities. However, most of the “leading scholars” and professors who have given LAH 102H lectures — among them Chris Kirk, Ph.D., professor of anthropology; Daniel Bonevac, Ph.D., professor of philosophy; and Daniel Hamermesh, Ph.D., professor of economics — are white men. 

Government, South Asian studies and women and gender studies freshman Priyanka Mara says she noticed the lack of diversity was a problem by the second or third lecture. “As I started sitting through classes, I realized it was uncomfortable,” Mara says. ”I have never been uncomfortable because of my race in an academic setting. I just felt out of my zone. It didn’t bother me until it happened every single time.” 

Mara says that while students have observed a continuing pattern of white male professors, some LAH students don’t consider it an issue. “For the most part, they are really entertaining and good lectures,” Mara says, “But people who are represented all the time don’t empathize with not being represented.”

According to Mara, a lack of representation can alienate women — in this case the majority of the class — and people of color. “It feels like we’re trying to overcome a barrier, especially when we we know there are women and minority professors who are doing great work,” Mara says. “We wonder why we can’t bring any of them.”

Juliet Hooker, government and African and African diaspora studies associate professor says the impact of not having diverse faculty is that students aren’t exposed to role models. “Students who come to UT think, ‘Oh, I might want to become a professor or a graduate student,’” Hooker says. “They want to see people who look like them who have achieved that. But without representation, students do not get that possibility.”

If minorities or women venture into fields they are not stereotypically supposed to be in, people take a second look.
— Priyanka Mara

Mara believes that by having diverse speakers, minority groups are better represented and are thus encouraged to pursue whatever career path they so choose. “If minorities or women venture into fields they are not stereotypically supposed to be in, people take a second look,” she says. “Representation makes society aware that anyone can do anything, and you don’t have to fit in a prescribed box. It stops people from taking a second glance.”

In one specific lecture, the LGBT community was notably unrepresented. English and history sophomore Avery Osburn heard how a professor discussed the psychology of sexual attraction and mating but only brought up heterosexual relationships. “As someone who is queer and pretty active about LGBT stuff, it was so disheartening to hear this,” Osburn says. “It is important for this kind of class to show diversity so that everyone can have hopes of becoming successful.” 

A few weeks into taking LAH 102H, Mara approached LAH advisor Linda Mayhew about the issue. Mayhew recalls how last year, one student asked for more minority faculty, something Mayhew says LAH advisors are always working on. “This year we’ve had a lot of students ask for more female speakers and for more diversity from different minorities as well,” Mayhew says. “There are some scheduling issues, as we do have three women coming in, but they all just happen to be in the last three weeks of the semester.”

LAH 102H does not pay the lecturers. The professors come on a volunteer basis. However, Mayhew argues that some of the more diverse professors may not have the time to give a lecture since they may be younger and still working on establishing themselves. “We look for prestigious professors who have done significant research in their field, who would probably get paid some stipends, but agree to do it for free,” Mayhew says. “They are at a level in their career where they have time to give to us.”

Even with accomplished professors, inequality persists, according to Osburn. “For those who say that we have the best professors in the university in these lectures, it’s still a problem that many of these professors are white guys,” Osburn says. “It really points out that there is an inequality among the diversity of professors at a university that touts itself for having diversity.”    

In a 2014 report from the Office of Institutional Reporting, Research, and Information Systems, the office reported that out of 709 liberal arts professors, 533 were white. Out of 3,071 total faculty members, 2,388 (77.8 percent) were white. Only 231 out of 1,013 professors were female (22.8 percent). “The professors went to college in the ‘70s, and there weren’t that many women or people of color who went to college then,” Osburn says. “These are tenured professors, providing evidence of how long the university has been like this.”

Plan II director Michael Stoff, who Mayhew referred, gave a lecture to LAH 102H and touched on the uneven demographic distribution of professors. “We have a lot of speakers from his generation,” Mayhew says. “He talked about how few women were in his class as a graduate student. If you look at tenured professors, about 80 percent are male and 20 percent are female. Our percentages kind of match in that way.”

Hooker says one of the reasons underrepresentation still occurs is because search committees still tend to want to hire people like them. “It is harder to get people to consider minority candidates in majority-white departments, especially if they are doing research on topics that are different from what faculty already there are doing,” Hooker says. “It can be hard for minority scholars to have their research recognized as valuable and legitimate and therefore be promoted.”

Hooker has taught at UT for the past 12 years. She says while progress has been made, there is still a lot of work left to do. She has heard seniors in her class say it is the first time they have taken a government class with a female professor. “Just think about students who have not had a female authority figure and their idea of what an authority is is male,” Hooker says. “Not having a diverse faculty doesn’t prepare students well for what they might encounter in the job market, when they graduate.”

Instead of petitioning for lecturer diversity in LAH 102H, Osburn wants students to recommend professors for their lectures. “Changing a class like this by bringing people with new mindsets would create a greater desire for learning through the class and the university as a whole,” Osburn says.

Mayhew understands where student concerns come from and advises students to share their concerns with advisors. “We’re hearing a lot more about this issue now because the student population is LAH is becoming more diverse over time, and we have a greater diversity of students applying and getting into UT,” Mayhew says. “It’s sort of a natural thing to want to see more diversity in professors, too.” 

Mara suggests forming an LAH-sponsored organization that invites minorities, female professors and members of the community to come and speak. “That way we’ll have the representation we need,” Mara says. “As people cycle through, there may be more diverse professors, but fast results won’t come through fighting for 102H.”

While LAH students finish up the semester, there are varied levels of interest in the issue. However, Mara pushes for more diversity. “People of color and women in the program will feel more comfortable and take more risks with their academic careers since minorities are generally forced to pick the practical option,” Mara says. “Liberal arts is where literature, history, government policies come from. Minority voices and experiences in those fields are important for our generation.”

For Mara, LAH’s intended goals say it all. “LAH is about making us better writers and people to eventually go into the world,” Mara says. “Since minorities and women should play an enormous role in how the world’s going to be in the future, why shouldn’t that start now with LAH 102H?”