An Open Letter on Diversity

The following open letter was written by ESA students to open a dialogue regarding what diversity means for the Graduate Center English Program. It was sent to Mario DiGangi, English Program Executive Officer on 5/10/2013.

Dear Mario,

All of us have benefited from your tireless work as an administrator over the past three years. We know that you will bring the same level of dedication to the next three years as Executive Officer [of the Graduate Center English Program]. Indeed, we are counting on it.

This is a crucial time for the English program and for public education at large. Structural changes at the Graduate Center, most notably the implementation of new Five-Year Fellowship packages, have resulted in fundamental changes in the nature of the English Ph.D. program and its students. Changes in policy and leadership throughout CUNY — including but not limited to the potential implementation of Pathways, the resignation of Chancellor Goldstein and interim appointment of WIlliam Kelly, four more years of tuition increases under the Rational Tuition Policy, the threat of Medgar Evers College losing accreditation due to administrators’ mismanagement, the return of the ROTC to York and City College, the Macaulay teaching appointment of General David Petraeus as Muslim students continue to be surveilled — will change the environment of education in our university system.

At times like this, it becomes even more important to take up–and even work towards expanding–the challenging and multi-faceted work that the Diversity Committee has undertaken.

As such, we would like to take this opportunity to have an open conversation about our understanding of what diversity means for our department. We would like an explanation of the policies that are in place in order to realize that understanding.

  • What steps are currently being taken to strategize about diversity in all the program’s standing committees?

  • What do you understand to be the effects on CUNY classrooms of admitting a mainly white graduate student body from whom a large percentage of CUNY adjunct teaching faculty are drawn, and who are responsible for teaching in classrooms that are predominantly populated by students of color? In what ways are such graduate student adjuncts trained to address the role of institutional racism within the classroom?

  • What efforts has the Admissions Committee taken to ensure that incoming cohorts reflect the levels of racial and economic diversity found within New York City?

  • A vast percentage of New Yorkers are foreign-born and often non-citizens. Many are ESL speakers. How does our program imagine itself and the discipline in relation to them and to English as a world language? How can we recruit them to our department? How can our teaching practicums approach the positive evaluation of various forms of English as well as non-English languages (as explored in the pedagogical work of former CUNY faculty like Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, bell hooks, Mina Shaughnessy, Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, David Henderson, and Leonard Kriegel)?

  • Our department has an international reputation in the field of Queer Studies. What attempts have been made to ensure that incoming cohorts are comprised of students of varying gender identities, sexual orientations, disabilities and ages? How can we make our department more radically queer? More trans-positive? More in tune with disability culture? More intersectionally focused along such avenues as crip queer of color critiques?

  • Beyond recruitment, what measures have been taken to increase the number of black and Latino students who are admitted to the program, and what work is done to retain those students?

  • Has the department considered the extent to which the program’s culture and spaces are welcoming to people with various disabilities?  Has the department considered the ways that aspects of the program’s structure–e.g. language requirements–may create unnecessary disability-related barriers to completion, and/or may unknowingly replicate abelist assumptions about academic success?  Are there ways to augment the program’s structure to make it more accessible to students with disabilities, and, in particular, “mental disabilities” (e.g. learning disabilities, mood disorders, etc.)

  • Has the department considered the impact of the Five-Year Fellowship packages, as well as other means of encouraging (pressuring, incentivizing, etc.) degree completion timetables, on students whose disabilities may affect the speed with which they complete their coursework and other program requirements?  Will the department institute policies to ensure that any implementation of degree completion timetables does not exclude students with disabilities?  Has the department considered the ways that degree completion timetables may inherently reinforce ableist assumptions about academic success?

  • What will the impact of the new Five-Year-Fellowship packages be on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who must often work to supplement fellowship funds? How will the new degree completion timetables affect these students? Can you speak to their risk of stigmatization?

  • How many students of color have been admitted to the program over the past 10 years? How many of them have graduated? How many of them have received significant funding? What was their average time to completion?

  • The CUNY Pipeline program has been an important tool for the recruitment of underrepresented students to the Graduate Center, but it is not the only CUNY program we can rely on. How do you envision the Graduate Center English Program robustly supporting such diversity-focused academic programs as the Africana Studies Certificate, the Magnet Scholarship, the McNair Program and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship?

  • What relationship, if any, do you see between low enrollment in the English PhD Program of students of color and low enrollment/course offerings in non-Eurocentric Anglophonic literatures?

  • Within the GC administration’s Restructuring Plan, the English Department has been encouraged to select rising and top faculty members on a wide scope for potential hiring. How do you envision diversifying the process of English PhD program faculty hiring in coordination with CUNY’s undergraduate colleges?

  • Do you think the focus on increasing diversity in the English PhD program should be connected to increasing diversity GC-wide? If so, how do you envision the ways we can work towards this shared goal?

  • How does the limited number of faculty and students of color in the English PhD program affect the generation of subject matter, range of courses, invited speakers, conferences, scholarships, research projects, orals lists, dissertations, scholarship trajectories, the shape of the discipline in the future, etc.?

  • To what extent should the English program engage in a form of affirmative action geared directly towards welcoming students and faculty of color?

  • What efforts are being made to make conversations about our diversity initiatives transparent and open to the GC’s scholarly community? Are there any plans at this point to hold an open forum on our diversity efforts in order to gain a wider array of student and faculty input?

  • Inside Higher Education reported on May 7, 2013, that “Black and Latino graduate students are more likely to borrow and more likely to borrow larger sums to earn a Ph.D. than are white or Asian graduate students” (see How do you envision the English program proactively securing funding for students of color to help them avoid amassing tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in debt?

We, the undersigned members of the English department, would like to meet with you to discuss the aforementioned issues. We look forward to having a productive and respectful conversation.


Anne Donlon

Balthazar Becker

Benjamin Miller

Chris Eng

Conor Tomás Reed

Elizabeth Goetz

Hank Williams

Ian Foster

Jenny LeRoy

Kristin Leigh Moriah

Livia Arndal Woods

Margaret Galvan

Megan Paslawski

Melissa Phruksachart

Mike Granger

Nick Gamso

Rebecca Fullan

Sean M. Kennedy

Stefania Heim

Simone White

Timothy Griffiths

Tonya Foster

Tracy Riley

Velina Manolova