NYU Guesses Racial, Ethnic Identity of Some Employees


Jessica Francis

Because NYU receives federal funding, the university’s office of human resources is required to guess the racial and ethnic identities of employees who do not self-report that information.

Sayer Devlin, Deputy News Editor

An NYU professor, who is a person of color, told WSN that he had a very brief meeting — less than five minutes — with the university’s human resources department, which he believes was used to guess his ethnicity.

The practice of determining the race and ethnicity of employees through post-employment records and visual observations is explicitly legal according to a directive by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. However, the practice of assigning an employee’s race based on their appearance raises ethical questions.

NYU is required to collect data on the race, ethnicity, gender, veteran status and disability status of all their employees — though employees are not required to disclose this information — because the university receives federal funding.

“Self-identification will remain the preferred method for compiling information about the sex, race or ethnicity of applicants and employees,” the directive reads. “A contractor’s invitation to self-identify race or ethnicity should state that the submission of such information is voluntary. However, contractors may use post-employment records or visual observation when an individual declines to self-identify his or her race or ethnicity.”

NYU Spokesperson John Beckman said in an email that he could not comment on this incident regarding the aforementioned professor.

“I can tell you that, one, visual identification is what we — and presumably other employers — resort to when people don’t self-identify, and two, we strive to do it with sensitivity and respect when it must be done,” Beckman said.

An Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity Policy Statement written by President Andrew Hamilton said that the data gathered is never attached to individual candidates, but is instead used by the university to aid in its affirmative action hiring practices. The statement says that NYU uses this information “to recruit and advance qualified women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons of minority sexual orientation and gender identity, individuals with disabilities and veterans.” The gathered data is also used to assess specific areas for improvement in affirmative action outreach and recruiting effort.

CAS Associate Professor of Sociology Ann Morning serves on one of the U.S. Census Bureau Committees, the National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations, which advises the racial categories used in the census. Morning said that guessing the racial identities of faculty might be the best way to to collect that information.

“Some people argue that the ‘racial eyeballing’ of people, while it seems problematic, is actually the best kind of race data we want to get,” Morning said. “That is, it doesn’t matter so much what you think you are or what I think I am. It just matters what other people think we are because that’s how we’re likely to be treated in the workplace.”

Morning believes that people won’t report information on their ethnicity if they think it will disadvantage them.

“There are probably also some people who don’t report it out of a certain principle, but my guess is that most of the people who don’t report it think it would work to their disadvantage in this context, looking at the makeup of this university,” Morning said. “It would most likely be white applicants who would not put that information down.”

Vice Provost for Faculty, Arts, Humanities and Diversity Ulrich Baer said in a previous interview with WSN that 75 percent of faculty self-report their race.

When asked about this figure, Beckman said that Baer denied reporting this number.

“I spoke with Uli,” Beckman said. “He said it is not correct that he gave [WSN] a figure about what percentage of people self-identify or don’t self-identify — indeed, he said it was impossible to give you, because we do not track that figure.”

Beckman said that because the university is required to collect information on employees’ race and ethnicity but employees are not required to report it, the university is put in a difficult position.

“Our preferred method for gathering the data is self-identification,” Beckman said. “However, while it is mandatory for NYU and other employers to collect the information, it is not mandatory for job applicants or those being hired to self-identify. That remains the individual’s choice.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 17 print edition. Email Sayer Devlin at [email protected]