Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Diversity Mania in Higher Ed

by David French

I have no idea whether Barack Obama’s recently discovered bio and Elizabeth Warren’s periodic (and selective) ethnic box-checking represent mistakes, misrepresentations, or some combination of the two, but I do have first-hand experience with the powerful academic incentive to make one’s background as exotic as humanly possible.

As perhaps the only regular Corner poster who’s also a veteran of an Ivy League law school admissions committee (at Cornell, where I taught for two years), I’m unfortunately completely inadequate for the task of communicating to readers how critically important “diversity” is to admissions and promotions in academe. Simply put, once you approached a certain threshold of academic accomplishment — and that threshold was variable by ethnicity — then diversity trumped all else. As I read law school applications, I would on occasion find myself laughing out loud at the transparent attempts not so much to puff up one’s academic record but instead to seem as “diverse” as possible. Well, I laughed until the actual admissions committee meetings — where such attempts were taken quite seriously.

Here’s how it would work. First, you begin with the broad category (straight white or Asian male is the worst starting position, black male the best) and then you could either improve or harm your standing based on the quirks of your biography. For white guys it would go something like this: Brian is a white male (boring) who is also gay (you’ve got my attention) and from Alabama (interesting). He took his boyfriend to his public school prom (outstanding!). For Hispanics, it could get complicated depending on country of origin and career ambitions: Manuel is from Miami (I hope he’s not Cuban), and his parents immigrated from Honduras (excellent!). He wants to be an investment banker (What?).  

Straight whites had to really work at diversity. I’ve seen creative claims of homelessness, countless expressions of solidarity with marginalized people groups, frank discussions of drug use (gritty!), and odes to grandparents’ economic privation (reminiscent of politicians’ claims to connect with blue-collar voters because their grandparents were blue collar; news flash: almost everyone’s grandparents were blue collar). However, amidst all those efforts to spice up the entering class, there was almost no mention of ideological diversity. The more exotic the biography, the better. But if a person indicated they weren’t all that concerned with “social justice” and perhaps wanted to work on Wall Street, enthusiasm cooled.  

And if you think competition for Cornell Law School admissions was intense, that’s nothing compared to the quest for tenure-track teaching jobs. Simply put, there are an awful lot of really smart liberals seeking precious few positions (many academically-minded conservatives sadly don’t even bother to try), and the right kind of diversity can be an immense advantage. The whole scene is a witch’s brew of potential corruption. Take respectable goals (more representation from marginalized communities), mix it with self-interest, throw in a dash of utter ideological nonsense (for example, that someone who is faintly Cherokee has anything worthwhile to offer based on the experience of a distant relative), and top it all off with bulletproof self-righteousness — that’s the recipe for academic diversity.  

As I said, I don’t know whether either Obama or Warren intentionally misrepresented their backgrounds, but one thing I do know: The more diverse they seemed, the better it was for their academic careers.  

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