Politics & Policy

Proven Commitment to Diversity

Meet the diversicrats.

The University of Memphis is looking for a vice provost for academic affairs — but I won’t be applying. I might be a reasonably good candidate in some ways, but the University of Memphis demands something I don’t have: a “demonstrated commitment to diversity.”

This job criterion is an instance of how deeply entrenched the diversity ideology has become in American higher education. Regardless of President Bush’s strong words against racial preferences in college admissions and regardless of whether the Supreme Court takes the Michigan cases as an opportunity to rule against the “diversity” excuse for racial quotas and preferences, higher education is overwhelmingly under the control of diversicrats.

For almost a generation, large numbers of colleges and universities — including the nation’s most prestigious public and private thinkeries — have stipulated that every senior administrator declare himself or herself “committed” to diversity. Higher education may have other litmus tests for ideological conformity, but the you-better-believe-in-diversity test is the only one that isn’t hidden. Each year, it adorns hundreds of job advertisements in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Higher education could legitimately pose many tests on the suitability of candidates for positions of leadership, but they rarely declare themselves in search of candidates with a “proven commitment” to honesty, academic freedom, objectivity, or high intellectual standards. Those commitments are either taken for granted or just not as important as having someone who promises to pursue diversity.

It should therefore occasion no surprise that 34 organizations representing higher education collectively urged President Bush to file an amicus brief in the Michigan cases — in support of the University of Michigan. The presidents of quite a few universities have also taken the occasion to prove their commitments all over again. Having fostered racial preferences in admissions and in every aspect of campus life, they are eager to preserve the status quo.

Because we will be hearing a lot from these folks in the next several months, it is important to see that they are, in a sense, intellectually compromised from the get-go. The presidents, provosts, and deans who are defending the importance of “diversity” in higher education owe their jobs in part to their willingness to advance this political cause.

Let me not over-generalize. Not all diversicrats are the same. Some are true believers and see themselves, however misguidedly, as engaged in a noble cause. Some are arrant careerists whose chief talent is mouthing the piety of the moment. And some are just conventional thinkers who have, with untroubled conscience, accepted the dogmas of their time and place.

It therefore wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that diversicrats owe their careers to their willingness to subordinate genuine intellectual inquiry and educational standards to the pursuit of diversity. Some of them have made that choice; for others, it was never a problem. It is fair, however, to point out that the concept of socially engineered diversity as a path toward social good and educational excellence is very weak. In the years during which administrators were “proving” their commitments to diversity, no philosopher, social scientist, or humanist of any stature even attempted to defend the idea. We have no great “founding documents” of diversity, not even the equivalent of a Communist Manifesto or Port Huron Statement that formulates the key idea.

The closest thing, coming long after the movement itself, was philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1977). Professor Nussbaum is known to conservatives principally for the whoppers she told as an expert witness in her testimony in a 1993 court case (Romer v. Evans) in Colorado. In that instance, she bolstered a case brought by a gay activist by telling the court — to the surprise of classicists everywhere — that the ancient Greeks had no laws against homosexual behavior. In Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum likewise conscripted the Greeks and the Romans too in an effort to legitimate a very contemporary cause. She claimed that the education favored by the ancients aimed to produce good citizens, and — lo and behold — that’s what “grappling with diversity” on campus will do for us today.

Nussbaum’s idea that “grappling with diversity” creates better citizens (in a global sort of way) has been taken up by other defenders of diversity, notably an expert witness in the Michigan cases, Patricia Gurin, who claims to have evidence that “diversity” as enforced by the University of Michigan, not only creates more engaged citizens, but also improves their “critical thinking.”

And that is pretty much it. The 34 higher-education organizations and the thousands of college administrators who support diversity as an educational good, of course, are currently concentrating on whether the pursuit of diversity passes constitutional muster as a reason for racial preferences in admissions. But the larger issue of whether the kind of diversity they support is educationally worthwhile won’t go away, and the Nussbaum and Gurin arguments are, at the moment, about all the diversicrats have to show. The University of Michigan’s briefs and the amicus briefs of its supporters are stuffed with these sorts of claims and “studies’ that purport to demonstrate them.

Diversity, in other words, rests on the frailest sorts of intellectual foundations. It has, among its key supporters, some people who definitely have a hard time distinguishing historical fact from convenient fantasy and some dull ideologues, but little else. The scarcity of real arguments and evidence to support diversity goes all the way back to Justice Powell’s decision in 1978 in the Bakke case, where he relied on the Princeton Alumni Newsletter and a self-congratulatory puff-piece from Harvard as his only two sources for the idea that the pursuit of diversity as a “plus factor” was a worthy exception to the principle of human equality.

William Bowen and Derek Bok’s The Shape of the River (1998) showed that racial preferences in admission to elite colleges on the whole financially benefit the recipients. (They do, but so what?) But mostly we are left to contemplate Patricia Gurin’s rephrasing of Nussbaum’s good citizenship thesis. Gurin says diversity helps students “to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society.” Well, it did teach something like that to the Michigan plaintiffs, Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter.

So as I see it, we will be hearing a lot from college presidents who have a “proven commitment to diversity” but not much of anything to say beyond the clichés they have been reciting for years. The cases before the Supreme Court will probably turn out badly for these educational leaders. But, in the aftermath, they will still have their jobs. If the Court says race preferences in admissions are illegal, thousands of college presidents, provosts, vice provosts, and deans, who have been recruited to their positions by having “demonstrated” their commitments to diversity will do everything they can to subvert the ruling. They will devise winking ways to take account of race in admissions, such as the “diversity essay” that will allow them to exercise race preferences without getting caught; they will continue to hire and promote on the basis of “social identity;” and they will maintain and build on the “group identity” apparatus in residence halls, student activities, and the curriculum. And many will do all this in the spirit of moral superiority, convinced that reducing people to their social coordinates is a noble enterprise.

We will know that the tide of battle has really turned when places like the University of Memphis drop the diversity oath as a job requirement for their administrators. I can even imagine the day when many of those college presidents and provosts who have “proven commitments” to diversity will be denying their past, trying to disprove that they ever advocated something so mean, so de-humanizing, and so anti-intellectual.

Peter W. Wood is a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of the new book Diversity.


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