Diversity Questions

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Will a diverse college campus – where “diverse” means that there is at least a “critical mass” of students and faculty members who are regarded as being members of certain “underrepresented” groups – lead to better results than if the school did not make any effort at being “diverse?”
In my previous Clarion Call essay, I looked at the argument that diversity is beneficial because it causes people to better relate to one another.  I didn’t find that argument very persuasive.  What I want to do here is to examine some other arguments that have been advanced as justifying the hiring and admission preferences that are integral to the diversity movement.

Globalization

The first argument is that diversity helps prepare American students for the diverse and increasingly globalized world they will live and work in.  A “diverse” campus is therefore good preparation for the future.  A college that failed to give its students that preparation would be remiss, wouldn’t it?

We need to begin with the premises of the argument.  We often hear it said that the world is becoming more diverse and globalized, but is it the case that most or even a significant fraction of American workers will have contact with people from other nations in their jobs? The vast majority of American workers don’t currently have anything to do with international commerce and it’s hard to see how that’s going to change much. True, the volume of international trade will probably increase, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a substantial percentage of the labor force will be involved in it.

Furthermore, why is a more “diverse” college experience any preparation for international business dealings?  Being in classes with American “minority” students, most of whom are culturally no different than “majority” students hardly teaches one anything about foreign peoples, languages, and cultures.

Finally, this argument evaporates when you consider the great success in international commerce that the Japanese have enjoyed – just to name the most conspicuous example of a people who don’t concern themselves with “diversity.” What the Japanese (and other successful international traders throughout history) understand is that you don’t need a “diverse” educational experience to be able to interact with foreigners.

Role models

Another argument raised in favor of campus diversity is that “minority” students need role models from their own groups in order to have the best chance at success. For example, on this theory, Latino students need to have at least some Latino professors in order to master their studies.

That argument has a ring of plausibility, but is it generally true?  It is easy to find instances of “minority” students who have earned advanced degrees in the most demanding of subjects without ever having had a course taught by “one of their own.”  Also, there is something rather condescending toward minority students in saying that many of them, having reached college age, are unable to just focus their attention on the subject matter being presented to them and ignore the physical characteristics of the person presenting it.

Note also a troubling implication of this argument.  If we took it seriously, we would need to have segregated classes, with students assigned to (or at least having the option of choosing) classes taught by instructors from “their own” group.  That would be very costly and would also require the hiring of many “role model” professors who would have less experience in teaching and perhaps less knowledge of the subject than the “majority” professors.  Assuming for the sake of argument that there is a “role model” gain, does that gain still hold if the instructor is less capable?

Different points of view

Yet a third argument for diversity is that classrooms are improved by the addition of “minority points of view.” That argument has been employed most often with regard to law school, where class discussions on certain topics are said to be enriched by the inclusion of “minority” opinions.  The same contention might apply to some undergraduate courses.

One obvious question — how often is it that there is any distinctively “minority” point of view to be expressed?  In law school, courses where that is even conceivable are few in number.  Is there any “minority” viewpoint regarding the subject matter of trusts and estates, civil procedure, or antitrust? Hardly. And even in those classes where there might be one or more “minority” views, why are they relevant in learning the law?  Law students go to school to learn from experts what they need to know in legal practice, not to listen to the opinions of other students as to whether the law is ideal.  To whatever extent the professor desires to catalyze debate in class, he can voice critical observations about the law better than the students probably can.

University of Michigan law professor Terrance Sandalow has written, “My own experience…is that racial diversity is not responsible for generating ideas unfamiliar to some members of the class.  Even though the subjects I teach deal extensively with racial issues, I cannot recall an instance in which, for example, ideas were expressed by a black student that have not also been expressed by white students.”

John McWhorter, in his iconoclastic book Winning the Race is even more dismissive of the idea: “What is the ‘black view’ on systolic pressure? La Chanson de Roland?  Contract law? Musical counterpoint? And what, pray tell, are the distinct Latino views on these subjects?” He regards it as condescending for whites to think that there is one black view on anything and that they just have to hear it.

Justification or rationalization?

Not one of the arguments in favor of “diversity” as it’s practiced is very convincing.  In fact, an array of writers believe that the arguments offered on behalf of the diversity project are just thin rationalizations for something higher education leaders wanted to do anyway – rather like the kid whose mother catches him sneaking cookies and says, “But Mom, I recently read that chocolate has important antioxidants. Don’t you want me to stay healthy?”

Peter Wood suggests that in his book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept where he writes, “As administrators got their minds around the concept and as it was taken up by politically committed faculty members, diversity became more than a legalistic dodge. It dawned on some that diversity might be an immensely useful idea: a positive-sounding and potentially popular rubric for advancing a political agenda that had so far proven highly unpopular with the American people as a whole.”  The diversity project had an appeal to many people in higher ed authority before Justice Powell, in his Bakke opinion suggested a possible constitutional
justification for it – the “educational benefits” rationalization.  It was not the case that those people said, “Oh look, there is evidence that education would be better with more diversity, let’s do it.”  Rather, I think it’s true that people who, for ideological or personal reasons favored the diversity project said, “This is what we want; what rationalization will sound best?”

Is there any way in which American higher education is better now than it was before the advent of “diversity?”  That’s the ultimate question.

George Leef is the vice president for research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh. The Pope Center will hold a conference on diversity in Raleigh on Saturday, October 14th.