The Wrong Kind Of Diversity

October 23, 2012 Current Commentary Comments Off
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I heard a story recently at my alma mater, the University of Montana, which sheds some light on the peculiar logic of diversity, affirmative action and political correctness on American campuses today.

One of the school’s academic units recently underwent an accreditation review. The visiting team of academics and administrators gave the program high marks in all areas except, as you have probably guessed, diversity. The accreditation itself was renewed, but the reviewers made clear that they want to see greater effort in the future.

I can’t name the program here, but I can tell you that it has a long history of reaching out to Montana’s Native American community, which is by far the state’s most prevalent and needy minority group. It has worked hard to attract native students to the campus, and it has sent many non-native students to work in educational and community service programs on the state’s seven reservations.

This program has demonstrable diversity, but it is the wrong kind of diversity. The out-of-state reviewers wanted to see more African-American students on the campus in Missoula. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that Montana’s population is only 0.5 percent African-American. In this particular discipline, even programs in states with large African-American communities have had trouble attracting many black students. Any such students who came to Montana would have to be prepared to pay nonresident tuition, move to a distant and unfamiliar community and enter a profession that, while rewarding, does not pay particularly well. Montana is a beautiful place, and attending college there can be a great experience, but this particular recruiting assignment is a heavy lift. In the end, the nonwhite, U.S.-born, out-of-state students who might be persuaded to come are likely to be socioeconomically similar to their white out-of-state counterparts. What is the point of targeting them for their pigmentation, rather than their credentials and career interests?

Nonetheless, the university’s administrators and the dean of the program under review are not eager to challenge the demand for greater diversity. I saw an excerpt of this academic unit’s multi-year plan, which repeats the diversity objective so many times that it sounds more like a chant than a goal. I suppose the program could open a branch campus in Oakland, Calif. Short of that, I’m not sure that it can achieve the desired African-American recruitment, or even that it should try.

The meaning and merits of diversity are in the news these days. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a challenge to the University of Texas’ practice of awarding preference to certain nonwhite students. The school argues that all students in a classroom benefit from multiple viewpoints, and that because there are so many small classes at the school, minority enrollment needs to be sustained to ensure those viewpoints are represented in most classes.

That is both a specious and demeaning argument. It reduces the viewpoint of the students, both white and nonwhite, to just a function of the color of their skins.

If educators truly want diverse viewpoints, they should seek those diverse viewpoints directly. Is there an accreditation panel out there that demands more Republicans or Libertarians? Or students with a background of hunting or skeet-shooting, who might have a different perspective on the Second Amendment? Or students, of whatever race, who are the first in their family to complete high school or attend college, or who have lived in a homeless shelter or in a car?

Would it make any sense at all for a school like the University of Texas to grant admissions preference to the daughters of a former president, raised in a household with two highly educated parents, on the basis of their race? Should schools even be in the business of determining the race of their students? One disturbing aspect of the Texas case is the revelation that applicants’ files are coded to disclose whether they are white or black.

I suspect the Supreme Court is going to finally strike down the use of race in public university admissions. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an earlier case, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

The demands being imposed on the University of Montana, and the school’s meek acquiescence to them, demonstrate that the academic clamor for racial preference has become a goal without a legitimate purpose. It is another argument why, as I have written before, state or federal agencies should wrest control of the accreditation process from self-interested academics who are wasting public resources to further private agendas.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court can bring us a step closer to being a society where what truly matters is the person you are, not the skin color you happened to inherit.


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