Diversity Debate, Features, Long Read, Politics

Diversity: A Managerial Ideology

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age. It is the public ideology of the country’s most powerful state and business institutions. To many it is the essence of American national identity and, in one of the favorite phrases of President Barack Obama, ‘who we are’ as a country.

Rather than simply a recognition of difference, diversity is a cultural, economic, and political project to both generate difference and to manage it. This project traces its ancestry back to the black civil rights and women’s movements of the 1950s-70s. First blacks and then women organized and pressured state and society with demands for equality. Struggles took place in nearly every social arena, from housing to public accommodations to religion to sport. Conflict was especially pointed in employment and education, the country’s key channels for upward social mobility. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as the signature legal culmination of those demands, and its Titles IV and VII set forth society’s new norms on ‘equal opportunity’ in both arenas. By ensuring equal access to university admissions, job training, the professions, and corporate management positions, supporters hoped that over time equal outcomes would result, the power of prejudiced white men would be curtailed, and the skills of blacks and women would expand. Not only would underprivileged individuals benefit. So, too, would the country as a whole.

While the social intent of the Civil Rights Act was clear, the legal definition of this new equality norm was not. What would the government consider evidence of discrimination? How much activity counted as a good faith effort toward equal opportunity? Was it possible to pursue too much equality? America’s largest, most dynamic, and most profitable firms in aerospace, computers, communications, and heavy manufacturing – as well as its largest and most prestigious universities – blazed the trail which all others, even the state itself, followed. Elite institutions in business and education eventually defined nondiscrimination and equal opportunity as ‘affirmative action.’ Concretely this meant an expanding set of bureaucratic ‘best practices’ including written nondiscrimination policies, targeted recruitment, targeted financial aid, special managerial training programs, formal grievance and disciplinary procedures, an end to job tests, and performance evaluations. It also created hundreds of thousands of managerial best practitioners. From the early 1970s to the dawn of diversity in the late 1980s, the number of large US firms with a personnel office nearly doubled. The number with an equal opportunity office quadrupled. Those with an affirmative action officer grew five-fold.1

While the rapid spread of affirmative action policies met a backlash in the late 1970s, this resistance was largely a white middle class revolt. Support never flagged among elites. In fact, most of the country’s largest corporations opposed the Reagan administration’s efforts to dismantle affirmative action practices in the early 1980s. Despite regulatory relief, nearly all Fortune 500 firms continued to pursue or even expand efforts to recruit and employ more racial minorities and women.2 Elite universities remained strongly committed as well, demonstrating their resolve most clearly in the famous reverse discrimination Bakke Supreme Court case.

In 1974 California resident Allan Bakke brought suit against the University of California, Davis for twice rejecting his application to its medical school. Despite his having test scores well above average for the school’s applicant pool in addition to four years service in the Marine Corps and a seven month tour in Vietnam, UC-Davis refused Bakke admission. The School of Medicine justified this in part because of his age – such discrimination being perfectly legal at the time – and in part because of the manner in which he blamed his first rejection on the School’s affirmative action policy. Beginning shortly after its founding in 1968, the Davis medical school operated a quota system for racial minorities in which around 15 percent of its admission slots were reserved for non-white students. Although Congress believed its Civil Rights Act banned quotas in employment and the Department of Labor under President Nixon clearly forbade them, colleges and universities had been using various types of admissions quotas for decades and were committed to continuing them.

In 1978, four years after Bakke’s original suit, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. The nine justices issued six separate opinions, none gathering a majority. Justice Lewis Powell’s idiosyncratic opinion, however, garnered enough partial support in places that it stood as the judgment of the Court. In a victory for affirmative action opponents, it ordered Bakke to be admitted to the Davis School of Medicine and barred the use of racial quotas. Yet in a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court also agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course.  He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action. According to the country’s most elite private universities, diversity in all its forms – race, region, social class, field of interest, occupational life plan (although not sex, as Harvard College was male-only until 1977 as was Columbia College until 1983) – is a precondition for the best educational experience possible.

Powell’s endorsement of the so-called ‘Harvard plan’ as a constitutionally permissible and even preferable equal opportunity practice spread diversity throughout American higher education and the elite business sector. Equal opportunity officers and consultants morphed into diversity officers and consultants. New diversity categories expanded older affirmative action mission statements. Diversity training replaced race relations workshops. Culture audits burst onto the scene. By the early 1990s, diversity had conquered Corporate America.3

The country’s managerial elite now rarely misses an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to diversity. In California (1996), Houston (1997), Washington state (1998), and Michigan (2006), policies barring consideration of race, ethnicity, and sex in the public sector went to referendum. In each case, the largest corporations in the area – Exxon, Enron, Boeing, Microsoft, General Motors, Ford – were among the strongest opponents. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court revisited its Bakke decision in the case Grutter v. Bollinger. General Motors and a collective of sixty-five Fortune 500 firms filed separate passionate and influential defenses of diversity before the Court.4 Race/ethnicity-based university admissions policies appeared yet again before the Court in Fisher v. University of Texas. In 2012 and again in 2015, 45 Fortune 100 firms argued that diversity is essential both for individual “success in the corporate world” as well as “business success” in “country and world economies that are increasingly diverse.” Diversity in higher education management is today so hegemonic that it stands as an orthodoxy against which only the most foolhardy or cantankerous now speak.5

Business would have us believe its embrace of diversity is a straightforward matter of efficiency, productivity, and profitability. In their 2015 Obergefell brief, the “379 Employers and Organizations” supporting a constitutional right to same-sex marriage pointed to “rigorous analyses” which demonstrate “the business value of investments in diversity” including “significant returns for our shareholders and owners.” A 2013 survey of four hundred executives conducted by the consulting and recruitment firm Korn/Ferry found that a stunning 96 percent believed “having a diverse and inclusive workforce can lead to higher employee engagement and improved business results.”6 The business case for diversity couldn’t have been stated more clearly than in the Fortune 100 firms’ brief to the Supreme Court in the Fisher case. For these largest globe-spanning firms “to succeed in their businesses,” American higher education must develop “university-trained employees [who] have had the opportunity to share ideas, experiences, viewpoints, and approaches with a broadly diverse student body. … this is a business and economic imperative.”7

But is there really a business case for diversity? While most corporations claim to be true believers, social science gives a decidedly mixed answer.8  That being said, the academic debate over diversity’s impact on the bottom line is largely, well, academic. Managers embraced diversity long before any meaningful evidence existed for its positive effects. The first systematic academic study of whether diversity policies even produce diversity, much less profitability, wasn’t published until 2006.9 Business and educational elites certainly aren’t waiting around for academics to tell them what to do now. Higher education managers are in a similar position. Universities claim the case for diversity is an educational one, an argument their most elite representatives pioneered decades ago. Yet academic debate continues, particularly over the degree to which diversity improves student cognitive skills and tendencies.10 Whether diversity admissions practices even help their targets remains a matter of controversy.11 Despite all this uncertainty, higher education displayed total unity of purpose in the Fisher case. Briefs supporting the University of Texas were filed by seventy-five universities and colleges as well as by the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Association of American Law Schools. Not one college, university, or educational organization filed in support of Abigail Fisher.

Plenty of cynical arguments exist to explain managerial enthusiasm for diversity. Critical race theorists in particular claim diversity is little more than propaganda designed to sideline discussions of racial justice and to legitimate the power of managers.12 No doubt an element of self-interest is behind the promotion of any ideology. Managerial elites supported affirmative action in the 1960s and 1970s in part out of a fear of black riots, and thus creating a black managerial elite was thought to counter the frustration which supposedly motivated urban unrest.13 As personnel initiatives, both affirmative action and diversity created managerial employment opportunities for women in particular. Evidence suggests white women have in fact benefited more than any other group from corporate diversity initiatives.14

Such arguments have notable problems, however. They fail to grapple with clear evidence that many managers show genuine enthusiasm for diversity. They ignore the contentious social and political debate over the merits of diversity and thus the contradictory, even ironic, effects of the ideology on elite legitimacy. Most importantly, they overlook diversity’s deeper class aspects. As an ideology and associated set of practices, diversity is attractive to managers and administrators because it is a particular version of the broader ideology of managerialism.

Unlike capitalism or socialism, managerialism is not a household word. Yet it should be thought of alongside these more famous -isms. Capitalism places the business entrepreneur at the center of society and emphasizes her role in social development. Socialism elevates the worker to this status and places labor at the foundation of society. Managerialism, too, is a coherent and complex account of society with a program for creating social order. Not surprisingly, it places the manager at the center of that order and assigns her the key role in producing it.15

Managerialism sees society as a collection of organizations. Those organizations are themselves made up of smaller organized groups down to the basic group units of society. Not only does each group require internal management to realize its goals; the entire society does as well. Any positive order reached spontaneously through the interactions of individuals and groups is either impossible or inefficient. Positive order must be intentionally produced through expert managerial technique. In fact, this is the way all organizational goods are realized. In a managerial society all enjoy the fruits of greater efficiency, creativity, and productivity as society’s opportunities for advancement are more effectively distributed. No human capital will go to waste.

Managerialism’s ideal is a society in which every individual has an equal chance to develop and realize his merit and be rewarded by society for it. This is a process of individual transformation and empowerment. Networking and mentoring programs build personal skills toward increasing personal value, self-affirmation, and self-realization. Diversity training is a transformative educational experience which both explores the self and creates cultural competencies. Even white men can gain marketable interpersonal skills and realize multicultural character ideals through diversity.

Thus managerial elites, whether in the private or public sector, have embraced diversity because it is a managerial ideology. Within diversity, difference is not simply a social fact of American society. It is its deepest truth. This makes difference an inescapable problem. Because of the lines of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and the like, diverse groups of different individuals have problems interacting in peaceful and productive ways. Bigotry and prejudice compound the negative effect. Yet difference offers a shining promise as well. If differences are reconciled, new pinnacles of co-operation, creativity, productivity, and social harmony can be achieved. Since this process is neither natural nor automatic, skilled managers are essential for the good society to be realized. Bureaucracy becomes the pathway to progress.


Darel E. Paul is Professor of Political Science at Williams College. His latest book is From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage (Baylor University Press) forthcoming February 2018. You can follow Darel on Twitter @darelmass 



1 Frank Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2009), 87.
2 Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity, 138.
3 Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity, 133-160.
4 Daniel N. Lipson, “Where’s the Justice? Affirmative Action’s Severed Civil Rights Roots in the Age of Diversity,” Perspectives on Politics 6 (2008), 691-706.
5 Daniel N. Lipson, “Embracing Diversity: The Institutionalization of Affirmative Action as Diversity Management at UC-Berkeley, UT-Austin, and UW-Madison,” Law & Social Inquiry 32 (2007), 985-1026.
6Executive Attitudes on Diversity Positive, but Actions Lagging, Korn/Ferry Institute Survey Finds,” Korn Ferry, November 2, 2013.
7 “Brief of Fortune-100 and other leading American businesses as amici curiae in support of respondents,” Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981 (2015).
8 George Gotsis and Zoe Kortezi, “Workplace Diversity: A Resource or a Source of Conflict?”, in Gotsis and Kortezi, Critical Studies in Diversity Management Literature: A Review and Synthesis (Dordrecht:  Springer, 2015), 1-12; James Damore, “The Case for Diversity,” Quillette, February 12, 2018.
9 Alexandra Kalev et al., “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies,” American Sociological Review 71 (2006), 589-617.
10 Nicholas A. Bowman, “College Diversity Experiences and Cognitive Development: A Meta-Analysis,” Review of Educational Research 80 (2010), 4-33.
11 Peter Arcidiacono and Michael Lovenheim, “Affirmative Action and the Quality-Fit Trade-Off,” Journal of Economic Literature 54 (2016), 3-51.
12 Ellen Berrey, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
13 Dobbin, Inventing Equal Opportunity, 50-51.
14 Kalev et al., “Best Practices”.
15 Harold Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England Since 1880 (London: Routledge, 1989); Christopher Pollitt, Managerialism and the Public Services: The Anglo-American Experience (Cambridge, MA:  Basil Blackwell, 1990); Willard F. Enteman, Managerialism: The Emergence of a New Ideology (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).

Filed under: Diversity Debate, Features, Long Read, Politics


Darel E. Paul is Professor of Political Science at Williams College. His latest book is From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage (Baylor University Press) forthcoming February 2018.