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Almost Four Decades After Its Birth, The Diversity Industry Thrives on Its Own Failures

The increasing power of college diversity bureaucrats over academic affairs since the 1990s has been stunning.

· 10 min read
Almost Four Decades After Its Birth, The Diversity Industry Thrives on Its Own Failures
A scene from the “Diversity Day” episode of The Office, first broadcast in 2005

Campus diversity advocates have pulled off their greatest coup to date: They have declared “diversity” to be a freestanding academic discipline, thus injecting their bureaucracy-heavy apparatus into the very heart of the academic enterprise. As of this month, Bentley University, a business-oriented liberal arts school in Waltham, Mass., will offer a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Sciences degree in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). By all accounts, this is the first undergraduate major dedicated to churning out more diversity bureaucrats and consultants. It will not be the last.

The BA track in DEI studies will prepare students for non-profit and community-based work by focusing on “theoretical approaches to social justice,” according to Bentley. The “sciences” track emphasizes the “importance of DEI in organizational strategy,” for students heading into the private sector.

Designing the new major was relatively easy, and would be easily replicable at other schools, its architects said. Bentley created just one new “foundational” course, while repackaging Bentley’s existing social justice-themed offerings under the DEI banner. “You may be surprised to find that your campus is already well on its way to forming a DEI major,” said sociologist Gary David. That is an understatement. Bentley is relatively conservative compared to other liberal arts colleges, yet was already awash in courses such as “Race and Racism in U.S. History” and “Gender and the Law.”

Bentley offers pragmatic justifications for this new academic field. The diversity-consulting business is white hot, having been turbocharged by the death of George Floyd. Any large corporation that had not yet hired an in-house diversity manager rushed to correct that omission in 2020. Other firms, already supplied with internal inclusion specialists, brought in outside diversity outfits to double down on their efforts to root out their own institutional racism.

“Diversity and inclusion roles have increased 71% globally over the last five years, with median salaries ranging from $84,000 to $126,000,” notes a Bentley communications staffer. “The racial justice movement has further accelerated demand, and industry experts predict continued exponential growth well into the future.” And Bentley’s newly minted diversity graduates will be well-positioned to meet what the school describes as “this burgeoning business need.”

But the new DEI major is not simply vocational training, Bentley officials insist. “This is a real discipline,” argues one of its architects, Kiana Pierre-Louis, a lecturer in race law and herself a “facilitator for diversity, equity and inclusion issues.” Future DEI graduates will have developed a “more holistic understanding of the world,” she says, thanks to a “firm grounding in [diversity] theories and methodologies.”

A lot is riding on that claim. Is the new DEI major a scholarly addition to a liberal arts curriculum—or is it a further step in the trivialization and politicization of higher education? The history of the field provides some answers.

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It has become common to suggest that the “white privilege” trope is a creation of contemporary diversity entrepreneurs such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. It is not. A diversity training video from the early 1990s features a bank employee confessing to the camera: “As a white woman dealing with racism, the best I’ll ever be is a recovering racist.” Lewis Griggs, a first-generation entrant into the field, described himself years ago as a “recovering racist, classist, and sexist.” A diversity consultant from Westport, Ct. told me in 1993: “You need to work five or ten years before you can say you’re into the diversity process. It never ends.”

The diversity business originated in 1984, when R. Roosevelt Thomas, a Harvard business school graduate, founded the American Institute for Managing Diversity at Morehouse College. Corporations had been practicing affirmative action for years, but the women and minorities whom employers had hired to meet equal-opportunity obligations weren’t advancing up the career ladder in acceptable numbers. Thomas came up with a novel explanation. The problem wasn’t that preferentially admitted recruits were underqualified; the problem was that their supervisors didn’t know how to “manage diversity.” It was those supervisors who needed remedial training—lots of it—not the affirmative-action beneficiaries themselves.

Managerial expectations about merit and performance often reflected cultural prejudices, Thomas and the consultants who followed him insisted. “‘Qualifications’ is a code word in the business world with very negative connotations,” a consultant with the professional-services firm of Towers Perrin (as it was then called) said in 1993. If minorities don’t meet existing employment criteria, then corporations need to expand their definition of what it means to be employable, said Alan Richter, creator of the 1991 board game, The Diversity Game. Promptness, precision, and a cogent communications style were among the attributes that diversity advisors deemed likely expendable.

A lucrative new consulting practice was born, its growth driven by a constant churn in terminology. “Valuing diversity” was different from “managing diversity.” Each newly spawned phrase came with a cadre of high-priced tutors. Lewis Griggs currently offers video trainings in such subjects as “Communicating Across Differences,” “Supervising and Managing Differences,” and “Creating, Managing, Valuing, and Leveraging Diversity,” with each video purporting to contain specialized content appropriate for different parts of an organization.

“Diversity” was eventually joined by “inclusion.” “Equity” was then added, thus yielding today’s DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) triumvirate (sometimes also going as “EDI”). The most cutting-edge organizations have lately appended a “B” (for Belonging), as at the Juilliard School in New York City. Distinguishing these terms is a core function of diversity training—and now, at Bentley, of diversity scholarship. The university’s new DEI major, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, will help graduates understand the “nuances of and differences between diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.”

Even by 1993, half of Fortune 500 companies had a designated diversity officer, and 40 percent of American companies had instituted diversity training. Diversity conferences were occurring regularly, attracting government and business attendees. And yet many reporters, academics, corporate consultants, and activists still insist that managers not only fail to “value diversity,” but remain complicit in creating a dangerous environment for women and racial minorities.

Example: Levi Strauss & Co., which was recognized on Forbes’s list of “Best Employers for Diversity” in 2019. The company itself boasts: “In the 1960s, we integrated our factories a decade before it was required by law. In the early 1980s, we joined the fight against HIV/AIDS early on. Furthermore, our president and CEO, Chip Bergh, was one of the first company leaders to join the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™ [in 2017], and has been on the front lines of efforts to protect Dreamers knowing that diversity and inclusivity makes our company better and our country stronger (after all, Levi Strauss himself was an immigrant).”

And yet the situation for minority employees at Levi Strauss is still so dire that the company has been hosting racially segregated healing sessions with professional mental health experts. As the Washington Free Beacon recently reported, its chief executive for DEI is trying to provide a “safe space for employees to express themselves” without feeling “triggered.”

Bentley University itself has yet to yield dividends from its longstanding diversity efforts. The school has been “working for decades on issues, challenges, and opportunities” pertaining to diversity, according to its Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Over 900 faculty and administrators have attended two-day diversity retreats; numerous committees, departments, and offices have focused on improving the school’s “diversity climate.” Bentley even has its own diversity consulting outfit, the Center for Women and Business, which advises employees and managers on such diversity pitfalls as being a mere “performative ally” of oppressed colleagues (as opposed to an active ally).

And yet, despite this effort, a Bentley Racial Justice Task Force recently found that the campus still did not understand how “race and racism” operate at the university. So difficult is it to be a diverse member of Bentley that the task force, formed in July 2020, began with a moment of “restoration,” providing to all “those who had been traumatized” at the school a “time to heal” and a time to “process the pain of racial injustice.”

One of Bentley’s biggest failings, according to the task force, has been its “false confidence” in “objectivity and meritocracy.” These are the norms of a “historically and predominantly white institution (HWI/PWI),” per the task force members. Typical of HWIs/PWIs, Bentley does not pay sufficient attention to the “systemic inequality” that such white norms engender. Equally dismaying, many students and professors apparently would rather study subjects other than racism, the task force lamented, thereby betraying their “lack of understanding about why the study of race is critical to the creation of a full academic experience.”

Diversity industry proponents would argue that white supremacy is simply too ingrained in America’s institutions to be rooted out within a mere three to four decades of diversity work.

But another possible reason why diversity training has not met its stated goals is that the field is intellectually bankrupt: Its practitioners peddle empty verbiage to fix a problem that is largely imaginary. I asked Bentley’s press office what the difference is between “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The answer was a dodge: “Rather than give students one particular view of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice, Bentley’s DEI major encourages students to compare and contrast approaches to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice from across disciplines and perspectives and show how they intersect with one another.” Other questions—how the school defines a “real discipline,” what are the core texts of this new discipline, and why Bentley’s decades of diversity work have not lessened the school’s purported racism—were ignored entirely.

Bentley sociologist Gary David says that “more and more studies have shown” that diversity training and DEI perspectives make “good business sense.” But this oft-asserted claim rests on a few studies of dubious experimental design, lacking control groups. The one thing diversity trainees reliably learn is how to answer post-training survey questions “in the way the training said they ‘should,’” reports sociologist Musa al-Gharbi. As for actually changing behaviors in a diversity-approved direction, the training is not only ineffective, it is often counterproductive, according to al-Gharbi.

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Far from being institutionally racist, Bentley University, like virtually every other American college today, is filled with well-meaning adults who want all their students to succeed. Corporations, law firms, Big Tech, and government agencies are bending over backwards to hire and promote as many underrepresented minorities (i.e., blacks and Hispanics) as possible. If the number of those minorities in a college or business organization is not proportional to their population share, that underrepresentation is due first and foremost to the academic skills gap. Mention of the skills gap is taboo in diversity circles, but it is real—repeatedly documented by the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, the SAT, the LSAT, the GREs, the GMAT, and the MCAT—and it is consequential.

Hiring based on any extraneous selection criterion inevitably lowers the average qualifications of the resulting employee group. Hiring based on race entails a particularly significant deviation from a meritocratic ideal, since the only reason why color-conscious hiring is implemented in the first place is that merit hiring often fails to produce a critical mass of black and Hispanic employees. In essence, the diversity conceit is a perpetual motion machine: If underqualified diversity hires are promoted out of diversity pressure, resentment and obfuscation follow. If they hit a glass ceiling, accusations of bias are inevitable. In either situation, a diversity consultant is waiting in the wings to teach managers that their expectations and standards are racist.

The increasing power of college diversity bureaucrats over academic affairs since the 1990s has been stunning. Diversity vice-chancellors oversee faculty hiring searches, mandate quotas regarding whom search committees may interview, and sometimes even mandate quotas regarding whom they must hire. Chief inclusion officers track departmental race and sex demographics, pressuring department chairs to correct diversity deficits. Associate provosts for diversity coordinate campaigns for required courses on identity and grievance within the curriculum. Deans of inclusion teach students to recognize their place on the great totem pole of victimization. Vice presidents for equity monitor campus speech, on the lookout for punishable microaggressions. Senior advisors on race and community lead crusades against faculty who have allegedly threatened the safety of campus victim groups through non-orthodox statements regarding race and sex. Now that the fictions underpinning this enterprise are being enshrined as an academic discipline, the possibility that the university will return to its status as an institution dedicated to the unfettered search for knowledge—and even, dare one say it, objectivity and meritocracy—will grow yet more remote.

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