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The Pretext of Diversity in American Universities

A surfeit of reparations advocates (including Ta-Nehisi Coates) are openly disdainful of the diversity rationale—just not so disdainful as to actually oppose diversity initiatives.

· 12 min read
The Pretext of Diversity in American Universities
Photo by Emily Karakis on Unsplash

Whenever the topic of affirmative action and academic diversity trends, a certain classroom experience comes to mind. After a lecture comparing the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, I asked my students which seemed worse: tyranny or anarchy. A consensus began to gel around anarchy being preferable to tyranny, on the grounds that anarchy affords greater personal freedom and, thus, potential for improvement. At the time, I was teaching in a suburban Arizona college where the distinction between conservative and libertarian ideologies can run a bit muddy, so I was prepared to offer some hypothetical challenges to this view.

But then Tamara (not her real name) raised her hand. Tamara’s classmates mostly reflected the community demographics of recent high-school graduates—that is, middle-class American teenagers of assorted race and indistinguishably suburban milieu. But Tamara herself was conspicuously Muslim. “I’m from Iraq,” she volunteered. “Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. When I was little, I heard stories about girls disappearing from school and never coming home, but it was always someone else’s school. It never happened to anyone I knew, only to my friend’s friend or my cousin’s cousin. Sometimes it was scary, but life was mostly normal. We went to church and school. We talked to our neighbors. When Saddam Hussein was removed, there was anarchy for a while. No one went to school or church. My neighbors were killing each other over clean water. Things got better eventually, even better than before. But if I had to choose between anarchy or tyranny for the rest of my life, I would choose tyranny.”

Tamara’s classmates were transfixed. Her personal testimony breathed life into the question, transforming it from a game of speculative hypotheticals into a practical problem that demanded serious reflection. Instead of falling back on shallow political slogans or tired civics clichés, my students began actively interrogating their own priors, raising the level of discourse.

As my pedagogy has evolved over the years, I’ve often returned to that moment to reflect not only on the discussion itself but on the classroom conditions that made it possible. Much continues to be written about the importance of viewpoint diversity in student bodies, and I have rarely witnessed a more striking example. But as faculty, my control over the demographics of my classroom is essentially zero. There were also only about 20 students enrolled in that class; could the moment be reproduced in a lecture hall seating a hundred or more? The size of my classes has also never been up to me. So, I have tried to focus on variables over which I have some discernible control, like making sure all my students have a chance to speak, or maintaining a sufficiently respectful environment that people with heterodox views or sensitive personal experiences feel comfortable sharing them.

I have since received many compliments on my ability to draw students into productive conversations, and my teaching evaluations have provided great professional satisfaction. But robust success in my classroom continues to depend not only on the quality of my teaching, but on the willingness of my students to make personal contributions to the learning environment. This phenomenon was at least partly explained by English jurist and philosopher Francis Bacon, who famously cautioned against a number of hurdles to clear thinking in his essay Novum Organum. These hurdles included the idola specus or “Idols of the Den”:

The idols of the den are those of each individual; for everybody (in addition to the errors common to the race of man) has his own individual den or cavern, which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, or from the different impressions produced on the mind, as it happens to be preoccupied and predisposed, or equable and tranquil, and the like; so that the spirit of man (according to its several dispositions), is variable, confused, and as it were actuated by chance[.]

To overcome this hurdle, Bacon suggests, we “should suspect whatever particularly takes and fixes [our] understanding, and should use so much the more caution to preserve it equable and unprejudiced.” When teaching the Novum Organum, I invite my students to imagine themselves peering out at the world through the mouth of a cave, their view constrained by its narrowness. How can they broaden their metaphorical horizons and keep their understanding unprejudiced?

One answer is to consult with others whose personal caverns overlook different parts of the world. This can be a way of talking about the breadth of human experience, but it can also be somewhat literal; among the contributing causes of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment eras was an increase in cross-cultural exchange. While international enrollment is sometimes sought “as a bailout for universities,” the less mercenary justification for diverse matriculation is that it is of intellectual benefit to students. This is sometimes called the “diversity rationale” for demographic-sensitive recruitment and admissions in higher education.

Among the most powerful objections to the diversity rationale is that students themselves should not be asked (or do not necessarily care) to contribute their perspectives for the benefit of their classmates. Recollecting an incident where a teacher sought comment on the use of racial epithets in the literary work of Mark Twain, Kimberly Reyes once observed:

I was there to learn like everyone else. But suddenly, as one of two black students in the class, I was expected to enhance the learning experiences of my mostly white counterparts. I’ll never forget the terrifying and confusing feeling of going from a part of the classroom to a classroom accessory.

To avoid burdening minority students in this way, Reyes suggests, “affirmative action”—that is, programs and policies that give members of historically oppressed identity groups privileged access to education and employment opportunities—should not be used to promote diversity. Rather, it should only exist as part of a program of reparations. On what can be called the “reparative rationale,” past oppression of one’s identity group justifies special benefits to oneself, without regard for personal desert or incidental benefits (such as exposure to diverse viewpoints) as might accrue to others.

It might be objected that helping everyone is better than only helping some, but advocates for reparations can respond that goods like access to higher education are positional. Programs that improve everyone’s absolute position, but do not change the relevant identity group’s relative position, do not satisfy the reparative rationale. For example, let’s imagine that, in an act of penitence, a historically racist institution like Harvard or Yale admits a freshman class consisting entirely of poverty-afflicted black students from Baptist congregations in urban Chicago. This would violate the diversity rationale for affirmative action, since the student body would arrive with substantially overlapping perspectives. The reparative rationale, by contrast, endorses such an approach: more black students (and correspondingly fewer non-black students) attending universities that gatekeep highly compensated careers and the levers of American political power is, on the reparative rationale, an unqualified good.

Beginning with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the reparative rationale, finding it unconstitutional. In the US, “equal protection of the laws” forbids public universities from favoring applicants of certain groups as a form of reparations for past injustices. But on the diversity rationale, the Court recognizes overall student body diversity as a compelling interest. Admissions officers are therefore permitted to give some “weight” to the race of individual applicants for admission, at least for the next six years. This is presumably why many universities now boast committees and administrators dedicated to “diversity, equity, and inclusion”—not “reparations, equity, and inclusion.”

There are other rationales for demographic-oriented recruitment and admission. In her 2010 book, The Imperative of Integration, philosopher Elizabeth Anderson identifies at least two—anti-discrimination and social integration. But the anti-discrimination rationale is self-refuting, since discrimination in favor of one group can be difficult to persuasively distinguish from discrimination against another. Under controlling precedent, the constitutional way to “stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And the aim of social integration faces the same basic hurdle as the diversity rationale: members of historically oppressed identity groups are often suspicious of—or even straightforwardly opposed to—being swept into the assimilative liberal project.

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But it is sad to see established facts now suppressed along with undesirable beliefs and opinions. And to see our institutions of higher learning being led to this kind of neo-obscurantism in the name of enlightened social attitudes.

Therein lies the rub. Viewpoint diversity is a liberal value lacking any necessary connection to the redistributionist instincts of political progressivism—much less the identitarian chauvinism indulged in more radical spheres. A Muslim immigrant from a war-torn nation certainly brings a unique perspective to a classroom of mostly middle-class American teenagers, but so might the child of a Chinese real estate mogul, or a convicted felon out on parole, or a middle-aged Catholic priest, and so on. The original impetus for academic affirmative action was obviously racial disparities in education and employment, not a perceived shortage of (say) middle-aged Catholic perspectives in the classroom.

So, did the Court’s enshrinement of the diversity rationale in law bring an end to the reparative schemes of American identitarians? Hardly. Evaluating recent public debate on affirmative action in higher education, Oliver Traldi argues that the “perspective presently dominant is not even capable of making sense of itself.” But what if “making sense” is exactly what the dominant perspective has developed to avoid? Insofar as “viewpoint diversity” affirmative action happens to benefit the same identity groups favored by reparative regimes, this can (apparently!) be written off as a happy coincidence. Appeals to other kinds of diversity are simply dismissed as unserious.

Scholars like George Yancey and Jonathan Haidt took the diversity pretext at face value and generated reams of empirical evidence that conservative (and, especially, religious conservative) viewpoints are heavily under-represented in higher education. Yet, essentially no one in higher education is seriously pursuing affirmative action for conservative or Christian students or faculty, as viewpoint diversity would appear to demand. In many places, the practical meaning of student body “diversity” has become, simply, “less white and Asian.” Whether this increases viewpoint diversity in classrooms (and it might) does not appear to actually matter. What universities overwhelmingly pursue, as US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggests, is the “aesthetic” of diversity.

Institutional conflation of diversity and reparations is buttressed by support from review outlets like US News & World Report, which ranks the “diversity” of student bodies by first excluding international students from consideration. Even though US News itself agrees that “international students ... add diversity to a college or university,” the organization primarily reports “diversity” as a measure of the disparate racial and ethnic self-identification of culturally American students. This is a clear nod to the idea that diversity initiatives in higher education are not aimed at viewpoint diversity at all, but at the advancement of a particular vision of American identity politics. (Recognizing this also helps to make sense of the University of California’s continuing efforts to impose ideological orthodoxy on its employees.)

Equivocation between diversity and reparations is a textbook application of what Nicholas Shackel calls the “motte-and-bailey doctrine.” For those unfamiliar:

[A] Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte.
[T]he desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed.

A surfeit of reparations advocates (including Ta-Nehisi Coates) are openly disdainful of the diversity rationale—just not so disdainful as to actually oppose diversity initiatives. In the spirit of Ayn Rand on the dole, reparations advocates are willing to take what they can get even when it falls short of their ideals. Indeed, offices of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” appear mostly free in practice to function on the reparative rationale, so long as they don’t call it that in any FOIA-accessible documentation.

The reparative rationale is the reparation advocate’s bailey: desirable on a certain view but difficult to defend, especially in cases where the primary beneficiaries are young people from wealthy families. As Justice Thomas observes, the pursuit of a racially diverse student body “does nothing for those too poor or uneducated to participate in elite higher education.” This is not to claim that the reparative rationale cannot be defended—only that the argument is both challenging and broadly unnecessary. Reparations advocates can retreat to the diversity rationale the moment critics come calling.

Then, if pressed on the diversity rationale, the reparations advocate can default to the interminable aspiration of imperfect duty. A maximally diverse classroom could make education impracticable, if the instructor and the students lacked so much as a common tongue. On the spectrum between “so different we cannot learn from one another” and “so alike there is nothing to learn from one another,” there are presumably more and less optimal places to situate our institutions of higher education. If we cannot do everything that might improve viewpoint diversity, this is surely no objection to the things we can do. If our “diversity, equity, and inclusion” efforts focus on increasing black or Hispanic enrollment while doing nothing about the absence of rural students or plummeting male matriculation, well, it would be unrealistic to expect diversity officers to solve every problem at once.

Fair enough—but once this is identified as a motte, the jig is up. The real question is whether it is unrealistic to expect admissions officers to actually pursue viewpoint diversity, rather than running reparations programs under its cover. Thus far, the US Supreme Court has taken universities at their word, accepting a veneer of diversity as the genuine article. But as the Court again weighs certiorari on the matter of admissions discrimination, this time against Asian applicants to Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, identitarians understandably fear for the future of affirmative action.

If the Court agrees to hear either case (or both), there are only three likely outcomes. The first is that the Court could put some teeth into Equal Protection and outlaw affirmative action altogether, six years ahead of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s proffered deadline. I suspect the practical consequences of such a ruling would be less dire than is sometimes supposed, but I am also skeptical that the Roberts Court can be persuaded to go that far. The more likely result is a finding that admissions procedures disadvantaging Asian Americans are, under the diversity rationale, either permissible or impermissible. The Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court to deny certiorari on the theory that targeted discrimination against Asian applicants is a permissible way to increase viewpoint diversity among university students.

But whether or not Harvard and UNC prevail in the judgment, the resulting opinion would most likely reinforce the diversity rationale—putting another doctrinal nail in the reparative coffin. Since there is essentially zero chance that the conservative Court will pivot to the reparative rationale, the best case scenario for identitarians is exactly what the Biden administration has requested: for the Court to deny certiorari, allowing the status quo of prioritizing a spurious “viewpoint diversity” to persist unaltered until a more identitarian Court can be appointed.

Not everyone values viewpoint diversity in their classroom—or, for that matter, in their community—but I certainly do. And while I hope I never make any of my students feel like a “classroom accessory,” I do expect all of them to contribute their unique perspectives for the betterment of their peers. In fact, I regard such interactions as central to the university experience. So, I think it is important that university admissions officers be empowered to matriculate a student body with a variety of experiences and backgrounds among their merits. Such latitude must surely include reasonable recognition of the role that race (but also region, and recreation, and religion) plays in viewpoint diversity.

But, whether overtly or covertly applied, the reparative rationale limits the ability of admissions officers to craft a diverse student body. It demands that universities carry out an external agenda of social engineering. This is the very opposite of empowerment. Worse, the reparative rationale invites students to comprehend education as an entitlement, something society is obligated to provide them in recompense for past discrimination. This obscures the truth that higher education, liberal education, can never be passively received—only taken, wrested from the struggle to emerge from one’s Baconian cave by facing the challenging ideas of diverse, even disagreeable others. Equivocation between the diversity rationale and the reparative rationale leads to more than just confusion in public discourse. It reduces higher education from a collaborative pursuit of personal betterment, to mere political spoils.

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