Today’s world of higher education is not especially notable for miracles. But I am happy to report of one such miracle—the transformation of diversity from an academic liability to an asset of near incalculable benefit. That this transformation occurred in the space of a few decades and cost only a few million, makes it especially notable and gives hope that other miracles may soon appear.
Life Before the Miracle
When I began my university teaching career at an elite university in the late 1960’s the push for racial diversity was just beginning. This meant recruiting African American youngsters from the inner-city, providing extra tutoring during the summer, paying all their expenses and hiring black bureaucrats to oversee progress.
I cannot say how the experiment worked elsewhere, but for myself and department colleagues, it was an academic disaster. These recruits lagged far behind their classmates on every measure of intellectual proficiency, and those who passed the course usually did thanks to instructor generosity. Their written work was especially abysmal, and many proved troublesome students—skipping class with lame excuses, a penchant for plagiarism, and similar burdensome behaviors.
Matters did not improve over the next few decades where I spent twenty-eight years at a major state university. Despite the administration tinkering with recruitment strategies and investing yet more in remedial tutoring schemes, I saw no academic improvement. Rare exceptions aside, the “diversity students” struggled and, as before, I suspect that most survived thanks to more generous grading curves and dumbed down course requirements.
Particularly exasperating was recruiting and retaining African American graduate students. Courses requiring some mastery of statistics and research methods could be especially tough obstacles and many of these admittees thrashed about when it came time to write Ph.D. dissertations. In more than a few cases I can personally attest that overcoming this dissertation hurdle required an “unusual” level of faculty intervention.
Such under-performance could hardly be hidden from other students. I could sometimes see how their classmates smirked when these diversity admittees asked a particularly dumb question or tried to interject race-related nonsensical points into class discussion. In one large lecture class a black student adamantly insisted that the Black Panthers were a non-violent do-gooder specializing in breakfast programs for school kids. Non-minority students would also hear all the official campus talk about the latest outreach initiative or upping retention of these students by offering majors in Black Studies or permitting “blacks only” student housing.
Whether regularly admitted students seriously interacted with diversity admittees is an unanswerable question but I suspect that intellectual back-and-forth was constrained. Campus self-imposed segregation was everywhere, and I cannot recall seeing any animated discussions among mixed race groups before or after class. I suspect that if this interaction did exist, it has dwindled with time given the dangers that now can result from race-related misunderstandings. Today’s white students know all about unintentional micro-aggressions and how such conversations can accidentally bring accusations of offensiveness. Better to keep chit-chat bland.
If the problems of dealing with struggling black students were bad enough, the administrative-mandated faculty diversification was far worse. These were top-down pushes to make numbers and often included “free money” if the right candidate were hired. The emphasis was strictly on race, never program needs so zero attention was paid to what a black job candidate might teach. Who cares if the department already offers two courses on black politics if a black job candidate could only offer a third while the position in, say, Asian politics went unfilled.? Nor did anybody express reservations about the lack of traditional scholarly qualifications, notably publications in major disciplinary journals. It was just assumed that affirmative action hires could not be held to high standards. Similarly, given the intense competition for decent candidates, an attractive black candidate might be enticed with a well-above market salary, zero teaching load for his first two years on the job, a generous research and travel budget and other lures that a white male could never demand.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this diversification was how it promoted political correctness. Savvy instructors learned to avoid all sensitive topics lest minority students were offended and claimed that they could not survive in such a poisonous environment. Don’t even mention The Bell Curve or hint that racial groups differ in criminality, illegitimacy etc. etc. Almost overnight, the range of what could be expressed in the classroom (and pursued in research) drastically narrowed. Science that produced the “wrong” results automatically became “bad” science. The very idea of debating the role of culture in economic attainment became unthinkable thanks to newly arrived diversity.
All in all, other than for the most zealous egalitarians, this was a failed experiment.
Outside of teaching a few graduate seminars here in New York, I left the academy in 2002 though I have tried to keep up with events. It thus came as a great surprise to me that between my departure and today, the campus has witnessed a Miracle—diversity has been transformed from a tolerable burden, a rocky initial step in the march toward racial equality into an immense, widely celebrated benefit.
Skeptics need only search Google to see the evidence. It would be impossible to summarize this literature so only a few examples must suffice. According to the research highlighted at the website Everfi, diversity enriches a student’s educational experience, improves his or her communication skills, challenges stereotypes, allows students to see themselves as leaders and better prepares them for today’s diverse workforce. To quote, “Ultimately, studies show that diversity on campus improves ‘intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship and cultural engagement, and academic skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and writing – for students of all races. Interacting with diverse peers outside a classroom setting directly benefits students, making them better scholars, thinkers, and citizens.’”
Meanwhile the Center for American Progress (a non-partisan progressive thinktank) provides ten reasons why diversity is necessary on today’s campus. Among these are that a diverse campus will reflect America’s shifting demography, help to close race-related educational gaps, promote a more innovative and competitive workforce (vital for our global economy), make American firms more profitable, enhances national security and, lastly because the American public wants campus diversity.
Hardly surprising, the research on hiring a diverse faculty is likewise upbeat on its benefits. Typical is one academic study that argues that a diverse faculty may be especially valuable for minority students thanks to having role models who look and sound like them. In addition, all students will learn how to live in an increasingly diverse world while a diverse faculty will offer more diverse courses and thus expose all students to a wider range of ideas, teaching methods and scholarship. A different study demonstrates that upping faculty diversity will benefit college students since such faculty interacts more frequently with students than their white counterparts and use a broader range and more effective mix of pedagogical techniques.
A survey-based study at two medical schools reported that students believed that having diverse classmates greatly enhanced the quality of their education and thus supported current policies of affirmative action. At the risk of beating a dead horse, one highly scholarly, citation-rich review conclude that an ethnically diverse campus offer more varied educational experiences that both enhance learning and prepare these youngster for participation in a democratic society. And on and on.
These examples illustrate an overwhelming, uncontested consensus that diversity enhances education. Conceivably, contrary views exist, but I have yet to encounter a single example in “respectable” scholarly literature (the only possible exception are the writing of the non-academic Heather MacDonald).
It is impossible to exaggerate this alleged transformation—prior to this “miracle” an ill-prepared black student would likely be judged a liability since he could add little useful to classroom discussion and often had to be accommodated by lowering academic standards. Today, by contrast, his very presence helps classmates prepare for a more heterogeneous world, helps diminish negative race-related stereotypies all the while boosting US global economic competitiveness. Likewise, while a black Ph.D. might have once been hired despite his weak academic record, he or she now too, has become an educational asset by broadening the horizons of his white colleagues. What is remarkable about these studies is that they derive from institutions of higher learning and totally, absolutely and categorically avoid measuring any indicator of intellectual attainment.
This lopsided focus is hardly inevitable. It would not take much, for example, to assess whether ill-prepared black students thanks to a new critical mass of fellow students of color demonstrated higher levels of academic proficiency or now major in tougher subjects. Unfortunately, in today’s diversity-obsessed world it is more important that a black instructor convinces other blacks that they, too, can be professors versus helping them pass Organic Chemistry. No doubt, those searching for proof regarding the marvelous diversity miracle know full well that diversity hardly guarantees academic progress, no small matter given the academic accomplishment is the university’s pre-eminent mission.
Why this dramatic shift? Let me suggest that this abrupt change can only be explained by the a few-found ideological orthodoxy, what the Marxist would call the zigs and zags of history–the Party Line, so to speak.
Stripped of mendacious rhetoric, college admission with its promise of providing the magical diploma has become a tool to keep the peace and “promoting diversity” is the least embarrassing way to acquiesce to these political demands. Further justifying all those well-paid diversity bureaucrats—surely all their salaries must be accomplishing something. Yes, diversity admittees may have middling SAT scores and dreadful high school grades, gravitate to empty-calorie majors and stifle campus intellectual life, but their very presence on campus, regardless of classroom or disciplinary accomplishments or fields of study, contributes to our multicultural society and so they must be admitted. As for all those talented white (and Asian) males who will never be admitted or hired in a university, don’t fret—your willingness to step aside for members of historically under-represented groups is most gracious, and who knows, in a hundred years there may be campus statutes commemorating your sacrifice.
Today’s diversity mania with its dumbing down of the humanities and social sciences (and perhaps even the hard sciences) is, as they say, putting lipstick on a pig. And who cannot adore such a pig?