Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Diversity in Academics

The stock argument these days for affirmative action in the universities is that it is necessary for “diversity.” This was the claim of the University of Michigan, in a recent case, in which their admission policies, which favoured certain designated racial and ethnic groups, were ruled nevertheless to be constitutionally permissible.

This is largely because the policies are unsupportable on any claim of helping the disadvantaged. Were that the goal, means tests would work far better. The students who benefit from the current policies can rarely claim any kind of historic disadvantage: more often they are the children of immigrants.

Still, “diversity” sounds like a worthy goal, something universities should work towards.

But does the current policy really produce this? After all, a mere diversity in flesh tones is irrelevant, unworthy of consideration in a university. Diversity in sex, while desirable, can only go so far: there are only two sexes, and “diversity” requires only a small representation of either. What we want, surely, is diversity in life experiences, and diversity in thought.

And from exactly this perspective, the current drive to diversity in mere skin tone is ill-considered. Skin tone is irrelevant to real diversity. If real diversity were desired, preference should instead go to students who actually grew up in different societies, different cultures; that is, to international students, not to people of different ethnicity who all grew up in North America. After all, the real difference in life experience between a Chinese-American and a Mexican-American, who might well have attended the same schools, baseball games, and movies throughout their childhood and adolescence, is far less.

Assigning special preference to international students, then, would be the better solution. But in fact there should be no need to do this. There are a lot more non-Americans than Americans in this world. Drawing on this much larger pool, it should be a simple matter to recruit students as good as locals without needing to lower academic standards.

In fact, it is generally the schools with the highest academic standards that attract the most international students currently. So the route to true diversity is simple: raise your standards for everyone; do not lower them.

So too with hiring faculty: it is the best schools that have the most international faculty. Schools that opt for affirmative action tend to sacrifice this for mere diversity in colours of skin.

But most important of all to a university is diversity of thought. In the attention to skin colour, precisely this seems to have been lost wholesale. A recent editorial in the International Herald Tribune warns that good students in the humanities and social sciences who hold conservative views “are advised … to stay in the closet.” The world of academics is currently, to them, “hostile and discriminatory territory.”

And this seems to me to be more or less directly linked to the drive to cosmetic “diversity.” For with it comes the “speech codes,” severely limiting the scope of permitted discourse on campuses, in exactly the place where freedom of speech and thought is most important.

Beyond this, certification, hiring, and advancement throughout academics is collegial: it comes, that is, with impressing your colleagues. This really works only on the premise that one’s colleagues are the current best and brightest. An acceptance of a principle other than merit in academics, in other words, over the longer term, discredits and destroys the entire enterprise, unto the tenth generation.

That is the direction we are headed now.

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