N.C. State’s feelings-based Diversity Policy

Recently I received the latest issue of FOCUS, the newsletter of the libraries of N.C. State University, which informed me that NCSU Libraries had begun a diversity program. At first I wondered why, of all places, a university library would need a diversity program. After all, by its very nature the library is the most diverse place on campus.

Reading further, I found the program’s goal is “to foster a climate where a diverse staff and user population will feel welcome, valued, and respected.” So diversity itself is not the issue; feelings are.

I have since learned that the library’s program is part of the university’s Diversity Initiative, a plan to incorporate diversity in all aspects of the university. It relies upon a very different definition of diversity than the one I had in mind. Mine was based on Webster’s definitions, which involve difference, dissimilitude and variety. N.C. State’s is its own creation, which took a “Diversity Definition project team” two months to develop.

N.C. State’s diversity definition is an odd creature. In five sentences, its only attempt at definition (using Webster’s definition of “definition”) is as muddled as a Clinton denial: “Diversity is a reality created by individuals and groups from a broad spectrum of demographic and philosophical differences.” The remainder of the so-called definition serves only to justify the university’s involvement in seeking diversity (“It is extremely important to support and protect diversity…”).

According to the latest draft of the initiative:

By definition, N.C. State reflects diversity because: a) it comprises a community of individuals from varied backgrounds and demographic categories; b) it encourages, accepts, and values a diversity of ideas among individuals; and c) it seeks to promote an environment where equity, respect and recognition represent the norm in the campus climate.

The latest draft also uses a benchmark: “We will know that we have achieved diversity when there is an effective integration of these three areas.”

The final sentence implies that N.C. State has not completely created diversity. Obviously, N.C. State satisfies Parts a and b. Part c must be the sticking point.

Given the university’s flippancy with definition, discovering what is meant by “campus climate” in Part c becomes crucial. The initiative explains that “some groups at N.C. State feel excluded, harassed and/or disrespected.” This feelings-based verbiage is sprinkled throughout the initiative. The campus climate, therefore, is how people perceive N.C. State’s diversity. Essentially that means the campus climate N.C. State seeks will be based on feelings, not facts.

In a recent “Note from the Chancellor,” Larry Monteith discussed diversity at N.C. State. His discussion also demonstrated a preoccupation with feelings. “To truly celebrate our freedoms,” he wrote, “all people must feel respected and be able to freely employ their life-long experiences and assets to make meaningful contributions to organizational development and excellence.”

Assumptions of the diversity worldview

To understand the diversity initiative, one must first understand the assumptions driving it. One must also understand that to N.C. State, “diversity” is not a state of being. In other words, the university’s diversity is affected not a whit that N.C. State enrolls over 27,000 students (including nearly 2,200 out-of-state students and over 1,100 students from other countries), employs 6,200 faculty and staff members (including nearly 100 from other countries), comprises 11 colleges, and offers 89 baccalaureate degree programs, 75 master’s degree programs and 48 doctoral programs. No, to N.C. State, diversity is something that must be created, implemented, promoted, monitored, celebrated, modeled, and frequently discussed, something that requires an environment in which to thrive (italicized words are from the initiative). This initiative seeks to provide such an environment.

At N.C. State, diversity is a philosophy, a worldview. According to the initiative, “Understanding diversity is at the core of effective human interaction” — seeking the core of effective human interaction has always been a pursuit of philosophy. The initiative itself declares, petitio principii, that it is “a well-reasoned philosophy.”

Provost Phillip J. Stiles wrote about the initiative’s genesis in his Nov. 7 “Provost’s Corner” entitled “The Richness of NC State’s Diversity.” He stated that “If NC State is to grow and prosper, each member of the community must take a broad university perspective by adopting a philosophy of inclusion.”

Within that worldview operate several assumptions. They include:

• A person’s ideas are directly affected by that person’s race and gender.

• An individual is solely a representative of that individual’s racial or gender group.

• Groups composed according to race and gender are in constant opposition.

• Matters of race and gender are a zero-sum game. If something done by the university benefits or positively focuses on a person (which implies an entire group of people) of one specific race and gender, such as by hiring, enrolling or teaching about that person, then the group of people of the “opposite” race and gender will feel excluded, harassed or disrespected.

• If a person feels bad about how that person’s group is represented, that person does not learn.

• The university is responsible to ensure that all people learn.

• The university is therefore responsible to ensure that all groups feel good about how people of similar ancestry and gender are represented among the univer-sity’s employees and students, as well as in the content of the courses.

• As the group composition of the student body changes, the content of the curriculum must change.

• The university should therefore seek to balance all hiring, admissions and course content according to racial and gender groups to keep the bad feelings to a minimum. Concerning course content, if traditional instruction focuses overly upon members of a particular racial or gender group, or if the history of the discipline is overly influenced by members of a particular racial or gender group, then course content and instruction in that discipline must undergo radical change to balance it out.

• All of the above create diversity.

• Diversity is the key to the future success of the university.

• Diversity is very fragile. It requires the proper environment in which to thrive. It must be constantly monitored by the university, promoted by the university’s leadership and constantly discussed by the students, faculty and administration.

A “visible symbol”

Why, then, is this initiative so important? According to the executive summary, the initiative “represents a visible symbol of how we do business.” In other words, N.C. State is fighting perception with perception. But at what cost to the university?

In the name of diversity, however ill-defined, this initiative proposes far-reaching changes in how the university educates — changing its focus from reaching students’ minds to soothing their feelings. Surely, diversity is hardly a justification for those changes because N.C. State’s diversity is self-evident. The university has already achieved Parts a and b of its own test for diversity. Not coincidentally, those parts reflect the true meaning of diversity. N.C. State enrolls and employs a diverse bunch of people with diverse ideas.

Part c, however, is closer to the university’s concocted definition. Basically, it requires that the people the university has accepted for admission or employment must feel accepted by the university. That this standard is hard to reach seems illogical. Has N.C. State considered the possibility that the problem isn’t the university?

Ironically, the only people whose feelings are not “welcomed and valued” by the initiative are those who wonder whether it is the right step for the university. “Every member of the university community should be involved in this effort,” the initiative states. “Administrators are held accountable for cultivating a diverse workforce,” it says, thus “it is important that leadership be fully committed to the goals [of the initiative] and that this commitment be demonstrated in talk and in action.” This Orwellian aspect of the initiative requires that “A discussion of diversity should be included in speeches, in institutional documents, in news releases, talk show appearances, and guest columns in internal and external publications.”

Such an authoritarian step implies the university will tolerate no questioning of the initiative. This drastic a proposal, however, begs for serious examination. Before going any further into implementing this initiative, N.C. State officials should ask themselves: Are good feelings worth radically restructuring our curriculum and instruction? Do we really want to base our academic foundation, not on what our students know, but on how our students feel? Is symbolism that important?