N.C. universities continue to chase diversity, but at what cost?

The diversity movement continues apace in North Carolina higher education. Universities continue to expend resources in pursuit of diversity, a term generally used to refer to having an appropriate mix of students and faculty of different races, genders, and sexual preferences, as well as course offerings tailored to that mix.

The most successful in this pursuit have been the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, which ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the latest diversity survey by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The JBHE survey gauges diversity according to a university’s freshman class’s percentage of black students. It looks only at the top universities according to the rankings done by U.S. News & World Report. At UNC-CH, 12.5 percent of freshmen were black, and at Duke, 10.4 percent were black.

In late October, UNC-Wilmington released a report on “The Status of Ethnic Diversity” at UNCW. Formed April 4, the committee were charged with examining four issues: how UNCW can “attract, retain, and graduate more African-American students,” how UNCW can “attract and retain more minority faculty,” what UNCW’s “campus climate regarding ethnic diversity” is, and “[w]hat steps should be taken to achieve these goals.”

The report states that “the university should develop a definition of diversity which shows a clear linkage that permeates mission, programming, service, educational essence, and curriculum.” The committee made 21 findings regarding UNCW and diversity; in general, the committee found a lack of institutional support for diversity in terms of the makeup of administration, faculty, staff, and students; community relations; departmental actions; student recruiting and how the K-12 schools prepare minorities for college work; and campus social and entertainment activities.

A host of recommendations accompany those findings. Among them are the committee’s calls for a new associate provost for diversity at UNCW, a commission of diversity to develop a “Five-Year Diversity Plan,” make “[a]ll public presentations such as the UNC-Wilmington website and publications present a diversity message,” and sensitivity training for faculty.

At N.C. State University, James Anderson, the vice provost for undergraduate affairs recently announced the beginning of N.C. State’s own “comprehensive, ongoing assessment of the climate for diversity” at the university. In a letter published by Technician Nov. 1, Anderson said an ad hoc committee of faculty, staff, and students had spent several months working on a plan for the assessment, and that the first two years would be focused on “student perspectives.”

Anderson said the decision to start this diversity assessment “was driven by many factors, especially N.C. State’s desire to associate diversity with quality, excellence and effectiveness.”

At Duke University, however, a debate erupted in the pages of the Duke Chronicle over just such an association. Responding to Dean of the Arts and Sciences William Chafe’s call for increasing faculty diversity, student economic diversity, and diversity in course offerings, economics professor E. Roy Weintraub said Duke’s choice “to spend its money and energy on increasing diversity” was coming at the expense of “the development of an ever-more distinguished faculty” at Duke, noting Duke faculty’s “unflattering” lack of “Nobel Prizes, memberships in the National Academy of Science, Pulitzer Prizes, Fields Medals, John Bates Clark Medals, etc.”

“Any college has a limited resource of not only money but administrative energy,” Weintraub wrote in a letter to the Chronicle Oct. 31. “Duke makes choices at the margin in every resource allocation decision and every programmatic expenditure. Have we chosen to settle for using our resources to achieve a more diverse faculty instead of a more intellectually distinguished one? The record of the past decade seems to indicate that the answer is ‘yes.'”

Chafe responded on Nov. 7. “Among those faculty we have recruited as part of our commitment to diversity are winners of the Pulitzer Prize, Guggenheim Fellowships, and major book and scientific awards,” he wrote. “This is not an either/or objective: diversity or excellence. Rather it is pursuit of both—and I believe we have demonstrated success in that pursuit.”

Shortly thereafter, John Staddon, James B. Duke Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, responded in support of Weintraub on the basis of logic. The economic professor’s argument. “The argument against selecting for diversity is an example of a more general principle: Even if ability is equally distributed, if you limit your search you will often fail to hire the best person available,” Staddon wrote in a letter published Nov. 11. Using an example of recruiting on the basis of “regional diversity” (as opposed to gender and race), Staddon showed how limiting a search to a specific region increased the odds that the university would miss out on a top-quality hire.

“In short,” Staddon wrote, “hiring for diversity is necessarily in opposition to hiring for excellence.” On the other hand, if the university chooses hiring for excellence, then “[d]iversity will occur as an outcome, not as a goal, at no cost in terms of quality. This seems to many of us to be the proper course.”

Staddon suggested that the university could find a way out of that dilemma if it could articulate a stronger defense of hiring for diversity than its “usual tactic [of holding] up ‘diversity’ as a self-evident good.”

“What we need is an explicit defense of the specific preference that is being advocated,” Staddon said. “What are the goals—social, political, cultural or whatever—to be served by restricting hiring to a particular group? How should these goals be weighed against excellence in the discipline? Let’s hear a real defense of the diversity policy, not just denials of the ineluctable conflict between diversity and disciplinary excellence.”