Editor’s Note: Videos of the 2006 Pope Center Conference are available at the conclusion of the article.
RALEIGH – As a member of the University of California Board of Regents, Ward Connerly experienced pressure to increase diversity on the campuses of the university system. After a 12-year term that ended in 2005, he still doesn’t know what the system was seeking.
“There was a lot of mindless blather about celebrating diversity,” Connerly said about his period on the board. “When I left, I didn’t know more about diversity. I asked a lot of questions. I could never get an answer that made sense to me.”
Connerly was the keynote speaker at the recent Pope Center Conference on “Diversity: How Much and What Kinds Do Universities Need?” held in Raleigh at the Brownstone Inn. As a regent, Connerly successfully fought for the elimination of race-based admission practices at the University of California. He also led a successful statewide campaign in 1996 to adopt Proposition 209, which prevented the state government from giving preferential treatment based on race. Today he is supporting a similar initiative in Michigan.
Connerly is now chairman and founder of the American Civil Rights Institute, an organization that seeks to inform the public about racial and gender preferences and in doing so to uphold traditional American principles. In a talk salted with personal history, Connerly said that he learned these principles as a child growing up in Louisiana, on the “colored” side of town, where he was raised by grandparents and an uncle, James Lewis.
Connerly said his uncle, who “never met a stranger,” instilled in him very basic values about life. “The thing that struck me was you don’t judge a book by its cover,” Connerly said.
Connerly discussed the reasons behind his opposition to affirmative action as it is currently practiced. He argued that when President Kennedy first mentioned affirmative action he did not intend to create racial discrimination, but to end it. Nor did the goals of Martin Luther King include racial discrimination – just the opposite.
But racial discrimination is what occurred, Connerly said. And affirmative action spawned an excessive emphasis on diversity, especially as a result of the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision in 1978. Although this decision declared racial quotas to be unconstitutional, it allowed race to be a preferential factor in university admissions. Advocates of affirmative action viewed a concurring opinion by Justice Lewis Powell as a victory because he wrote that the government has an interest in diversity.
According to Connerly, diversity initiatives will not improve access to higher education for blacks as much as treating people as individuals will. After the passage of Proposition 209 in California, the number of blacks admitted to the few top schools went down, but in total more African-Americans were admitted into California’s higher education institutions.
He also cautioned those in higher education against assuming that “we are the only ones who can (allow) people to live successful lives.” Not everyone needs to go to college, he observed.
The conference featured a wide array of speakers, some of whom defended the current emphasis on racial diversity and others who opposed it. Kicking off the presentations were two professors from UNC-Chapel Hill – Charles Daye and Abagail Panter. – who discussed their research on diversity in American law schools. Daye and Panter are part of the Educational Diversity Project, which is designed to provide empirical evidence to determine whether diversity has a beneficial impact on students’ educational experience. It is in its early stages, however.
“Racial diversity is critical to assure diversity of perspective, experience, expectations, and values,” Daye said. He argued that the basis for affirmative action initiatives is justice. To make his case, Daye touched on Powell’s opinion in Bakke, as well as Justice Sandra Day O’Conner’s opinion in the Grutter. case.
“If we lived in an ideal world we would not need to have this discussion,” Daye said.
Tom Wood, director of research for the California Association of Scholars, pointed out that a study of diversity was conducted in the 1980s by the American Council on Education and the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. It concluded that racial diversity had no significant impact on student outcomes. The study discussed by Dayes and Panter is designed to update that research.
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), argued in favor of intellectual diversity on today’s college campuses, something she claims administrators are not concerned about in spite of their interest in other kinds of diversity.
“The establishment plays lip service to intellectual diversity,” Neal said. She cited numerous studies showing the political imbalance among the faculty on U.S. campuses. She also cited an ACTA survey of 50 top-ranked schools in which 49 percent of the students reported that faculty members had injected political commentary into their class discussions or lectures.
K.C. Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, said that there is less intellectual diversity on campus today than there was a decade ago. He said that his review of the history departments in 30 public universities indicates that numerous courses in traditional areas of specialization in American history are not being taught because the faculty is heavily weighted with specialists in race and gender.
Others talked about the growth of the “diversity movement” within higher education. Duke professor John Staddon called it a “light industry.” North Carolina State’s Vice Provost for Diversity and African American Affairs Jose Picart argued for the value of diversity initiatives and dismissed the idea that diversity is hard to define.
“Diversity is about differences,” Picart said. “Plain and simple.”
In a spirited commentary, North Carolina Central School of Law Dean Raymond Pierce expressed doubt about the importance of holding a conference on the topic of diversity. “What we should be concerned about is tuition and funding,” Pierce said. “This issue is just not the biggest issue facing deans. There are just some more pressing matters.”
Portions of the conference are available to download and view. Segments include: