Some Questions about Diversity

The Pope Center’s 2006 conference, set for October 14 will focus on the much-discussed topic of diversity in higher education. Coincidentally, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently devoted an entire 40 page section to diversity, packed with articles on diversity and advertisements by schools large and small touting their commitment to diversity. A reader with no familiarity with American higher education would probably conclude that having more “diversity” is an unquestioned good – that one would no more ask if it’s beneficial to have more diversity than one would ask it’s beneficial to have better health. Not once in the entire section (and very rarely in anything written about higher education) is there a hint of skepticism about the diversity movement.

There is something odd about the insistent adulation of diversity. Individuals don’t usually tell themselves, “I’d be better off with more diversity in my life. I’m going to listen to all the different kinds of music available, not just the stuff I’ve been enjoying. I’m also going to have more diversity in my diet, eating many kinds of food I don’t normally eat.” Of course, we sometimes choose to try something new – a country-western fan could tune into a Met broadcast because a friend said that she might enjoy the music in The Marriage of Figaro – but that isn’t the same as a determination that a more diverse array of music would necessarily be better.

Similarly, most institutions don’t treat diversity as a goal to pursued for its own sake. If a director of Microsoft said to his colleagues, “The company just isn’t diverse enough. We don’t make bedspreads, golf equipment or spark plugs,” the rest of the board would think he’d been lacing his coffee with brandy.

So what is it about higher education that makes diversity an object to be pursued so zealously? I read through that section in The Chronicle looking for answers.

Philosophers distinguish between things that are intrinsically good (that is, good in and of themselves) and things that are instrumentally good (that is, good because they lead to favorable results). Both positions seem to be represented in The Chronicle’s diversity section. Let’s take a look at some arguments.

One writer contends that achieving academic diversity is a matter of “equity.” If that argument is sound, it would uphold the idea that diversity is intrinsically good, since the promotion of equity (or, to use a clearer term, “justice”) has long been regarded as an ethical imperative. But the argument seems to have a fatal weakness: Everyone is diverse (or simply, different) along countless dimensions, but he diversity movement focuses on just a few of the ways in which people are different to the exclusion of all others.

Two people who happen to share the same national ancestry (Italian, let’s say) may be different in a host of important respects – political philosophy, religious beliefs, musical tastes, views on morality, interest in sports, willingness to volunteer to assist others, and so on. In fact, they might have almost nothing in common except the happenstance that both had one or more Italian ancestors. And even that admits of “diversity” since Italy is far from being a homogeneous country.

So if diversity is a requirement of justice or equity, to whom must we be just? The diversity movement singles out only a few of the ways in which people are different and assigns a place of privilege to “membership” in a few groups said to be historically disadvantaged. That leads to two further difficulties. For one thing, if you go back far enough, most people can trace ancestry to someone who was part of an oppressed group. An “Italian” might be descended from Etruscans who were conquered and pillaged by Romans. For another, what is so important about the history of one’s lineage? Justice is a matter of treating individuals fairly and it is hard to see why things that happened long ago to other, possibly related, people should have any bearing on the way individuals living today should be treated.

A person designated as “African-American” (and therefore a member of a class receiving favorable consideration under the “diversity” movement) may have had no ancestor ever held in slavery, whereas a person designated as “white” (and therefore not receiving favorable consideration) may have living ancestors who suffered terribly at the hands of Nazis or communists. He might even have suffered himself. If the intent of the diversity movement is to somehow try to make up for historical injustices, aren’t the groupings very poorly designed? But even if we devised better groupings, why should any of that matter in the decisions colleges and universities have to make regarding students and employees? Shouldn’t people be judged by more educationally relevant criteria?

A reply that might be made is that “diversity” is concerned about equity for groups, not individuals. The trouble there is that we can only deal with individuals. A decision to hire one applicant over another or admit one student over another does not affect the group to which diversity analysis has assigned them because groups are just abstractions. The impact is always on individuals.

Maybe there is a more convincing “intrinsic” argument than this one. Until it is presented, though, I think we have to look doubtfully at the argument that diversity is necessary for justice.

Let’s look next at one of the common arguments that diversity is instrumentally good. It’s said that diversity in the classroom helps students learn to accept and interact positively with others who are different. College, it is argued, should be about more than just learning various subjects; it’s also about learning about other people. Attending a “diverse” campus is thus doubly educational. How about that?

Several responses come to mind. First, college isn’t the only place where people learn about and to cooperate with others. Most of us do that from childhood on. Even if they don’t personally encounter people who are racially or ethnically different, they are perfectly aware of the existence of such people and, thanks to modern communications, know that successful individuals can be found in every group. The prejudices of ethnic insularity are overwhelmingly a thing of the past. Just as it’s often said that generals are preoccupied with the last war, so it seems that higher education leaders are preoccupied with solving a sociological problem of the past.

Also, the point made above about the problem of specifying just what kinds of diversity matter is again relevant. If it’s really important to mix together “diverse” people, why concentrate only on race and ethnicity? There is much more strife along other fault lines in society. If there is anything to this blending theory, wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate on, say, ensuring diversity of thought on religion and secularism?

Moreover, do we know that “diversity” actually brings about attitudinal changes that wouldn’t occur anyway in college-age people? Does the presence of students and professors who are “diverse” really change people’s opinions in any significant and beneficial way? And if so, wouldn’t it be more helpful to concentrate on other ways in which people are different besides race? This instrumental argument doesn’t seem very convincing.

There are other instrumental arguments raised in support of “diversity” and I’ll take look at some of them in a future Clarion Call.