All diversity, all the time, everybody, right now

It often seems as though the central mission of higher education today is promoting diversity. Diversity—which usually means racial, religious, and sexual diversity—is commonly accepted by most administrators as crucial to the success of the 21st-century university. More and more universities are adopting diversity requirements and training, and creating entire departments to achieve diversity and inclusivity on campus.

Especially troubling is the possibility that the diversity agenda may be masking an intention to transform our already diverse, pluralistic society into something very conformist and un-American.

That agenda already permeates much of what the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill does and says. And a recent UNC-Chapel Hill event illustrates the extreme ends that diversity advocates are aiming for.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s mission statement calls for teaching a “diverse community” of students. It houses a multitude of on-campus resources, such as the Carolina Women’s Center; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Center; and the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. In March, it launched a series of “Carolina Conversations” to provide a platform for students to discuss controversial topics, especially race relations. The university was also recently sued for its policy allowing racial preferences in admissions.

As much as it is already doing, UNC is aggressively pursuing still more diversity initiatives. On April 14, the 50-member Provost Committee on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity (PCIED), made up of staff members, faculty, and students, hosted a presentation titled “Exploring the Institutional Diversity Framework at Carolina.”

In her keynote address, higher education diversity expert Daryl G. Smith recommended a path forward for UNC, drawing from her 2009 book Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making it Work. It was an enlightening—and disturbing—look at what diversity proponents have planned.

Smith opened her speech by imploring the audience to continue conversations stemming from recent national and local events—implying controversies such as the Ferguson shooting and the University of Virginia student beating.

“The more inequities you have, the less stable your society,” she said, emphasizing why she considers diversity to be foundational in politics, the arts, leadership, and “virtually all issues.”

Centering on higher education, Smith called on universities to erase disparities in graduation rates among different genders, races, and classes. She said that diversity must be “part of the core indicators of success” of a university, as opposed to a parallel effort. “We don’t have time for parallel,” she said.

In her hour-and-a-half long speech, Smith did not explain why time was so short or the issue so urgent, but insisted on it several times. In her book, she wrote that what drives her is her vision of higher education as the spark of a pluralistic society thriving on diversity. But, she continued, “What fuels my impatience is that too much of what we are discussing today has been discussed for forty years.”

One wonders whether anyone in the room considered that the mere passage of time does not settle controversial questions. And that time is certainly no justification to institutionalize one side’s preferred answers on every college campus.

The most radical idea Smith espoused in her address was that faculty and staff members should be hired and fired on the basis of their understanding of diversity.

Smith first proposed the idea in the preface to her book, where she compared improvements in technology to the quest for diversity. “Several decades ago, as technological shifts began, campuses all across the country understood that their viability as institutions would rest on building capacity for technology,” she wrote. “Technology was understood to be central, not marginal, to teaching and research.”

She continued, “We are now at a time when we must understand that diversity, like technology, is central to higher education. Will institutions be credible or viable if diversity is not fundamental? I believe not.”

Along those lines, Smith told her Chapel Hill audience that technology and pluralism are the “two things fundamentally changing the way we live,” and that both must be “embedded in what we do.”

She told the audience that, like technological proficiency, competence in issues of diversity “has to be a condition of employment.” She did not explain what she meant, but considering her expertise and her Ph.D. in “social psychology and higher education,” her ideal threshold might require professors to have some minimal training in her field.

The idea that all professors should have training in social psychology-with a definite egalitarian emphasis—may sound reasonable to people who share Smith’s agenda and think that those who don’t already buy into that agenda just need to be reeducated. But less radical people will likely find the proposal absurd, unwise, and a diversion from the university’s main purpose of educating students.

Still, Smith is very convinced that universities must consider diversity and multiculturalism in everything they do, ensuring inclusion of every sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, ability, immigration status, race, ethnicity, class, and veteran status, as well as identities that intersect among the above. America has been historically known as a “melting pot” of diverse cultures; diversity already has widespread approval among the young. And while universities should be a place for ideas to mix, collide, and evolve, Smith would have the university implement an ideological litmus test for every faculty member.

In order to bolster her point about competence in diversity, she repeated the age-old, very false urban legend that the Chevy Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because Chevrolet’s marketing team didn’t realize “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. To the contrary, the Nova sold well in Mexico and Venezuela, Chevrolet’s primary Spanish-speaking markets.

Despite such inaccuracies and the radical tone of her talk, Smith appeared to be preaching to the choir. This included UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Carol L. Folt; in her closing speech, she insisted that the case for focusing on diversity has been proven repeatedly. The veracity of that claim is certainly still open for discussion; see, for example, the recent debunking of University of Michigan professor Scott Page’s study aiming to prove the benefits of diversity.

UNC’s Provost Committee on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity demonstrated that it is already implementing Smith’s goals of institutionalizing diversity throughout the campus community. After Smith’s keynote, PCIED speakers touted their plan to achieve inclusive excellence (the plan was heavily influenced by Smith’s book). Some choice suggestions from the plan:

  • Ensure every department or “unit” has a diversity page on its website
  • Ensure each unit has a “diversity liaison”
  • Spread the message of inclusive excellence to the community through email and social media
  • Encourage Chancellor Folt to regularly discuss diversity with her cabinet and the board of trustees
  • Additional personnel to collect data on and assess diversity
  • “Require enhanced diversity learning experiences and requirements” through course work, experiential learning, and reflection, and expand requirements to graduate and professional schools
  • Train faculty and graduate teaching assistants to discuss diversity in class

Such initiatives may look great on the résumés of UNC administrators and the members of PCIED and are public relations fodder. But even if there is a case to be made for a university concentrating on diversity—and that question is still open for debate—how much is too much? How much will the university improve by requiring that the math department host and maintain a diversity page on its website and by hiring a diversity liaison? Is discussing diversity in a class on the Romantic poets a good use of class time? Why should any of this be done on the taxpayer’s dime?

Institutions can always be more diverse, inclusive, and equitable, depending on how those words are defined. The goal of an inclusive and diverse campus community is both ambiguous and elusive; efforts to achieve it could theoretically never end.

And the guidelines proposed by PCIED are minor compared to some of Smith’s more extreme suggestions, especially the one to make all new hires conform to her vision of diversity. That idea flies in the face of fundamental tenets of American society and its universities, such as a meritocracy and free and open inquiry. Is anybody at Chapel Hill—or even anybody in all of academia—considering where the diversity agenda will really lead?