The Quiet Dagger: Professional Program Accreditation and the Pressure for “Diversity Initiatives”

For many years American colleges and universities have been obsessed with diversity. Institutions now have one or more diversity offices and students frequently have to take at least one diversity-themed course to graduate.

The preferences of a largely left-of-center corps of faculty and administrators explains much of the pressure for diversity, but the impact on accreditation also has to be considered—not just regional accrediting organizations, but also the professional bodies that accredit degree programs. They have pushed the diversity agenda by requiring specific programs and preferential hiring policies.

Although diversity sounds benign, these programs are a silent dagger thrust at intellectual pluralism. They use the market signal of legitimacy, conferred by accreditation, to reinforce an academic intellectual monoculture.

Consider, for example, the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), which accredits public health programs. One of its standards requires “a commitment to diversity and shall evidence an ongoing practice of cultural competence in learning, research and service practices.” Moreover, “the program should also document its commitment to maintaining/using these policies.”

Language like this pressures a requirement for preferential policies in admissions and hiring. Those CEPH standards, for example, demand policies to “recruit, develop, promote and retain a diverse staff” as well as “recruit, admit, retain and graduate a diverse student body.” This is amplified by a requirement for the program to have “a set of measurable objectives with quantifiable indicators related to each goal.”

The faculty of the Purdue University program I once belonged to interpreted this to mean numerical racial and gender quotas, which I explained is illegal under the law since at least the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision. After a hostile reaction from my colleagues, the program chair agreed it would be wise to check with the university’s legal counsel. The language was dropped when the affirmative action officer confirmed my point and ordered it removed.

Likewise, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires: “The program’s commitment to diversity—including age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation—is reflected in its learning environment….” Almost every aspect of social work education is expected to show the commitment to diversity, including resource allocation, field education, program leadership, speaker series, seminars, research, and the demographic make-up of the faculty, staff, and student body.

This is consistent with the paradigm that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) attempts to establish—that a leftist view of social justice is the definition of the profession, and individuals must suborn their personal views to that definition.

Since the diversity requirement was introduced, this has been particularly controversial with regard to sexuality issues, and the conflict between the values and mission of traditional religious schools and the diversity requirement. For example Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, encountered conflict with CSWE over sexuality issues, specifically courses that define homosexuality as deviant behavior, consistent with traditional Catholic teachings. The University ultimately changed the course description to one that is less offensive to CSWE sensibilities.

CSWE’s standards have been cited as egregious examples of professional accreditation standards being written to specifically drive programs to adopt a radical leftist bent, including a mandate for student political action on behalf of social justice causes.

Turning to the legal profession, the American Bar Association (ABA) accreditation standards for law schools requires that institutions have diverse faculty and student body.

“Consistent with sound legal education policy and the Standards” the ABA states, “a law school shall demonstrate by concrete action a commitment to diversity and inclusion by providing full opportunities for the study of law and entry into the profession by members of underrepresented groups, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, and a commitment to having a student body that is diverse with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity.”

The ABA’s diversity requirements have been criticized by some law school faculty, and by two lawyers on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow.

In a letter to Republican Lamar Alexander, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Heriot and Kirsanow argued, “The ABA is forcing some law schools to admit students against their better judgment. These law schools may be concerned that when preferential treatment must be accorded to African-American and Hispanic students in order to enroll a racially diverse class, the advantages of such diversity will be outweighed by the disadvantages of a student body in which the beneficiaries of preferential treatment get left behind academically.”

These requirements bring pressure on professional programs, since the ability to obtain a license for professions often depends on graduation from an accredited program. As a result, even if a faculty was truly committed to equal treatment under “colorblind” principles, the combination of professional licensing requirements and accreditation standards would force most programs to adopt the left’s definition of diversity.

The drive towards diversity in education engenders controversy because it conflicts with other principles, especially non-discrimination.

Baylor University political science professor Elizabeth Corey notes in this essay that diversity is generally discussed “in the abstract—not in a situation where an honest answer would require weighing the benefits of a minority hire against other legitimate goods, such as a particular candidate’s academic merit, pedagogical experience or fit with a university’s mission.” She adds, “institutional pressure to hire someone from an underrepresented group may become more imperative than simply hiring the best candidate without regard for his or her demographic characteristics.”

She is right. Diversity standards can—and are—used to impose diversity ideology on schools, even when it is incompatible with the mission of the institution. They also get in the way of something that every educational institution should care about, which is to hire the most qualified individual.