The Lively Exchange of “Idea”

A new memoir illustrates what campus-diversity jurisprudence has gotten wrong.

In 2015, a headline on the satirical news website The Onion read, “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea.” The subhead? “Students, Faculty Invited to Freely Express Single Viewpoint.” A few months later, Yale’s campus exploded with protests over a residence hall director’s emailed suggestion that students might choose not to take offense at each other’s Halloween costumes. After several hundred enraged radicals harangued the university’s undergraduate dean with calls for the offending party’s dismissal, that administrator (now president of Rutgers University) promised the irate mob, “I’ll do better. […] I’m going to try my damnedest.” As humorist Art Buchwald once joked of politicians making his job too easy, “You can’t make anything up anymore. The world itself is a satire.”

Rob Henderson recalls these events in his new bestselling book Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class. He had previously emailed the residence hall director in question, developmental psychologist Erika Christakis, expressing the hope of taking her 400-level course on the Concept of the Problem Child. When she resigned at the end of the year, he never got the chance. After six years in the U.S. Air Force, Henderson was then a 25-year-old freshman. Classmates used to joke with him about the “miniature generation gap” between them. Those comments never felt “more apt,” he reflects, “than when I saw those students marching around campus calling for professors to be fired. […] They were speaking a language I didn’t know.”

“Students calling for professors to be fired … were speaking a language I didn’t know.”In other students’ explanations, Henderson first encountered the language of Intersectionality and Critical Theory. Identification of “privilege” with racial characteristics, and the phrase “lived experience” in connection to supposedly subaltern races, struck him as perhaps contradictory ideas. He asked two classmates which determined victim status more, racial characteristics or personal experience? One answered with an obvious tautology: “Characteristics determine experiences. […] If you belong to a ‘privileged’ group, you must have a privileged life.” The other “replied that this question was dangerous to ask.”

This was the regnant ideology of America’s elite campuses as Henderson found it: a question-begging fallacy policed by an incentive-laden code of silence. In time, the author identified the cultural gulf between him and other students as having to do with social class rather than age. Taken from the custody of a drug-addicted mother at age three, Henderson spent six years moving between placements in Los Angeles County’s foster-care system. He had viewed Christakis’s “Problem Child” course as a first step toward understanding his own chaotic childhood.

But an eventual eight years spent in the cultural and intellectual climate of elite universities—at Yale, then in doctoral studies at Cambridge, England—proved more illustrative. Henderson has coined the term “luxury beliefs” for the nexus of elite opinions he encountered at these institutions. The concept is transposed from sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s theory that elite classes advertise their status by conspicuous displays of luxury goods. Henderson found that his instructors and fellow students professed adherence to many destructively contradictory ideas. Either his peers did not follow these professions in practice, or, if they did, the consequences fell principally on those of a lower class. Examples included drug legalization, defunding the police, and eschewing marriage. In Henderson’s impoverished, high-crime, drug-ravaged community, all his friends’ parents were divorced (if they had ever married at all). His Yale classmates came from intact households in expensive, low-crime zip codes. As he pointedly notes, “Graduate students at top universities say ‘marriage is just a piece of paper’ [but] I never heard them ridicule a college degree” in the same terms.

Henderson’s comments on race-conscious admissions are particularly poignant, more so in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. Elite colleges’ commitment to “diversity” in their student bodies represents what Henderson terms “trickle-down meritocracy.” Selective institutions “strip-mine talented people,” assuming that “somehow the advantages they accrue will” benefit their old neighborhoods. Instead, most “relocate to a handful of cities where they live alongside their highly educated peers, eroding their bonds of solidarity with those they left behind.”

Henderson has coined the term “luxury beliefs” for the nexus of elite opinions he encountered at selective institutions.These are powerful critiques. For decades, selective institutions have defended race-preferential admissions in courts on the ground that they are essential to intellectual vibrancy and, in the public square, as a tool of social progress. Many commentators have dismissed both claims as false; Henderson’s memoir suggests that such critics are correct.

From their earliest adoption, critics have opposed race preferences in college admissions as unlawful under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of discrimination in federal programs. In a brief filed to the Supreme Court in SFFA, Harvard University argued that because race affects “lived experiences, students may have perspectives that are influenced by their racial identities.” By evaluating applications on these terms, colleges secure “the educational and societal benefits of assembling diverse student bodies.”

In support of this assertion, Harvard cited the final report of its own ad hoc Committee to Study the Importance of Student Body Diversity. This committee fulfilled the remit its name implied by finding that diversity “enhances the education of [all] students.” Such racially curated student bodies, the report claims, increase the discovery of new knowledge and help the university to better educate future leaders for “an increasingly pluralistic society.” These are the essential claims of the diversity defense for racial preference. In an attempt to validate these assertions, the committee quoted an earlier brief for the Supreme Court, filed as amicus curiae in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Few documents have exerted such far-reaching and long-lived influence.

The stakes of the Bakke case are worth remembering. The University of California-Davis had refused Allan Bakke admission to its School of Medicine three times. In each year it did so, minority candidates with lower-rated applications received places via a special admissions process. Bakke sued for relief, and Harvard filed a brief in support of the California regents. What proved to be the most important passage of that brief came verbatim from a similar document written four years earlier by Archibald Cox, a former U.S. solicitor general in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Serving as special counsel for Harvard in 1974, Cox originated the argument that ethnic diversity serves as a reliable proxy for the intellectual and cultural variety essential to higher education. As evidence, he quoted the Committee on Admissions’ annual report from 1960, which asserted that “if scholarly excellence were the sole or even predominant criterion, [Harvard] would lose a great deal of its vitality and intellectual excellence” to the detriment of “the educational experience offered to all students.” Eight years later, the committee went further, asserting that “educational experience is affected as importantly by [diversity] as it is by a fine faculty and our libraries, laboratories and housing arrangements.” This was a bold claim, and one of immense consequence.

The use of race or any other proxy has not produced robust diversity of thought on elite campuses.The Supreme Court split on Bakke’s case. The controlling opinion, signed only by its author, came from Justice Lewis Powell. He disagreed with the four colleagues who wished to uphold the special admissions policy. The California regents had principally argued that race preferences offset the effects of past discrimination. Powell found this an inadequately compelling state interest for a university. Momentously, though, he also disagreed with the four colleagues who found such preferential admissions policies fundamentally unlawful. Drawing directly from Cox’s amicus brief, Powell built his opinion on something barely marginal to the regents’ case: the race-proxy argument. Preferential admissions policies would be permissible to secure the intellectual diversity essential to fruitful learning. “The nation’s future,” he wrote, “depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as [the U.S. population].”

As Peter Wood explains in his 2003 book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Powell “transformed a minor legal argument into an idea that people had to take seriously.” After Bakke, legal defenses of race-preferential admissions invariably rested on the race-proxy argument. But more than just a legal strategy, such logic developed into a framework for understanding the nature and purpose of higher education. In this soon-pervasive new orthodoxy, Wood writes, “the important connections were to link [admissions quotas] with notions of cultural relativity and the conception of education as a quest for personal identity. These conceits were well established since the 1960s but had not coalesced into a single dogma. Powell lit the match.”

Forty-five years later, former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust announced her retirement from academia in a campus-wide email. According to The Harvard Crimson, she called the Court’s overturning of Bakke a “gut punch.” Reflecting with pride on the diversity initiatives Harvard pursued under her leadership, Faust wrote that “affirmative action changed … the landscape of higher education and American society over the past half century.” Race-conscious admissions “represented a commitment to racial equity and opportunity in a nation that … is far from colorblind.” Faust pledged herself to “combat the distressing … reversals of the past half century’s advances in racial and gender equity.” Here was Rob Henderson’s “trickle-down meritocracy” in action: Race-conscious admissions change lives, define the culture of higher education, and thereby bring racial justice to American society.

Ruling in SFFA v. Harvard, Chief Justice John Roberts asked of the diversity argument, “How is a court to [measure] whether leaders have been adequately trained; whether the exchange of ideas is ‘robust’; or whether ‘new knowledge’ is being developed?” “Racial classifications,” he continued, are “too pernicious to permit any but the most exact connection between” the justifying interest and contested means. If diversity justifies race-conscious admissions in a manner courts are unable to evaluate, the Court must strike them down.

Legally, it was unnecessary for Roberts to go further. But had he considered selective institutions’ primary defense of affirmative action on the argument’s merits, he might have dismissed it as a conspicuous self-delusion. Rob Henderson’s experience at Yale is no outlier. As much other credible commentary has suggested, the use of race or any other proxy has not produced robust diversity of thought on elite campuses. The climate at such institutions is too often one of rigid intellectual orthodoxy, at times hysterically so. Increasingly, it seems, colleges are engaged in the free expression of a single viewpoint.

Samuel Negus is director of program review and accreditation at Hillsdale College.