Diversity and Exclusion

George R. La Noue

After “liberal arts” the term now most often found in campus mission statements and other public relations materials is “diversity.” Often coupled with diversity is the word “inclusion.” Surely, this is benign. Who could object to pictures of a campus with lots of smiling faces belonging to people with differently toned skin colors? Besides, almost everyone agrees that exposing students to people with different lifestyles and points of view will prepare them for the wider world beyond ivy-covered walls. Indeed, “diversity” and “inclusion” are rhetorical devices so axiomatic that institutions are rarely called upon to define them or to state clearly when and how they are applicable in the various decisions academics must make.

Some inclusion principles are easy to affirm. No students, staff, or faculty should be excluded from campus activities simply because of their identities, though their behaviors or ideas should not be off-limits to critical comments. Conversely, no persons should use their identities to seek to prohibit the discussion of ideas or policies that make them uncomfortable. Defending the inclusion concept should not lead to censorship.

Agreeing on a definition of diversity is much more difficult. Most persons have multiple identities and their salience often changes over a lifetime. Identities might be racial or ethnic, partisan or ideological, or based on religion, social class, family status, sexual orientation, vocation, avocation (athlete, musician, actor, veteran, for example), or just experience. In seeking diversity, by what means do we measure the varying and intersecting importance of these factors in a person’s life? Checking off items on standardized forms tells us little about the views and experiences a person will bring to the campus. Elevating race and ethnicity as the only identities worth considering is reductionist and misses much about the human condition.

So a proper definition and implementation of diversity and inclusion can serve legitimate academic purposes. But a blunt use of them could also represent an attempt to align the university with political goals and a subversion of civil rights laws. The Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016) did little to clarify these matters. While legitimatizing racial diversity in admissions as a “compelling interest,” the Court failed to set concrete standards upon which universities were to craft narrowly tailored policies. Consequently, probably on the advice of counsel, most campuses have valued opacity over transparency about their use of race in their admission procedures, making it difficult for the public to know what rules a campus is actually following. Not surprisingly, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are currently being sued over alleged admissions discrimination against Asian-American applicants.

The diversity mantra has, of course, spread to faculty and staff hiring on many campuses.1 Faculty hiring is a zero-sum game, in which one person is hired and many are excluded, except in situations where administrators magically produce an extra diversity line.

Attempts to expand a university’s teaching, research, or service portfolio by focusing on problems in populations that the campus seeks to serve is perfectly legitimate. Issues of accessibility to education, housing, health, etc. are appropriate subjects of academic concern as are more theoretical issues that have more long range relevance. But predetermining the backgrounds of the scholars who can tackle these problems and the ideological lens they should employ creates a number of problems. There is no diversity exception to barring the use of race and ethnic classifications in civil rights employment law. (See Executive Order, 101925, Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Attempting to limit the ideological framework a scholar brings to research can also be a breach of academic freedom. For example, a researcher might begin with the premise that deportation of illegal immigrants unfairly marginalizes and victimizes them, but later finds that their impact on the wages of unskilled native workers is negative and decides to focus on that problem. Would such a legitimate scholarly change of course be considered a lapse from committing to diversity?

Seeking diversity can become a device for preferring faculty from underrepresented or marginalized groups which, sotto voce, usually means persons with an African-American or Hispanic identity. Often that comes with promoting a specific political agenda as well. Occasionally, the curtain is drawn back long enough so outsiders can see what is going on. Two essays on the Inside Higher Education website provide that opportunity.

In a 2016 essay appearing on Inside Higher Education, Tanya Golash-Boza, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Merced, and author of Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (NYU Press, 2015), provided tips on “How to write an effective diversity statement.”2 She began by stating “Faculty job postings are increasingly asking for diversity statements, in addition to research and teaching descriptions.” The University of California at San Diego, for example, declares, “The purpose of the statement is to identify candidates who have professional skill, experience, or willingness to engage in activities that would enhance campus diversity and equity efforts.” Golash-Boza acknowledged:

Diversity statements are relatively new additions to the job application packet. Thus, search committees are still developing assessment tools for such statements, and many campuses lack clear guidelines. Nevertheless, you can use this novelty to your advantage by writing a stellar statement that emphasizes your record of contributions to diversity and equity as well as your commitment to future efforts.

Among specific pieces of advice were to empathize with students who were disadvantaged, confess to your own privilege, focus on commonly accepted understandings of diversity and equity (race, gender, social class and sexual orientation), and write about your commitment to achieving equality and enhancing diversity.

A year later, Victoria Reyes, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside, added another essay on effective diversity statements again at Inside Higher Education.3 First, she wrote if you are underrepresented in any particular way, that should be stated, but it is not enough. Instead, you should model your research statement after guidelines issued by the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan:

Inform our understanding of systems of power and privilege and their interactions with groups historically underrepresented and marginalized based on identities, including but not limited to race, ethnicities, gender, social/economic class, culture, sexual identity, ability status and religion.

Highlight the experiences of disenfranchised populations, whose narratives have traditionally been relegated to the outer periphery of intellectual inquiry and academic scholarship, made invisible through epistemologies and research methods that privilege dominant social groups.

Foreground the knowledge systems, assets and resources, and cultural strengths of members of historically marginalized communities in order to promote empowerment of individuals and groups from these communities.

Whether or not this admonition reflects a defensible view of American society, the guidelines clearly embody a particular political perspective. Prospective candidates are expected to subscribe to them not only in their initial research and teaching, but also in their long term commitments to fulfill institutional diversity mandates. Suppose, instead of screening job applicants for their commitment to diversity and equity, the required political values were “respect for traditional American values and limited government”? Who then would be preferred on ideological grounds?

Screening in some candidates for their political attitudes means screening out others. When this happens the pursuit of diversity does not mean inclusion, but exclusion. Sometimes the inclusion agenda means seeking proportional representation of underrepresented groups in all campus aspects. If vigorously implemented, this can also mean exclusion of the “overrepresented” as well.

Both essays were written by sociologists who did not acknowledge that the political goals they were advocating would serve to reinforce the already dominant ideological views in their field, creating little new diversity for students. A survey of political affiliations of faculty found that the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was 8 to 1 at Stanford University and 10 to 1 at the University of California at Berkeley generally, while the ratio of Democrats to Republicans was 28 to 1 for sociologists and 30 to 1 for anthropologists on those campuses.4 A more recent report appearing in Academic Questions (Summer 2018) found that in sociology departments at top national liberal arts colleges, the Democrat to Republican ratio was 43.8 to 1, while in departments of anthropology it was 56 to 0. (In the anthropology departments of the sixty-six top liberal arts colleges ranked by U.S. News, there was not a single registered Republican).5 Yet these are not fields in which scientific certainty can be fixed, but are study areas in which multiple perspectives should be welcomed. Partisan affiliation does not reflect full single-mindedness about issues, but it does generally indicate that some policy alternatives are not acceptable or even debatable.

The consequences of ideological imbalance were articulated by John Etchemendy, former Stanford Provost, in a speech to his University’s Board of Trustees:

Over the years I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country. Not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines—there, we have made laudable progress. Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political positions. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chambers we have built around ourselves . . . The university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view and when it does it violates a core mission.6

Neither author of the improving diversity essays suggested surveying existing members of a department or college to see what viewpoints were missing that might contribute to the variety of perspectives students should be exposed to. Instead, these essays seek to use the faculty hiring and promotion process to advance political goals through collective advocacy in the academy. The authors merely reflected widely accepted assumptions about the kinds of candidates who would bring diversity and those who would not and should therefore be excluded in the hiring process.

At fault is the fact that universities have not had honest public discussions about the meaning of diversity and inclusion they are applying. What faculty members on their campuses would they say should be labeled as non-diverse? Campuses generally have not created guidelines that are fair to persons with differing ideologies and backgrounds. Until these issues are openly discussed, the public will grow increasingly suspicious of the one-sided politicization of campuses under the guise of “diversity.”

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