Attack of the Giant Plethora

Apr 22, 2010 |  Ashley Thorne, Peter Wood

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Attack of the Giant Plethora

Apr 22, 2010 | 

Ashley Thorne, Peter Wood

Sustainability is the dominant ideology on American college campuses today, but let’s not forget yesterday.

Until a historical blink ago, the dominant ideology was diversity.  And as it happens, some colleges and universities haven’t gotten the memo.  They are still celebrating diversity, partying like it’s 1999!

Case in point: California State University in Chico, a former teachers college north of Sacramento with about 17,000 students.  Chico’s president, Paul Zingg, has just circulated a draft “diversity action plan for 2010-2015” titled To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community.  It brings back warm memories of a time when universities photoshopped African American students into crowds of white spectators at football games and no college brochure was complete without a mosaic of hands of many colors interlacing their fingers.

President Zingg writes in his cover note that, “we place diversity at the core of our mission, vision and priorities,” but he also says that, “Feedback from you is not only encouraged, it is essential.”  He seeks not only “feedback” but “input” too. We are eager to oblige. Here is our feedput.

“Diversity” is a somewhat crowded term.  It has a history before 1978 and a separate one after that year.  Pre-1978, diversity was a close synonym for variety and applied to higher education it was a shorthand way of saying that America had all kinds of colleges and universities.  In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Bakke v. the Regents of the University of California, that included a stand-alone opinion by Justice Lewis Powell, in which he speculated on how the University of California—which lost the “reverse discrimination” case—might have prevailed.  He suggested that if UC Davis had attempted to justify its use of racial preferences by citing the educational benefits of “diversity” in the medical school classroom, instead of simply proclaiming that it was making up for society’s history of racial discrimination, the case could have gone in the University’s favor.

Powell’s opinion didn’t have the force of law, but it was a wink and nudge to higher education that, to get away with racial preferences, they ought to adopt a new rhetoric centered on “diversity” as an educational good.  It took a few years, but by the mid 1980s, across the country, colleges and universities discovered the indispensable educational importance of “diversity.”

The term, however, didn’t come to rest as a bulletproof justification for racial preferences in admissions.  It began to acquire new layers of meaning and effloresced into an ideology centered on group identity.  To understand how this happened, it is important to remember that this was the era of communism’s collapse in Europe and the discrediting of the old Marxist ideals of how to revolutionize society.  Campus leftists were on the look out for a new way to foster social resentments.  Class warfare had never really caught on in the United States. The labor movement preferred prosperity to revolution. The Civil Rights movement had achieved most of its agenda for full legal equality without having to overthrow capitalism.  What was needed was a new idea about how to set Americans against “the system” and each other.

“Diversity” was manna, if not from heaven, at least from Justice Powell.

The term came to have a precariously balanced double meaning.  On one side, it evoked the genuine pleasure that Americans have in cultural variety and friendship.  “Diversity” is the sweetness of knowing and liking people unlike yourself and discovering cultural variety.  This aspect of diversity found its way into mainstream marketing and a thousand greeting cards, quilt displays, and children’s TV programs.

But this sweet side of diversity was never far away from a distinctly harsher reality: diversity was also based on stoking group identity by evoking (real or imaginary) grievance. Diversity had its own hierarchy of grievances.  The group with the best grievance story is African Americans, who took pride of place in any scheme for distributing the compensatory rewards of diversity.  But the grievance game had and still has lots of players.  The currency is having a narrative of how “my group” suffered at the hands of an intolerant and oppressive society.  Even if, as was often the case, an individual suffered no oppression at all, mere identification with a supposedly oppressed group would suffice.  Diversity in this second sense is a doctrine of group grievance, not a recognition of the particularities of individuals.

The two sides of diversity were always in tension.  The first allows for individuality; the second demands conformity to a group identity.  One result was a whole industry of individuals explaining themselves in terms of group identity.  We saw the birth of diversity memoirs, diversity novels, diversity painting, and so on—all aimed at bridging this unbridgeable gap.  How do you make sweetness and bitterness co-resident in the same person?

In any case, diversity became our culture’s leading rationale for distributing social goods differentially by race and other group identity characteristics.  It did not welcome “variety” of group characteristics per se.  The only variety that it valued was the variety of victimizations.  The only “groups” that count in this new system of privilege are groups based on a narrative of group suffering at the hands of mainstream (usually white, male) Americans.  The suffering need not be and often isn’t present tense.  An odd aspect of the diversity doctrine is that it renders group suffering into a heritable characteristic, to be treasured up from generation to generation since it now is passkey to social goods.

That might do as a definition for diversity.  Should you want more, Mr. Zingg, we refer you to Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, an informative study of the matter.  Somehow it was overlooked in Appendix C, “Research on Diversity.”  Now let’s take a look at the definition in Chico’s draft, To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community:

Diversity is dynamic and ubiquitous. We recognize that the definition of diversity unfolds as we learn and grow in our efforts. We suggest that it be defined as “the rich plethora of differences among people based on culture, ability, disability, ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economic background, age, and sexual orientation. This richness of difference models the multicultural differences of our nation as well as the global society in which we live. Our definition of diversity extends beyond the social and political, and includes intellectual diversity as well. Through diversity, individuals and groups express differences in thoughts and attitudes that further enrich our learning and service communities.

The Chico draft statement attempts to define diversity entirely in terms of its “sweet” side.  Reading this paragraph, one would have no inkling that diversity is a controversial doctrine; that it has given rise to terrific legal battles and contentious ballot initiatives; and that in campus life it has fostered self-segregation among members of minority groups and powerful antagonisms.

Of course, diversity thrives on its own failures.  If it creates antagonism on campus between groups, the diversity advocates always have the same emollient:  more diversity.  Or at least, more diversity bureaucracy, promotions for diversicrats, diversity workshops, more plans for force-feeding diversity doctrine to faculty members and students.  Diversity is the solution that cannot fail, for if it fails, we clearly need more and still more diversity.

Chico State has already had a whole banquet of this stuff.  Most recently, “Diversity Guru, Lee Mun Wah” came to campus “to provide two amazing diversity workshops (one geared towards students, the other towards faculty/staff) and facilitate a discussion and film showing, The Color of Fear.”  The Faculty/Staff session: was “Unlearning Racism in the Classroom” and students were invited to “A Cross Gender/Race Conversation.”  Both events were sponsored by the University’s Office of Diversity.

Does Chico State have “racism in the classroom” that faculty and staff need to “unlearn”? It seems a little doubtful, but if your university has a paid staff whose purpose in life is to root out racism, chances are they will find it somewhere.

Chico State’s definition of diversity pays lip service to “intellectual diversity,” but try as we might we can’t seem to find any discussion of the concept or elaboration of the idea in the body of the report.  This might be something you should look at, President Zingg.  After all, Justice Powell’s whole rationale for raising “diversity” as a consideration in higher education was that the “diversity of ideas” is an inherent educational good.  What we seem to have in To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community is an attempt to establish a uniformity of opinion on campus.

We do, however, see some promising threads in the document.  For instance, Appendix B, “Statement of Understandings,” offers a definition of “discrimination” as: “The unequal treatment of people based on some characteristic other than individual merit and achievement.”  That is an excellent point.  We hope that Chico State strives to live up to it.  A good place to start would be the jettisoning of this plan, which throughout urges unequal treatment of people based on characteristics other than individual merit and achievement.

Of course, easy for us to say.  We know how college presidents and trustees get tangled up in identity politics and commitments to racialist agendas.  This “draft” report, however, is replete with tactics designed to circumnavigate and undercut California state law (remember Proposition 209?) that forbids public institutions from granting "preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex,  color, ethnicity, or national origin.” That looks to us like a poor kind of leadership.  Isn’t the task of a college president in California defined at least in part by a willingness to uphold the duly enacted laws of the state?

A willingness to uphold the law seems a bit at odds, for example, with the plan’s “Task 1.3,” which refers to turning Chico State into a “Hispanic Serving Institution by 2015."  As it happens, Chico State already serves Hispanic students. The University’s website says that 13.5 percent of the student body is “Hispanic/Latino.”  There is nothing in the plan that suggests these students receive an inadequate education.  

Perhaps we can suggest a revision in the title of the plan as well, in the direction of more transparency.  Instead of To Form a More Inclusive Learning Community, we recommend Chico State’s Strategy for Evading Laws against Racial and Ethnic Discrimination.

Diversity, we admit, still tastes sweet, especially when flavored by honey nostalgia for the days when group representation was the fresh new thing.  But that is so 1980s.  This document justifies itself by reference to another document with the quaint title, “Strategic Plan for the Future.” We would have thought it altogether unlikely that anyone would have been tempted to compose a “strategic plan for the past,” but we stand corrected. Chico State has succeeded at that unlikely task.

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