The Chronicle Reports And Reflects “Diversity,” 2014

John Rosenberg

This article originally appeared on the blog Discriminations on May 30, 2014.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published a compendium on “Diversity in Academe 2014.” It is quite revealing — often unwittingly, by what is not included or not said as well as by what is — about how the dominant ideology on campuses today is understood and implemented. Only readers who have not been paying attention will be surprised by the striking political uniformity that characterizes this collection.

Typically, the editors, judging by their selection of articles, view diversity as all about demography. “With white birth rates falling and minority births up,” the editors write in their introduction on “The New Demographics,” this new pool presents a host of problems to be solved, since it includes “more low-income, first-generation, and minority students, especially Hispanics … who are more likely to need additional support to graduate.” In fact, one of the better articles in the collection, “Who Are You Calling Underprivileged?” by rising Sarah Lawrence junior Natasha Rodriguez, resents the ubiquitous labeling of the diverse as somehow deficient. She has been “turned off by that one word — ”underprivileged,’” — she writes. The fact that she needed financial assistance does not “mean that I had lived a less-privileged life than others. My upbringing had been very happy.”

The articles fall more or less neatly into two groups — “Bracing for Change,” devoted to practice, with descriptions of several programs designed to assimilate the diverse students and proposals for others; and “Related Opinions,” which presents a line-up of perspectives from and about the usual suspects of race, class, and gender.

The descriptions of actual programs and proposals for others are all commendably earnest, well-intentioned, often useful, but probably of interest primarily to those working closely in similar areas:

  •  “First Generation at Georgetown” describes a support system for low income or first generation students “as a substitute for privilege” presumably enjoyed by others.
  •  “Berkeley Gives Hope to the Undocumented” describes a program that goes beyond academic counseling to include “[l]egal support to help [students who lack “immigration papers”] understand shifting state and federal policies on immigration.”
  •  “Helping Hispanic Students Beat the Odds” describes how the University of Texas at El Paso, with a six year graduation rate of 39% of its students who entered in 2007, nevertheless managed to win honors because its success is “higher than predicted on the basis of incoming students’ standardized-test scores and the proportion who win Pell Grants.”
  •  “Why So Few American Indians Earn Ph.D.’s, and What Colleges Can Do About It.” The favored solution: money, such as the $17 million the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has given to a handful of colleges to increase the number of American Indians earning graduate degrees in STEM fields. As usual with such arguments, it is simply assumed that the nation needs more American Indians with STEM degrees, and thus the question of whether the return on investment might have been much higher if that $17 million had been available to any needy STEM students and not been limited by an ethnic earmark is never considered.

In the opinion articles the “progressive” ideology that is lurking but not prominent in most of the practical discussions moves front and center, sometimes with some subtlety and sometimes with none, as in “My Life in the Classroom, Where Race Always Matters,” by Professor David Leonard, associate professor and chair of the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University.

If there were a Progressive Pulitzer Prize for the work that best embodies the ethos of the “diversity” professoriate, David’s article would win hands down. (I call him by his first name because he tells his students ”to call me David,” since “Professor Leonard” would reinforce his unearned ”white privilege.”) In fact, if one encountered this article elsewhere one might well think it a parody written by a right-wing critic. On second thought, perhaps that is a bit overstated. I know many very, very smart right-wing critics, but I don’t think any of them are clever enough to have penned this as a parody.

“[L]et me start,” David starts, “with this: I am a white male, and that has everything to do with why I am comfortable in the classroom.” He notes that “over the years” he’s been “asked over and over again” whether students ever questioned his “pedagogical approach” or why he was teaching what he did. “Never. Happened. Even though I lectured about genocide, enslavement, mass incarceration, and persistent white supremacy, students offered little resistance.”

Perhaps David’s students respected his greater knowledge, but he showed no similar respect for many of them since he mentioned that those who never resisted him included not only “the legendarily political Berkeley crew” (when he was teaching as a graduate student) but also “the less-progressive students who just were taking the course for a general education requirement.” Anyone who suspects that the devotion to diversity derives more from progressive ideology than pedagogy will find nothing to dissuade them in David’s essay.

“Diversity,” as David demonstrates, does not require respect for those whose views diverge too far from the progressive norm. Moreover, if we are to accept the argument in “When Being Nice Isn’t Enough,” by Hope College (Michigan) psychology professor Charles W. Green, even niceness reflects white privilege. “Forget nice,” he writes. “[N]ice is a cover for people whose real goal is the preservation of the status quo. It’s an attempt to avoid real change. The hope is that if everyone will be sufficiently, if superficially, pleasant, there won’t be any pressure to alter the underlying power structures.”

On the other hand, in “A Black Female Professor Struggles With ‘Going Mean,’” Deidre L. Richmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Murray State University, decided after much soul-searching to remain nice. In her first semester of teaching, she writes, “frustrated about being devalued by my colleagues and disrespected by my students,” she “almost made the decision to ’go mean.’” She did not, because “if I had decided to act coldly, I would merely be seen as ‘difficult’ or as having an ‘attitude.’”

Such a perception would have been wrong, Richmond argues, because “if we use our sociological imagination” we can see that complaining about “difficult” blacks with bad attitudes is blaming the victim. Being “difficult” with an “attitude” is an angry response to the fact “that white privilege gives certain groups (in particular, white males) immediate merit and authority. No one,” she insists, “questions their authority or whether they deserve their status in the university.” Richmond, however, does not consider the possibility that if white males are not questioned about whether they “deserve their status,” it is because, unlike the “beneficiaries” of affirmative action, they are not given preferential treatment because of their race or gender.

In “A Letter to My Sons,” Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin presents the only argument even faintly against affirmative action in this collection. “If you apply to college and are allowed to benefit merely from the fact that you are black,” she tells her two boys, “then some people will continue to resent you.” Although this is a practical rather than principled criticism of race preferences, it is sound advice … and all the more noteworthy because it stands out here like an oasis in the desert of complaints against “white privilege” that surround it.

Most discussions of diversity omit Asians altogether, since defenders find it inconvenient to recognize that Asians are disadvantaged more than whites by the preferences given to blacks and Hispanics and have recently become outspoken critics of such preferences. To its credit this Chronicle collection does contain an Asian-American representative, “Becoming White in Service of Diversity,” by George C. Nagayama Hall, a professor of psychology and associate director of research in the Center on Diversity and Community at the University of Oregon, but it is rather idiosyncratic.

Hall’s father was white and his mother Japanese American, but when the Census Bureau began allowing respondents to check more than one racial box he ”continued to check only ‘Asian American’ out of concern that checking more than one box might disadvantage the Asian-American population by decreasing its numbers.” Recently, however, Hall “officially decided to become white” after learning that at the University of Oregon “Asian-American faculty members were not considered underrepresented in the psychology department… The implication was that if we had a job opening, other racial groups should be the focus of our efforts to diversity.”

Hall’s article reveals, nicely (if you’ll pardon the expression), that “diversity” has become little more than an entitlement program for racial and ethnic groups. There is, however, no recognition in articles presented here that this pervasive racial classification and entitlement is increasingly controversial and nothing to suggest any discomfort with the virtual uniformity of political views that characterize diversity’s defenders. There is room here for the trivial — such as “‘Good Hair’: A Cape Verdean Struggles With Her Racial Identity,” in which 2012 Dartmouth graduate Ana Sofia De Brito finds herself “wishing my hair were kinkier in order to qualify truly as ‘black’” — but no room for religion, a powerful source of personal and cultural identity, even though in other contexts diversiphiles are quick to warn that America is a teeming cauldron of sectarian conflict.

“Diversity in Academe 2014,” in short, perfectly reflects “diversity” as it is practiced today.

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