UCLA: Still Obsessed with Diversity

Peter Wood

What is it with universities in California? Financially strapped, troubled by protesters making impossible demands, and worried about the declining value of their academic programs, many of the state's great universities decide to...redouble their commitment to a fast-fading political ideology.

The latest example is the impending vote by the faculty of UCLA's College of Letters and Science that would add a course on diversity to the general education requirements. Only it is not called a course on diversity. Because the word "diversity" has become too obviously an enunciation of a contentious political agenda, the supporters of the new requirement have renamed it "Community and Conflict." Kaustuv Basu, writing on Inside Higher Ed, quotes a UCLA official who observes that earlier efforts in this vein failed because the word diversity "means different things to different people." And the chairman of the Faculty Executive Committee helpfully explains that the community and conflict requirement "is not designed to be a diversity requirement."

What supposedly distinguishes the new "community and conflict" from the old diversity? C&C, we are told, deals with "tensions between different groups" and will look for "common ground" via mutual appreciation--justifications that sound virtually identical to the old diversiphile bromides. C&C will present inter-group grievance in dynamic tension with a beatific and largely imaginary spirit of social unity. The diversiphile version of that injunction is, "Celebrate Diversity!" The brand new, freshly conceived C&C version seems to be "Celebrate Community!"

More Euphemisms, Please

I'm not sure I see anything in the UCLA distinctions beyond the kind of academic wordplay that is meant to lull the unwary and exhaust critics in semantic circles. In this case, the search for "community" supposedly supersedes the tendentious term "diversity." But look again. The new C&C requirement is meant to give curricular flesh to the university's 2010 "Principles of Community" which commits the university to "diversity, inclusiveness, freedom of expression, civil dialogue, and a discrimination free environment." So C&C turns out, on its own testimony, to be diversity again--only nestled with some wholesome-sounding ideals.

Diversity, as the man said, means "different things to different people." But not because it is a word of imponderable complexity. It is, rather, a word of crafted ambiguity, meant to appeal simultaneously to our desire to overcome racial and ethnic divisions and to accentuate the latent antagonisms in those divisions. On one hand, "diversity" calls us to value the social and cultural good that flows from taking a positive attitude towards human variety. On the other hand, it magnifies the sense of group grievance and reduces individuals to the sum of their ethnic affiliations.

The word has been in play now in this double sense since the mid-1980s--something I traced in considerable detail in my (2003) book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. By now, anyone who has been paying attention to identity politics in America gets it. "Diversity" is a code word. It is what people who want to set racial and ethnic rules for access to public goods say when they want to make this ugly ambition sound nice.

As for the other words in that UCLA list of "Principles of Community," they need to be taken with quite a few grains of salt. "Inclusiveness" means favoring some ethnic minorities and disfavoring others, and excluding altogether various points of view. "Freedom of expression" is likewise a principle that works, for example, to guarantee the rights of some to express their views--and then there is UCLA's Stan Trimble, the veteran researcher fired because he challenged the validity of the science behind some new state rules on particulate air pollution. Civil dialogue? A discrimination-free environment? No doubt, within the community of the like-minded who make up these slogans, these words really do describe their experience. Once the 17th century Boston churchmen had banished the dissenters to Rhode Island, the Bay Colony also felt more like a place civil dialogue could proceed without vexing interruptions from annoying people.

Moving from Blacks to Latinos

C&C is meant by its advocates to "broaden" the concerns that have typically dominated the diversity agenda. That too is probably best understood as coded language. The broadening that is most likely in the new requirement is a shift from a focus on African-Americans to Latinos as the main subject. This shift is very much sought after by the Latino caucus in the California legislature. Given the financial peril of the UC system, it seems likely that UCLA faculty members are weighing this matter too as they decide how to vote on the new requirement.

If UCLA is momentarily in the spotlight, it is far from alone in attempting to keep this log rolling. Last summer Heather Mac Donald created a stir with her article in City Journal, "Less Academics, More Narcissism," in which she described the University of California at San Diego's proliferation of diversity administrators, including a new "vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion." At the moment UC San Diego created this position, it was gutting academic programs such as its master's degree in electrical and computer engineering. And like the whole UC system, it was (and is) so strapped for funds that it was effectively looking under the cushions of the sofa in the faculty lounge for loose change.

UC San Diego's deepening "investment" in diversity and UCLA's proposal to create a new way to propagandize the diversity ideology come at an interesting historical moment. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Fisher v. Texas, in which a student has challenged the way the University of Texas at Austin has pursued racial preferences. I am among many observers who anticipate that the Court will significantly trim--and perhaps even overturn--Justice O'Connor's 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, the case that elevated "diversity" to its current quasi-Constitutional status. We'll know the answer by June 2013. But come what may, the concept of "diversity" as a compelling principle for turning a sense of ethnic grievance into a claim for privileged access for a favored few has long since lost most of its public appeal.

It is interesting to see it deployed once again--albeit wearing a disguise--in California's universities. The UCLA faculty would be wise to turn out in large numbers and vote down the proposal. The new requirement would further confuse the purposes of higher education. It conflates scholarship with advocacy and it would mark another low point in the long debasement of general education.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on May 1, 2012. 

Image: Flickr, Nathan Tyree

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