Bradley has rightly pointed out that nobody is really interested in pursuing diversity in its most full, extreme form. Few people would want a campus where unapologetic underachievers are recruited equally with academic superstars, or where professors promote Nazi ideology. Even at the most secular campuses, certain moral goods—such as honesty, hard work, and achievement—are held in common. And diversity is never understood as mere variety for its own sake but as something that facilitates other goods: the advancement of knowledge, social equality, fairness, openness to difference, compensation for past underrepresentation, and so on.
In practice, diversity is understood—by both its supporters and detractors—as a code word, a means of smuggling certain unspoken values into institutions. For those who support these values, it is a way of effecting positive and much-needed change in recruitment and hiring. The aim is to transform the university so that its faculty, staff, and administration more accurately mirror the demographic characteristics of society as a whole. In this way, people who have not typically been heard can be given a voice.
The diversity trope makes reforms possible by appealing to social norms that, in principle, nobody would oppose. Would you really argue against having more African-Americans or women in your department? No? Then you must support diversity initiatives! But this question is always asked in the abstract—not in a situation where an honest answer would require weighing the benefits of a minority hire against other legitimate goods, such as a particular candidate’s academic merit, pedagogical experience, or fit with a university’s mission.
For those who are skeptical or suspicious about diversity, the word seems to act as a code for something subversive. It is seen as the latest step in a movement that originated in the 1970s with affirmative action and transformed itself into multiculturalism during the 1990s. As the skeptics understand it, this movement has always aimed at a utopian notion of equality and at elimination of the so-called hegemony of the white, male, conservative professoriate. The movement accomplishes its ends by featuring women, African-Americans, and other minority groups in leadership roles—people whose voices are presumed to be distinctive by virtue of certain demographic characteristics and shared experiences.
One danger of this approach, from the skeptical perspective, is that recruitment of token women and minority faculty members may result in lowering academic standards. This is not because minorities and women are inherently less qualified, but because institutional pressure to hire someone from an underrepresented group may become more imperative than simply hiring the best candidate without regard for his or her demographic characteristics. It’s not unlike the way federal government compels states to change their laws in order to receive highway funds. Universities may tie “incentives” to hiring women and minorities, such that departments are offered new lines or other new resources if they make minority hires. A skeptic might see such incentives as bribes.
But even more troubling is the movement’s implicit categorizing of people under the utterly accidental traits of race and gender. Are all women “nurturing” and “empathetic,” for instance? Surely not. Most women would resent being painted with such a broad brush. But this kind of benign—even complimentary—discrimination lies at the heart of the desire to promote certain groups on the basis of their race or gender.
Both the supporters and the skeptics of diversity have valuable insights into contemporary colleges and universities. For instance, the skeptics accurately point out that relevant intellectual or philosophical diversity often has little or nothing to do with demographics. Actual diversity in particular fields is exceptionally fine-grained. There may be five or six rival approaches to political philosophy, but they are not male versus female or black versus white. Demographic characteristics are basically irrelevant in this context, and the forms of diversity that are truly relevant are too knowledge-specific to be tracked by a “Chief Diversity Officer” at a university.
Clearly, this type of intellectual diversity is not what is really being pursued under the rubric of “diversity.” The aim of diversity initiatives is rather “To lead higher education toward inclusive excellence through institutional transformation.” This is by design a transformative, even revolutionary, movement that aims to root out “unconscious,” “implicit,” or “similarity” bias and other such under-the-radar offenses. Only in the contemporary world can we at once be unconscious of our actions and yet morally culpable for them.
This excerpt does not do justice to the entire piece. Read it here.