Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Diversity a Dirty Word in the Academy?

Former United States Senator Rick Santorum penned an op-ed in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer that questions the military's commitment to "diversity." Santorum's "The Elephant in the Room: Diversity, but at What Cost?" argues that the Naval Academy's characterization of diversity as "highest personnel priority" is not just silly (as manifested in an attempt to diversify an all white and male color guard before a recent world series game) but also potentially "dangerous," especially if "the military's commitment to 'diversity' as job one prevented military officials and the Department of Defense from 'connecting the dots' when it came to the accused [Fort Hood] shooter."

Of course, academics hear a great deal about diversity, but is it becoming a dirty word in the academy, a potentially dangerous threat?

According to detractors, what's the problem with diversity?

Santorum likens it to "a politically correct incantation that forces otherwise reasonable people to say silly things," a critique many would extend to diversity claims within academica. (Indeed, it has been used to characterize the arguments made by many a brainstorm blogger, myself included.)

But what's wrong with diversity? The naysayers have many answers: that it discriminates against white males; that it rewards mediocrity/incompetence; that it perpetuates minority under-achievement; that it threatens the integrity of higher education; that it is undemocratic and unethical; that it runs counter to all of our loftiest ideals of equality. Diversity, they argue, is the euphemism of choice for quotas, which should be considered unfair and unconstitutional.

We know what the detractors think, but how do diversity proponents counter. Santorum lays out a version of diversity's defense in his piece, a version that seems pretty accurate to me (and woefully, as Santorum would agree, insufficient).

What's the defense of diversity, not just as an abstract principle, but as translatable into concrete decisions about, say, student admissions and faculty hiring?

Given the extent to which recent Supreme Court decisions have demonstrated growing judicial hostility towards race-inflected admission decisions/formulas (and with the increasing thematization/politicization of academia as ideologically Far-Left), are advocates conceding too much? Are they trying to have it both ways? That is, might academia be falling into a trap when it attempts to ostensibly cloak its programmatic commitments to diversity (one of the criticisms leveled at many current academic interventions)?

Is it enough to re-name programs that used to be explicitly marked as race-specific initiatives and still deploy them in service to similar goals, walking on egg-shells all the while? Are academics still fighting for a version of diversity with real institutional teeth? Or has that battle already been lost?


jacob said...
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jacob said...

In his polemic The Trouble With Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels offers another critique of the concept of diversity - and 'identity politics' in general - arguing that it is fully compatible with neoliberalization, and fails to address the (re)production of drastic social and class inequaliteis. He suggests that neoliberalism is only concerned with the color (and quantity) of people's money and that as such discrimination on the lines of race, gender, sexuality are figured as market inefficiencies. He writes that identities become opportunities for niche marketing, that all forms of difference (including class difference) become culturalized, identified, and celebrated, and that the class system is simply reproduced with a different color scheme in each layer. This is obviously a different critique to Santorum's and there is, I think, something to it. The trouble with The Trouble With Diversity, is that it insists that because race isn't biological, it isn't real, and that political energies as such should be expended elsewhere. I'd be interested to hear your take on Benn Michaels' book (or the nugget of the argument that can be found here: that uses the university as a running example.

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