Michael Bradley recently observed that any meaningful discussion of “diversity” in a university setting should presuppose a shared understanding of what the word means. As with other popular concepts that crop up in discussions of contemporary higher education—justice, inclusion, equality—it seems these are things that no self-respecting administrator or professor could be against.

Yet Bradley is right to point out that all the most central questions about diversity go unanswered, even as everyone pays lip service to the term. It’s a classic instance of the Socratic “what is X?” phenomenon. Of course we all know that diversity is good, Socrates! Just don’t make us get too specific about it.

The question of diversity is even more complicated for Christian universities. On the one hand, it would seem that such schools ought simply to reflect the universality of Christian faith, welcoming faculty, staff, and students without caring about their “accidental” demographic characteristics, such as race or gender, and respecting them as equals once they arrive.

On the other hand, sincere Christian universities usually proclaim a set of core moral and religious commitments that are by their very nature limited and bounded. Thus, prospective faculty may be asked about things like the specifics of their faith, or about their willingness to abstain from alcohol. Furthermore, a school whose faculty hold many distinct faiths (or no faith at all) would appear to be far more diverse than one whose faculty are required to profess Christianity. If diversity is good, and Christian schools place limits on their diversity by design, then it seems that we have a problem.

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Diversity Initiatives in Practice: Supporters and Skeptics

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.

The Goods of Diversity

If they sometimes go too far, however, promoters of diversity are nevertheless right about several issues. At the heart of the push for diversity is a real concern for pedagogy and mentorship, both with respect to faculty and students. Everyone who has taught at the undergraduate level knows that students are starved for models, both intellectual and personal, who can show them what it means to live a good life.

What do students look for? They want people whom they can emulate, and with whom they have something in common. This does not necessarily mean that a young Hispanic man must have a male Hispanic teacher as a model, or that a woman must model herself on a woman professor. Certainly we are all quite capable of admiring people who are different from us.

Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about seeing something of one’s own experience in the “authority figures” who make up university faculties. Even in our age of equality, the experiences of a woman professor who is a mother are different from those of a male professor who is a father. Young women are eager to hear about how they might navigate career and family, and they are far more inclined to raise such issues with a woman than with a man. In this respect, gender is significant. Similar examples can easily be imagined on the basis of race.

Another good that diversity facilitates is authentic intellectual disagreement. Admittedly, such disagreement appears to be less pressing, and perhaps even unnecessary, in quantitative fields such as engineering or chemistry. It is most crucial in fields like political science, history, or philosophy, which prioritize interpretation and judgment. In these areas, it matters a great deal what considerations the teacher brings to bear on his or her subject.

Everyone has heard stories about the imposition of various “orthodoxies” within fields or departments. Diversity of approach might help to ameliorate this situation. It is possible (though not inevitable) that a woman historian might be more inclined to consider social and cultural aspects of history, or that a black historian might focus on the experience of black Americans, slavery, and Jim Crow laws. At their best, these diverse voices would give students the sense that intellectual inquiry is complex, and that any ideological reduction of a subject to a simple storyline should be avoided. At their worst, though, they may suggest that truth itself is but a host of accidental traits. This is certainly not what a “university” in the proper sense of the word strives to teach.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of actual diversity across a university, for both faculty and students, would be the modeling of a certain kind of political relationship. If a faculty is diverse—not just demographically, but also politically and intellectually—and can nevertheless work together without characterizing opponents as enemies, then it might offer something that contemporary politics does not. This would consist in a kind of civil discourse that acknowledges profound disagreement but also seeks compromises where they may be found and respects all participants as equals.

It’s easy enough to talk about this ideal, but much harder to put into practice. It requires, at minimum, candid conversations with people you’re not inclined to agree with.

The Christian University

The Christian university, if it follows its genius, has the potential to be the most diverse of all environments, if we understand diversity to be more than merely race and gender. Christians understand that all human beings are created “in the image and likeness of God.” We all deserve equal respect, and we all contribute to the wholeness of the Body of Christ. As Galatians 3:28 reminds us, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Moreover, within a Christian university, the legitimate goods of diversity must be balanced against a notion of unity, an idea of the particular “constitution” of a place—its heritage, its tradition, and the constituency it serves. Even while we embrace aspects of diversity, Christian schools must be bold enough to say that we prioritize a certain kind of particularity and difference from our many secular competitors. Perhaps the most effective contribution that a self-consciously Christian university can make to the sum total good of diversity is merely to be what we are. Thus, the confessional requirements of Christian schools are not a hindrance but an asset. Not everyone will feel perfectly comfortable working for, or attending, such a university, but that has traditionally been why distinct kinds of schools exist: historically black colleges, women’s and men’s colleges, large state universities, community colleges, small liberal arts colleges and many varieties of Christian institutions.

It may also mean that we will be unable to achieve the numerical equality called for by the most committed diversity advocates. The notion that a university must reflect the race and gender distribution of the larger society is debatable in itself and limited by a variety of factors that cannot be reduced to mere oppression and prejudice. For instance, many qualified women have opted out of professional work, at least for a time, because they have chosen to be mothers. Certain fields are predominantly female while others attract almost no women. And as a savvy commentator has pointed out, some skills are simply “concentrated in certain places, certain groups of people, and certain cultures…. Google owes its success to the fact that it is full of Californian geeks. Narrowness can be a source of strength and cohesion, not a sign of weakness.”

So it is in a Christian university, where faculty and students are called to live in the intersection between devout faith and rigorous scholarship. Christian schools should think long and hard about exactly what kind of diversity they wish to promote before they sign their souls over to the secular rule of diversity officers. If they don’t, they might live to regret it.