Taking a Closer Look at Diversity on College Campuses

There is a penchant on today’s college campuses for sacrificing hard questions at the altar of political correctness. The university’s repudiation of the Socratic method and preoccupation with genderless pronouns, microaggressions, and safe spaces is not benign. The university should be a sacred place where no question, regardless of its potential to offend, is deemed off-limits.

Diversity is one of the most provocative issues of our time. Strangely, at a time when we are seeing an increase in student body and faculty diversity, we are also seeing a disturbing trend toward less tolerance for alternative points of view. The issue is not whether a diverse faculty is desirable but the price we are willing to pay for it. Universities should seek to develop critical thinkers rather than converts for a cause.

A few years back, one of my students posed a thought-provoking question. Female and African-American faculty members were underrepresented in her college, which was recruiting for a new department head. She inquired whether the college should hire an African-American female for this position who, although qualified, may not be the most qualified applicant, based on objective metrics.

To address her question, I asked the class to assume that the minority candidate was objectively ranked first among the applicants and then inquired how many students would support hiring her. One hundred percent of the students agreed that she should be hired. I then inquired how many students would support hiring her if she were objectively ranked second. Support for the candidate dropped to 85 percent. The same question was put to the students assuming the minority candidate was ranked third, fourth, and finally fifth among the applicants. Student support dropped to 65 percent, 35 percent, and 10 percent, respectively.

This experiment revealed that as the price of diversity (measured in terms of objective qualifications forgone) increased, the percentage of students supporting the diversity hire decreased. The majority of the students were willing to pay the price for diversity when the minority candidate ranked in the top three in the qualified applicant pool, but support decreased sharply thereafter. The students clearly valued diversity, but there were limits on the price they were willing to pay for it.

We might inquire what would transpire six years later when the tenure decision is rendered. Would the university be willing to sever ties with the minority faculty member if objective criteria (publications, teaching evaluations, external review letters, and so on) do not justify granting tenure? Recognizing that an assistant professor has the strongest incentives for high productivity during the six-year probationary period, it would be ill-advised to grant tenure based on an expectation of better things to come. Universities must be judicious, and then some, in granting what are essentially lifetime appointments.

No example better illustrates the diversity minefield than that of Larry Summers. Speaking at an academic conference, the former treasury secretary and Harvard president seemed frustrated with Harvard’s poor track record in granting tenure to women in the physical sciences. As a possible explanation, he conjectured that there may be innate differences in mathematical aptitude between men and women. His conjecture sparked an uproar at Harvard so virulent that it cost Summers his job. The faculty apparently believed there are some questions so toxic to civil human discourse that they should never be asked, much less debated.

To be clear, Summers did not imply that women cannot be highly gifted mathematicians; he simply conjectured that, on average, their mathematical aptitude may be below that of men. It is noteworthy that in 2014, Stanford’s Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Awarded only once every four years, the Fields medal is considered the mathematics Nobel Prize.

There is presently a lack of empirical support for Summers’s hypothesis. Nonetheless, the conjecture itself is not beyond the pale. Educational psychologists have found that males and females do not necessarily learn in the same way, and this has prompted experimentation with gender-specific schools and classrooms. It is therefore not inconceivable that the relative strengths of men and women might differ across academic disciplines. Disavowing this possibility is contrary to the academy’s purpose and fails to serve the interests of its students, the consumers of higher education.

It is commonplace for a university’s office of affirmative action and diversity to convene discussions with academic departments at the outset of the faculty recruiting process, particularly when minority representation is below target percentages. These percentages are normally uniform across disciplines, and departments usually have the discretion to hire a qualified minority candidate over a more qualified non-minority one.

From the perspective of short-run efficiency, if the Summers conjecture were found to be valid, there may be a sound rationale for non-uniform minority representation across departments. More female professors should be recruited in those disciplines in which they are stronger, and the same should be done for men.

Taking the long view may support a different answer altogether, particularly if the gender differences are not innate. For example, underrepresentation of minorities in the physical sciences and the corresponding dearth of role models for minority students may help explain why fewer minorities choose these disciplines. We may have fewer minorities in faculty positions in the physical sciences because we have fewer minorities majoring in these fields, which invariably leads to a thinner minority applicant pool. Initiatives to “over-employ” minority faculty may be necessary for a time to “prime the pump.”

Diversity of Ideas

The university should foster a diversity both of ideas that represent the mainstream and of those that challenge conventional wisdom. Rather than being told what to think, students should be taught how to think, because indoctrination is antithetical to effective teaching. The reality is that too many professors groom converts for their personal causes rather than develop critical thinkers.

The overwhelming majority of professors identify politically as liberal. This is a potentially serious problem if professors are unwilling to leave their personal views outside the classroom. I regularly surveyed my students on the first day of class, seeking to determine whether they felt pressured in classroom discussions or examinations to answer questions in a way that would placate the political or social leanings of their professors. Approximately 85 percent of my students answered this question in the affirmative. Professor-rating sites confirm that this is not an isolated problem. Regrettably, the concerted effort on college campuses to increase faculty diversity has encouraged not a diversity of ideas, but, in fact, quite the opposite. This does not suggest as a matter of policy that increased faculty diversity is misguided, merely that the price of hiring qualified minorities over more qualified non-minorities is perhaps higher than originally thought.

If tenure is justified on the grounds that faculty must be able to express their views with impunity, why are students not entitled to the same freedoms? Citing the risk of violence, university administrators ban certain speakers from campus because they are considered too controversial. These concerns, while not unreasonable, must be more than just thinly veiled attempts to restrict free speech. Professors should encourage their students to engage alternative viewpoints, because diversity of thought breathes life into learning.

Learning is a process of creative destruction, in which new ideas continually challenge and displace old ones. John Maynard Keynes described this as “a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression” because “the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” The disturbing question—the one we should not have to ask—is whether the professor is friend or foe in this struggle.

The issue of diversity on college campuses raises many difficult and provocative questions. The cost of admitting or hiring a less qualified minority applicant may be the rejection of a more qualified one. In the abstract, we can stipulate that these decisions should be informed by an objective assessment of costs and benefits, but “objectivity” in such exercises often proves elusive.

There is a penchant on today’s colleges campuses for sacrificing hard questions at the altar of political correctness. The university’s repudiation of the Socratic method and preoccupation with genderless pronouns, microaggressions, and safe spaces is not benign. The university should be a sacred place where no question, regardless of its potential to offend, is deemed off-limits.

Scholarship cannot be the province of the timid, because pushing forth the frontiers of knowledge is a contest of ideas. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson underscored this theme in an oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College, entitled “The American Scholar”:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

We in the academy must ask ourselves: having strayed so far from the time-honored path of dispassionate intellectual inquiry, can our once-revered institutions find their way back?

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