Re-envisioning Diversity

Stanley C. Brubaker

In 2004, President Rebecca Chopp charged this University with a task of utmost importance. She asked that we “re-envision and redefine diversity in a way that recognizes it as a component of academic excellence.”

I submit that we have failed in our charge. We have failed because we have lacked vision and we have insisted on adhering to an old and narrow definition of diversity.

A little background may be necessary: 34 years ago, Colgate enacted an Affirmative Action plan. A few years later it added, what has now become a staple of such plans – numerical goals with specified percentages of women and minorities.

There were opposing arguments. Among them:

Numerical goals would push the program from non-discrimination to race and gender preferences.

The stress on racial and gendered perspectives would at once trivialize the concept of perspective and then exaggerate its importance. It would trivialize the concept of perspective, which–at least as a concept that promotes academic excellence – refers to something that truly shapes our horizons of understanding. As part of its Core program, for instance, Colgate has required that students take a course on “Scientific Perspectives,” the scientific way of “seeing” the world. Now that’s a perspective! But it did not just happen because a bunch of people of different backgrounds got together to talk about their different backgrounds. It happened pre-eminently because some really sharp people – Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Newton and others – figured out that looking at the world in this way was extraordinarily illuminating and useful. Scientific perspective is a contested concept; there are different ways of conceptualizing it (that’s why the Core requirement speaks of “Scientific Perspectives”) and controversies about just how it came into being, but it offers us a distinctive way of seeing things. Or how about the commonplace claim that people’s opinions are sharply limited by their time and place? Well, that too is a perspective (one that competes in important ways with the idea of a scientific perspective). And it took some really smart people to think of how we might see the world and human history in that way. Is it true? Maybe. But we should consult competing perspectives and fully consider their implications before making up our minds. Perspectives such as these are offered from mountain tops, from great minds in collaboration with other great minds, far more penetrating than most. And to scale our way up to their heights is a labor of careful, painstaking, though often exhilarating examination of arguments.

And what some advocates of Affirmative Action did mean by perspective greatly exaggerated its importance. Is there really a minority perspective on why Hamlet delays? On climate change? On the equilateral triangle?

I know these arguments, because I made them. And I lost the Faculty vote regarding numerical goals. As an intellectual minority here at Colgate, I know defeat and failure. And, I also recognize, whether or not it has been the result of its Affirmative Action program, that with more women and more minorities, Colgate has indeed become a more interesting and more exciting place. But, I wonder, if we have not, during this time, somehow rendered ourselves less able to recognize our success.

In 1996, when the Colgate Faculty reaffirmed and expanded our commitment to Affirmative Action, we acknowledged that overt discrimination was not really our problem. The plan adopted that year held that the real problem was “unconscious” and “unintentional” discrimination.

Now most of us do try, as Socrates urged, to lead a life worth living, that is, to lead an examined life. But, if, in spite of our efforts, the problem lies beyond our conscious intent – and therefore beyond our conscious ability to rectify – what should we do?

Colgate, like most universities, has addressed this problem by assigning special responsibility to someone–empowered by “availability statistics” – who can lift us to a higher consciousness.

Today, in a misguided effort to address the charge of “re-envisioning diversity,” Colgate seems poised to hire a “Vice-President and Dean of Diversity.”So, as the problem of discrimination grows smaller and smaller, we are being told of the need for a more “professional” apparatus, a larger (and more entrenched) bureaucracy to manage this consciousness. This person will be Colgate’s “Chief Diversity Officer,” with wide ranging responsibilities, including, among others, “creating and supporting a culture of diversity,” developing and implementing plans for Affirmative Action, institutional diversity, and exclusivity, working with the Provost and Dean of the Faculty “to ensure diversity” in Faculty hiring and to create “teaching and research environments for diversity.”

At the rank of Vice-President, the salary this person would draw must be handsome. For the successful candidate, I am happy. But for Colgate, I cannot but wonder if this money could not be better spent on a couple of faculty positions for departments now unable to accommodate students wishing to take their courses. Or several full tuition scholarships per year for needy students. We must recognize that resources spent on this position will not be available for other purposes. Is this the best use of our resources?

In defense of this position – which not surprisingly has stirred some concern among Faculty in light of its role in the hiring of faculty and the designing of curriculum – some have said that this position is not that big of a change; it is only an incremental step on the path we have been pursuing for some time.

Exactly!! And that’s the problem.

We have failed in the President’s charge to be imaginative, to re-envision diversity. Indeed, the label “diversity” is about the only thing new we have added to an old agenda. And that’s not very new. It’s the way the Supreme Court conceptualized the issue when it held that race and ethnic preferences in admissions could be constitutional in its famous Bakke decision. That was 1978.

As it turns out, there actually is a minority perspective on climate change, but to hear it on campus, the Institute for PPE and others had to import a speaker this fall (MIT climatologist, Richard Lindzen). And there are numerous other examples of dissenting perspectives that have been marginalized at Colgate as well as many other elite universities. (For more on that, see my op-ed, “Missing Diversity,” Colgate Maroon-News, March 3, 2006.)

Somehow, during the same time that we have expanded our diversity of race, gender, and ethnicity, we have actually contracted our range of discourse. This cannot serve the cause of academic excellence.

For my own part, I have never thought that stressing race was a good way to diminish its importance in society. In one of his best known Letters on England, commenting on an unfolding miracle, Voltaire wrote:

Go into the Exchange in London and you will see representatives of all nations assembled there – for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.

If Voltaire were to write of the continued miracle of ethnic toleration and harmony in America, I doubt that he would write, “Go into the Academy . . . .” More likely, he would write: “Go into the Sports Arena, or the Music Hall, or the bustling world of small business . . . .” There, all can join a swelling chorus, sweeping across the land, to which the Academy risks rendering itself tone deaf. It’s a Chorus, intoned recently by a candidate for president on the steps of statehouse of South Carolina:

“Race doesn’t matter!!”

“Race doesn’t matter!”

Okay. This being a university rather than the campaign trail, I acknowledge that the subject is a bit more complicated. If, for instance, I am the Director of the FBI and I am hoping to recruit agents to infiltrate the KKK, I will probably give considerable weight to the race of my infiltrators; race matters there. And as I said above, Colgate has become a better place with the enriching of its demographics. And maybe there is slight advantage in having a woman rather than a man teaching a course on women’s literature or a black rather than a white teaching a course on minorities in American film. And efforts to make Colgate a warm and welcoming place for all should be continued.

But let’s not be afraid to acknowledge success with this elderly definition of diversity, break open some champagne to celebrate its retirement, and then move on to the more difficult, but ultimately enriching job, as we were charged, of re-envisioning diversity.