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Updated 11:00 AM March 8, 2004



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  Faculty perspective
Diversity: Changing the subject

In a recent speech to a "diversity summit," U-M President Mary Sue Coleman exhorted the University community to take a "great leap forward" in our commitment to diversity (University Record, Feb. 16). "We have been the center of national attention on this issue as we defended our two admissions lawsuits," she said, "but now we must turn our focus and energy inward." In particular, the president said, "We must do better on the issue of campus climate. We must establish a climate that welcomes and celebrates our diversity in our classrooms, in our services, our laboratories and every setting, day and night."

I do not know what it would be to celebrate diversity in every setting, day and night. But I believe that in exhorting us to "turn inward," the president is also subtly changing the subject. The theme of the University's case for affirmative action was the importance of being a diverse community. The theme of the president's recent speech, however, is the importance of being unanimous about the value of diversity. It's no longer enough for us to be diverse; we must now express a particular attitude toward diversity wherever we go, around the clock.

Unanimity was conspicuous at the diversity summit, where five executive officers of the University took turns speaking to the participants about the importance of diversity. In any normal academic gathering, five speakers addressing the same topic would find some grounds for disagreement or debate. The convergence of opinion among the speakers at the summit should not have surprised anyone, however, since this particular gathering was obviously not an occasion for critical inquiry. The diversity summit was not a conference or symposium or colloquium or any other recognizable kind of academic event. Indeed, it was not even a summit, which is typically a meeting of rivals or opponents. It was more like a caucus, a gathering of the party faithful—a setting where the emphasis would naturally shift from diversity as a fact to diversity as an ideology.

Hints of this shift appeared almost immediately after the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action was handed down. In a revised application form, developed in response to the Court's decision, the University chose to require all applicants to answer one of the following two essay questions:

1. At the University of Michigan, we are committed to developing an academically superb and widely diverse educational community. What would you as an individual bring to our campus community?

2. Describe an experience you've had where cultural diversity—or a lack thereof—has made a difference to you.

Although the second question alludes to cultural diversity, the first question prompts applicants to recall that this University has waged a public campaign for diversity in terms of race, which white applicants cannot claim to enhance. And when these applicants turn to the second question, they face a test of their opinions on diversity—a test in the sense that there is a right answer, as indicated by the preamble to the first question. This sequence of questions thus changes the subject in the way that I have described, from an applicant's potential to diversify the student body to his participation in a presumed consensus about diversity.

Fears that the second question is a test of political correctness were confirmed by a Newsweek cover story on President Coleman's campaign for diversity (Dec. 29, 2003, p. 78). The story spoke of the new application as follows:

"One of the four new essay questions challenges all students to explain how they would contribute to campus diversity. A boy from Michigan's mostly white Upper Peninsula wrote of the tolerance lessons he learned helping his sister come out as a lesbian. Says Coleman: 'Those are the kinds of kids we want.'"

This student was admitted, it seems, not because he would make the community more diverse, but because he is tolerant of diversity in sexual orientation—or, at least, is willing to say so when asked to show his diversity credentials. Most universities ask an applicant to identify his ideals and explain how he hopes to realize them through higher education; at Michigan, we tell the applicant our ideals and ask that he pledge allegiance to them.

Of course diversity is a good thing. I believe that it is sufficiently important to justify the consideration of race in undergraduate admissions, at least in principle. But there are many goods in an academic community, and some of them are far more important than diversity. Access to information, freedom of expression, respect for reason and evidence, sources of inspiration and innovation—goods such as these are essential to a university. Without them, no institution can rightly claim to be a university at all. Diversity enhances the educational benefits derived from these goods, but it is ancillary to them, not essential. Although a university is generally worse if its members are not diverse, it doesn't thereby cease to qualify as a university. And it jeopardizes values more important than diversity if it pressures its members, or its applicants for admission, to salute the flag of diversity, grand as that flag may be.

I agree with President Coleman that our campus climate is not as it should be, but I disagree with her about what is wrong. We do not need more celebrations of diversity. On the contrary, the University administration has exaggerated the value of diversity, and we need dissenting voices to pull the community back from what threatens to become an unhealthy fixation. Unfortunately, the U-M administration has discouraged dissent on this subject, and the resulting lack of open discussion is precisely what is wrong with our climate. The inward turn that President Coleman seems to envision can only exacerbate the problem with yet more administrative proselytizing. What's needed is critical thinking about diversity—what it really means, and what it is really worth—as well as more attention to other, more central academic values.

I therefore respectfully decline the president's invitation to celebrate diversity everywhere and always. Although the president is reported to have said that "she wants diversity to be a principle of institutional accountability," I am not accountable to anyone for my refusal to join in the diversity chorus. Indeed, the overzealousness of our administrators in spreading the faith about diversity, and their conflation of that faith with diversity itself, lead me to wonder whether I can continue to endorse their use of affirmative action in admissions. Racial distinctions are a dangerous tool that should be entrusted only to those who can be clear-headed about the dangers.

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