The diversity statement controversy, I


Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, author of the legal definition of “diversity”; PD-USGov

Colleagues who are confused by the ongoing controversy surrounding Abigail Thompson’s article in the Notices of the AMS on mandatory diversity statements should reread what Ta-Nehisi Coates had to say about “diversity” in his article “The Case for Reparations“:

Affirmative action’s precise aims… have always proved elusive.  Is it meant to make amends for the crimes heaped upon black people? Not according to the Supreme Court. In its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court rejected “societal discrimination” as “an amorphous concept of injury that may be ageless in its reach into the past.” Is affirmative action meant to increase “diversity”? If so, it only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people— the problem of what America has taken from them over several centuries. …

America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it. Vaguely endorsing a cuddly, feel-good diversity does very little to redress this.

Thompson, a Vice-President of the AMS and Chair of the mathematics department at UC Davis, wrote her essay to object to the UC system’s use of mandatory diversity statements to “screen out [job applicants] early in the search process.”  While she compares these statements to the “loyalty oaths” that the UC Regents required during the McCarthy period, and Melissa Lutz Blouin, speaking for the UC Davis administration, retorted that

Diversity, equity and inclusion statements foster productive discussions on how current and prospective faculty can shape and improve the learning and working environment in higher education…

neither Thompson’s original article nor the subsequent controversy makes it clear whether the UC Regents favor “cuddly, feel-good” diversity statements or are willing to consider statements that relate more than tangentially to the specific problems of the communities whose concerns they are meant to address.

Coates, unlike most of the mathematicians and bloggers who have weighed in on the topic since Thompson’s essay appeared, is deeply familiar with the history of the term “diversity” within the jurisprudence that underlies UC Davis’s approach to affirmative action.   When the Bakke case to which Coates refers was decided, it was considered a defeat by those who hoped to use affirmative action as a means to remedy historical discrimination.  Alan Bakke, the plaintiff, claimed that his constitutional rights had been violated when he was rejected — by UC Davis, of all places! — because the medical school had set aside 16% of its slots for minority students.  The California Supreme Court agreed with him, and the US Supreme Court followed suit — Bakke was admitted later that year.  The Court’s judgment, written by Justice Lewis Powell, did allow affirmative action, but only as a way of “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from an ethnically diverse student body”:

An otherwise qualified medical student with a particular background — whether it be ethnic, geographic, culturally advantaged or disadvantaged — may bring to a professional school of medicine experiences, outlooks, and ideas that enrich the training of its student body and better equip its graduates to render with understanding their vital service to humanity.

(Bakke, pp. 306, 314).  Translating Powell into plain English:  an ethnically diverse student body is desirable as a bonus benefit that can “enrich” the experience of the (presumably white) majority.  Or, to quote Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, as I already did three years ago in this post,

…in Powell’s diversity framework, diversity was the expression of an institution’s freedom to choose particularly attractive individuals, and was about ensuring this freedom for powerful institutions like… Harvard College.…Diversity acquired social influence not as a moderate mode in which to pursue racial equality but as an alternative to that pursuit.

I am suspicious of any attempt to ground a progressive approach to any question whatsoever in the ideas of the supremely sinister Powell, author of the notorious Powell Memorandum, which Wikipedia accurately calls “the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement.”  While the Regents of the University of California are legally bound by a jurisprudence that serves, as a friend wrote, as a means of “deflecting attention from the structural issues to the individual ones,” why is the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog so attached to the policy?  I suspect it is because its readers and authors, unlike Coates or Newfield, imagine that “diversity” can be translated into the aspirations expressed in Thomas Goodwillie’s post on that same blog.  Goodwillie’s text, which is extraordinary for its thoughtfulness and humility, should be studied before reading the second part of this post.




5 thoughts on “The diversity statement controversy, I

  1. Pingback: The diversity statement controversy, II | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on #ShutDownSTEM day | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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