One of the minor virtues of Goodwillie’s piece, quoted in the previous post, is its clarity regarding the meaning of “diversity” in the institutional setting. The word appears only twice, neither time with an unambiguously positive valence:
Institutional diversity is all very well, but if the “different” people do not feel truly welcome, and if mismatches between the institution and the worlds that the students are coming from are ignored, then the institution has failed them.
I’d like to think that a job applicant who meditated on Goodwillie’s post would be well-prepared to write a genuinely meaningful diversity statement. But it would be much more than a “cuddly, feel-good” sort of diversity statement; it might even be seen as dangerously close to the kind of commitment to social justice that the 1978 Supreme Court ruled out as grounds for affirmative action.
In contrast, no one comes off well in this latest controversy. I had prepared a point-by-point list of some of the problematic arguments made in each of the texts, starting with Thompson’s essay and continuing through the open letters written for and against, as well as Chad Topaz’s blog post at QSIDE. But a friend made the following comment upon reading an earlier draft:
THINK THIS WHOLE SECTION BELOW IS CONFUSING AND DOESN’T REALLY FOLLOW THROUGH ON YOUR CRITIQUE OF DIVERSITY ABOVE. THE POINT, IT SEEMS TO ME, IS THAT NO ONE IN THE THOMPSON CONTROVERSY (THOMPSON INCLUDED) TAKES THE COATES POINT. HER SUPPORTERS OBJECT TO BEING ASKED TO MAKE A DIVERSITY STATEMENT AND HER CRITICS PROTECT DIVERSITY AS IF IT REALLY COULD ADDRESS INSTITUTIONAL RACISM. ALL YOU DO BELOW IS QUIBBLE WITH EACH SIDE, BUT YOU DON’T NAIL YOUR CRITICISM IN TERMS OF WHAT YOU WROTE ABOVE.
My friend is absolutely right. I enjoy a good quibble as much as anyone, but it’s best to keep it private. Besides, the most serious of my points was the suggestion that the AMS Notices open its pages to an extended debate on the important topic of … inclusion and exclusion … including but not limited to the role of diversity statements. It turns out that this debate already began in the January 2020 issue of the Notices, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday. The for and against letters are included, and a second for letter again, with all the signatures; the total occupies a 21-page pdf file. It’s therefore likely that more than 1400 people knew, as I did not, that my suggestion was superfluous. This is a sign that I should perhaps be expressing myself with more humility.
I note, however, that nowhere in the 21 pages of the Notices file does anyone “take[s] the Coates point,” as my friend put it. Lewis Powell is not identified as the author of the “diversity” opinion, and the Bakke case is only mentioned once, in passing, and in a way that, perhaps inadvertently, confirms “the Coates point.” Xander Faber’s letter quotes this comment by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:
In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.
The context of Blackmun’s comment, however, was his Separate Opinion, written to clarify his agreement with the minority position in the Bakke case. This is the position that lost out to the “cuddly, feel-good” diversity that, thanks to Powell and four other Justices, has been the limit of what the law of the land protects since 1978. To me it is counterintuitive to rely on Powell’s vocabulary to “uphold Blackmun’s words,” as Faber writes, when the continuation of the Blackmun comment — “We cannot – we dare not – let the Equal Protection Clause perpetrate racial supremacy.” — was written as an explicit rebuke to Powell’s reasoning.
Faber’s letter has the merit of appealing to evidence, in the form of “an extensive report” produced by UC Berkeley “that documents the effect of hiring with a diversity focus in mind.” Here is what that report had to say (on p. 49) about the effectiveness of diversity statements:
Beyond the applicant stage … no clear and consistent patterns in the data emerged that would suggest a positive statistical correlation between this practice and diversity. We suspect there may be considerable variation in how search committees implemented this practice, and we speculate that these differences may have obscured the potential value of some forms of implementation. In addition, different institutions may use information about candidates’ commitment to diversity in different ways, and when these can be studied separately, some may emerge as considerably more promising than others. Anecdotal evidence from other UC campuses suggests that much may depend on the extent to which strong or weak “diversity statements” are used as potential deciding factors during the search deliberations. On the basis of our data and analyses to date, however, we do not think we can conclude that this is a practice showing clear promise.
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of diversity statements as a way to enhance even diversity of the “cuddly, feel-good” variety, much less as a means of realizing the more ambitious aims of equity and inclusion to which Faber refers in his letter. I wonder whether Faber disagrees.
Overall I have to assume that when people in this debate use the word “diversity” they have in mind something like “equity” or even “social justice” — the opposite of the meaning Powell set out in his 1978 opinion. Institutions like the Regents of the University of California may be confined to the legal straitjacket that Justice Powell designed for them more than 40 years ago, but there is no reason that a colleague who is genuinely committed to the values of equity or social justice should feel obliged to express their values in Powell’s vocabulary.
P.S. I’m not sure I agree with Thompson’s judgment that “Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is … a political test,” [my emphasis] but it is certainly political. Assuming that the US approach to identity politics has universal political validity is a symptom of the provincialism — not to say cultural imperialism — that comes too naturally to people who live in this country, wherever their opinions fall on the political spectrum. It is particularly unwelcome as the default position of the inclusion/exclusion blog with regard to decisions that affect the very international population of candidates for jobs in the United States. Some of these candidates come from countries where treating people “differently according to their identity” is strictly illegal. Depending on what is meant by “treat,” this is arguably also the case in the United States — the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is cited 31 times in the Bakke case that is at the origin of all this talk of diversity. I sincerely regret that Blackmun’s position did not prevail in 1978, but it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that it did.