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Recession-Proof Diversity

from the magazine

Recession-Proof Diversity

Harvard expands its futile quest for proportional faculty. Winter 2009
The Social Order
Politics and law

The college diversity racket is immune to economic downturns. Harvard University has announced its latest diversity dean for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Any rational budget analyst would mark this deanship for the ax, since it overlaps with the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity—and with the cochairpersonships of the Standing Committee on Women. Yet it would appear that no financial meltdown, no matter how great, can shake academia’s manic and irrational pursuit of a creature as imaginary as a unicorn: an even remotely qualified faculty made up of proportional numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and women.

Back in 2005, then-president Larry Summers inflated Harvard’s already bloated diversity bureaucracy in penance for suggesting, in the spirit of open academic debate, that the distribution of high-end math skills in men and women could at least partly explain male dominance in the hard sciences. That recklessly truthful comment ultimately cost Summers his presidency, but not before he bootlessly tried to placate the diversity machine by creating a diversity sinecure—the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity—and committing $50 million to a fanatical search for a racially and sexually proportional faculty.

Now, Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and dean Michael D. Smith have appointed sociology and African-American studies professor Michele Lamont the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ diversity dean. Lamont—an “expert on the dynamics of social exclusion in France and the United States,” the Harvard Crimson says—will also chair yet another new diversity committee. But please don’t confuse the diversity dean for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. They are not the same, though how they differ is a mystery beyond ordinary human ken. The diversity provost just published a report comparing the percentage of minority and female professors at Harvard and other universities; the new diversity dean will use this latest report to browbeat departments for their lack of diversity, which the diversity provost does as well.

Not daunted by the superfluity of her role, Lamont plans to “research what other universities are doing on the diversity front,” the Crimson reports, something that the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity also does. The answer, no matter who’s asking, is simple. For the last 30 years, Harvard and its peers have pledged repeatedly to find the Holy Grail of perfect diversity. They have remained deliberately blind to the fact that the critical precondition to attaining diversity—a sufficient number of qualified minority Ph.D.s across the academy and of female Ph.D.s in the hard sciences—is not in place. They have desperately searched the horizon for a miraculous, undiscovered trove of qualified “diversity” candidates, and lowered hiring standards when they have failed to discover it. And, of course, they have obsessively produced comparative diversity studies for years, as if running the numbers would magically produce candidates who don’t exist.

If ever there were a time to reconsider this futile quest, now would be it. Harvard lost at least $8 billion from its endowment—or 22 percent—between the end of June and early December. The university has put a freeze on faculty salaries, searches, and promotions. In a November 10 letter to the Harvard community, President Faust called for “greater financial discipline” and said that “tradeoffs and hard choices” could no longer be put off. Well, getting rid of Harvard’s duplicative diversity apparatus wouldn’t even be a “hard choice.” When one is cutting budgets, the most obvious items to target are those that don’t accomplish anything. The diversity racket fits that description to a tee.

Lamont is already up to speed in the three essential qualifications of a diversity bureaucrat: pretending that the sinecure requires special expertise, repeating the same tired bromides that have been endlessly regurgitated for years, and ignoring reality. “I’m basically using my knowledge to advise [Dean Smith] and to educate the Faculty,” she told the Crimson. And in what arcane science will she be “educating” the faculty? In the agonizingly trite and wholly unjustified assertion that “diversity and excellence are not opposites—they’re additive.”

On the reality front, the fact that faculty searches and promotions have been frozen would seem to preclude “diversity” hires and promotions. Not to a diversity dean, however. Lamont says that she sees “opportunity” in the financial crisis. Departments will be able to focus more on diversity issues, Lamont said, according to the Crimson. Believing that departments can make diversity hires during a hiring freeze is no more irrational than believing that a department can achieve racial proportionality when the number of black and Hispanic Ph.D.s in substantive fields barely registers.

Lamont’s expertise in the “dynamics of social exclusion” will no doubt sharpen her eyes to the exceedingly subtle ways that Harvard excludes blacks and minorities. Someone without the special insights of a diversity dean might find such a claim of exclusion inconsistent with Harvard’s having poured millions of dollars into finding and promoting minorities and women. Too bad Harvard can’t direct just as much energy to scoping out waste. Somewhere within that massive university, vital scholarship and scientific research takes place. While such research may be jeopardized by the current financial crisis, it’s all the more at risk from Harvard’s foolish conformity to diversity nonsense.

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