Harvard University has just pledged $50 million for faculty “diversity” efforts, penance for President Lawrence Summers’s public mention of sex differences in cognition. The university would have been better off hiring a top-notch conjuror, since only magic could produce a trove of previously undiscovered female and minority academic stars suitable for tenuring.

Even Harvard’s bottomless resources cannot buy a miracle, however. So instead of a magician, the university has brought forth the next best thing: a report on “diversity” that, like all such products, possesses the power of shutting down every critical faculty in seemingly intelligent people. For connoisseurs of diversity claptrap, Harvard’s just-released “Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty” is a thing of beauty, a peerless example of the destruction of higher learning by identity politics. Because the report will undoubtedly serve as the template for future diversity scams in colleges across the country, it’s worth studying.

The occasion for the report is by now well known. At a January 14 conference on women in science, Summers had speculated that one possible reason for women’s lack of proportional representation on elite science faculties might be that more men than women possess the highest levels of quantitative reasoning skills. Though research amply bears out the unequal distribution of the most abstract mathematical abilities, Summers’s allusion to this research set off an immediate spasm of revulsion and horror among Harvard’s feminist faculty members. Their fury culminated in a March 15 faculty vote of “no confidence” against Summers, despite his cringing public retractions and apologies that began as soon as the controversy erupted—all of which recalled Stalinist show trials, with their Darkness at Noon–like recantations.

Formation of the Task Force on Women Faculty represented an early and unsuccessful effort to appease Harvard’s sciencephobes. Though the administration announced the outcome in advance—it wanted, at a minimum, a call for a new high-placed diversity bureaucrat and for more affirmative-action hiring efforts—the creation of task forces, complete with paid staff, is by now an ironclad ritual whereby colleges and universities demonstrate their deep concern for pressing issues. And so Harvard launched the Task Force on Women Faculty on February 3 to “affirm [the school’s] commitment to the advancement and support of women in academic life.”

Every such “diversity” initiative immediately faces two major obstacles. First, its purpose is to recommend the identical set of actions that the institution, whether academic or corporate, has already been doing. Every college in the country has been frantically pursing “diversity” in hiring and admissions for decades. The task force itself commends the diversity policies of 17 rival colleges—the mere tip of the iceberg—without drawing the obvious conclusion.

The second obstacle follows from the first: there is nothing more that can be done. If untapped pools of highly qualified female and minority candidates existed out there, schools would have snapped them up long ago—if not your college, then its dozens of competitors, just as desperate to placate the quota gods. (The one course of action that might, in the case of black and Hispanic faculty recruitment, bear long-term results is the one that elite college personnel are least likely to choose: intensive mentoring of young students and the jettisoning of all “progressive” pedagogy in the schools.)

Just how repetitive is Harvard’s latest “diversity” push? I asked Harvard spokesman Sarah Friedell if the university had not already been paying considerable attention to “diversity.” She happily trumpeted the school’s efforts. “I will tell you,” she said, “huge attention is paid to diversity in terms of recruiting students and faculty. It is enormously important.” A former top administrator seconded her claims. “The annual numbers of tenure offers to women are etched into my soul,” he said. “Everyone thought about it all the time.” Indeed, the task force report itself alludes to Harvard’s numerous existing efforts to recruit women faculty, from an affirmative-action slush fund to a universal drive, at each of Harvard’s faculties and schools, to “retain and promote larger numbers of women faculty.”

By now, however, crafty diversocrats have developed a host of strategies to cover up the essential meaninglessness of their existence. The Harvard Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty employs all of them to perfection.

STRATEGY #1: PRACTICE COLLECTIVE AMNESIA. So your latest diversity effort mimics everything that your institution has been doing for years? No problem! Just play Let’s Pretend: “Let’s pretend that we’ve never had a diversity initiative at our college and that this current proposal to hire more women and minority faculty represents a radical new take on college governance.” Thus, President Summers greeted the report’s release with the sonorous tones that a proposal to end tenure, say, might elicit: “Because [these recommendations] address fundamental issues about the way we conduct our core academic business, they have the power to make Harvard not only more welcoming and diverse, but a stronger and more excellent university overall.” You would think that an economist would know something about diminishing returns.

The head of the Harvard Corporation, its external oversight board, kept up his end of the charade with equal solemnity. Announced Corning, Inc. chairman James R. Houghton: “[T]hese recommendations will help the University take major steps toward that crucial goal [of diversity], in ways that strengthen both our academic enterprise and our sense of community.” Of course, “these recommendations” contain not a single novel thought or policy, but it would take a degree of courage possessed by neither corporate nor university chieftains to point that out.

STRATEGY #2: CREATE NEW BUREAUCRACY. The only new hires that diversity initiatives generate are in college administrations, already overloaded with sinecures. The Harvard task force demands the creation of a most remarkable new position, a Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development. The provost’s office, mind you, is very high up in the administrative chain—directly beneath the president, in fact—and it is responsible for all aspects of Harvard’s academic life. Within that empyreal realm, the new Senior Vice Provost for Diversity and Faculty Development will occupy a “singular and permanent position,” dictates the task force. The Senior VP for D will sit with the president, the provost, and the deans of faculties on Harvard’s academic advisory group. And just in case the lesser functionaries in the provost’s office still don’t appreciate the exalted status of the new Senior VP for D, the task force provides that “she” (the report’s choice of words) “be given priority in terms of office space.” So much for non-hierarchical, anti-patriarchal collaborative sharing of collective resources. Naturally, the Senior VP for D will “also be supported by a group of dedicated staff.”

Now the new Senior VP faces in microcosm the same problem confronting the task force: there is nothing for her to do. And that’s after the task force has grabbed for her a portfolio beyond its original charter. Summers’s charge to the task force was to “promote gender diversity.” But without even acknowledging the change, the task force has expanded the Senior VP for D’s diversity mandate to include “other underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” (as if women are an “underrepresented racial/ethnic group”). Of course, some of the alleged “solutions” to the professorial gender gap—changed family leave and stronger sexual harassment policies—are irrelevant to half of the members of “underrepresented racial/ethnic groups,” but diversity boondoggles never let facts stand in their way.

Bulking up the Senior VP for D’s job description still cannot conceal that the job is contentless, however. The SVP is nothing but a bean counter and quota enforcer; a computer could—and already does—tally the number of female and minority professors more easily and much less expensively. The idea that there is some intellectual or academic content to bean counting is ridiculous. That’s where Strategy Three comes in.

STRATEGY #3: SUBDIVIDE ONE BIG ZERO INTO MANY LITTLE ZEROS. So what if a diversity bureaucrat’s job is a cipher? You can make that cipher look impressive by breaking it up into equally vacuous component parts. The task force creates 24 “specific responsibilities” for the Senior VP for D, proving that there are at least 24 ways to say “count the beans.” Those 24 “specific responsibilities” unfold in an outline of baroque complexity, with major headings spawning sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. The placement of any “specific responsibility” in this dizzying scheme is completely arbitrary. Why, for example, is “overseeing design and implementation of diversity programs for deans, department chairs and search committees” included under the subhead “promoting diversity and gender and racial /ethnic equity in hiring,” rather than under “improving the climate for women and underrepresented racial/ethnic groups”? Conversely, why is “monitoring, evaluating and building on existing policies and practices in cooperation with the deans to promote diversity and gender and racial/ethnic equity, both centrally and at the school level” organized under “improving the climate for women and underrepresented racial/ethnic groups” rather than under “promoting diversity and gender and racial/ethnic equity”? No answer exists.

The task force is just warming up to its obfuscating role, however. Though the above “specific responsibilities” are merely mind-numbing re-phrasings of the core bean-counting activity, the task force manages to squeeze an additional three sub-sub-categories out of bean counting—which it calls “metrics.” The Senior VP for D will “develop metrics for measuring the University’s progress in achieving diversity and gender and ethnic/ethnic equity,” “track progress in increasing diversity and representation by compiling metrics,” and “make metrics available to the Harvard community and to the public.” Translation: count the number of women and minority professors.

STRATEGY #4: RENAME EVERYTHING THAT YOUR UNIVERSITY HAS BEEN DOING REGARDING “DIVERSITY.” Diversocrats possess a primitive belief in the totemic power of words. If you can rename something, you have changed its essence. Harvard has already been obsessively compiling data on gender and race: the task force easily obtained faculty data from 1990 to 2005 by rank and gender—and within gender, by race. But the task force renames those data “metrics” and—poof!—it has proposed something new. Collect diversity data? That’s what Harvard did before May 16, 2005, when the task force released its report. After May 16, 2005, it will embark into the uncharted territory of compiling “metrics,” proving that now it’s really doing something about “diversity.”

In the era before the coming of the Senior VP for D, Harvard had an “Outreach Fund” for sweetening job offers and other perks for women and minorities. In the post–Senior VP for D era, Harvard will have a “Faculty Development and Diversity Fund” and a “Special Assistance Fund.” (The task force here combined Strategy #4: Rename, and Strategy #3: Subdivide.) The “Faculty Development and Diversity Fund” and the “Special Assistance Fund” are identical to the Outreach Fund, simply renamed and split into two. No one will ever notice that continuity, the diversocrats assume, because the names are different.

The task force gives two reasons for renaming the Outreach Fund. Both demonstrate the catastrophic decline in intellectual skills in the academy. The task force claims that the term “ ‘outreach fund’ connotes civic or cultural improvement, but these funds are intended to identify and recruit top-flight faculty.” Huh? No one, hearing “outreach fund,” would think “civic or cultural improvement.” In fact, “outreach fund” suggests pretty much what the task force claims it doesn’t signify: the intent “to identify and recruit” some group—in this case, women and minority faculty. Reading skills in the age of deconstruction and its many theoretical offshoots have apparently followed required Shakespeare courses into oblivion.

The second reason for renaming the Outreach Fund is an even stronger indication of Harvard’s intellectual nosedive. In an unusual collision with the truth, the task force acknowledges that “there was a sense that candidates hired with support of the [existing] funds are somehow less qualified.” Someone slipped up big-time here, because admitting the poisonous stigma that affirmative-action efforts impose on their “beneficiaries” is something that diversocrats must never ever do. But the task force’s encounter with reality is brief. It appears fully satisfied with the idea that renaming the Outreach Fund will eliminate the stigma of race and gender preferences.

The task force could have mentioned one more unintended consequence to affirmative-action slush funds: peer resentment. A top Harvard science professor says that the preferences given to women and minority scientists in lab-space allocation and other perks do not always make for happy collegial relations. But any resentment that might emerge will just be more fuel for the diversity machine. Pursuant to the task-force recommendations, Harvard is busily planning “climate surveys” of faculty to see whether women and minority professors feel “personally safe, listened to, valued.” Ordinarily, one could attribute the suggestion that there might be even a single professor in the warm, fuzzy cocoon of Harvard who does not feel “personally safe” to “diversity’s” solipsistic bathos. But just maybe, if your white male colleagues are grumbling behind your back about your unusual access to the Quadrupole Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer, your new computers, and your troop of lab assistants, you can begin to make out a case, however far-fetched, of not feeling “personally safe.”

STRATEGY #5: DUCK THE INCONVENIENT QUESTIONS. For all its verbosity, the task-force report never explains its central conceit: “equity in hiring.” The Senior VP for D’s central task is to promote “diversity and gender and racial/ethnic equity in hiring.” Leaving aside the question of the difference between “diversity” and “gender and racial/ethnic equity,” the report leaves wholly opaque just what “equity in hiring” means. Does “equity” refer to process or outcomes, to concerted outreach efforts during a hiring search or to numbers of women and minorities actually hired? (Of course, no affirmative action effort has ever limited itself to “outreach,” though affirmative-action proponents continue to mask their quota-izsing efforts in those terms.) If equity refers to outcomes, what proportion of gender- and race-based hires counts as “equity”? Should the representation of women and minorities on the faculty match their proportion in the population at large, or will some lesser percentage satisfy the “equity” mandate? The report shies away from these questions. Spokesman Sarah Friedell didn’t know the answers either, though she hazarded a guess that “equity” referred to the actual numbers hired, rather than to a widely cast search net. She is certainly correct.

And what does $50 million buy you? This astounding sum, offered by Lawrence Summers as a down payment on his absolution for mentioning the science of sex differences, comes without any explanation as to how he arrived at it or what it will purchase. One would hope that the Senior VP for D, whatever her exalted position and her bevy of dedicated helpers in the provost’s office, doesn’t come near to costing that amount. Given that Harvard and its competitors across the country have already beaten the bushes for years for “diversity” candidates, even $500 million would seem unlikely to produce any major change in Harvard’s “diversity” profile.

But the $50 million will escalate the bidding wars for the finite number of plausibly qualified women and minority professors. In the near future, Harvard’s millions will guarantee that it can rout all competitors for female nuclear physicists, but its competitors will undoubtedly up their own antes to stay in the game. There must be better ways to spend the millions of dollars that schools will dedicate to poaching “diversity” trophies from rival institutions—buying books for libraries, for example, or grooming scholars in neglected fields such as the American founding, or producing operas on campus, or capping tuition hikes.

The task-force report assumes that the answer to the question, and why exactly are we doing this? is so obvious that the question doesn’t need asking. But it is not obvious why it matters whether a woman or an Asian man teaches a graduate student in statistical mechanics. The “role model” argument insults women; it presumes that they can only be followers, not pioneers. The value to male grad students of a deliberately engineered “diverse” faculty is equally obscure. Two possible, but specious, reasons suggest themselves.

Perhaps diversocrats like Summers believe that there is a female or black way of doing statistical mechanics that would be ignored, to the detriment of us all, without a consciously created “diverse” faculty. Feminist theorists have ventured such arguments. If Summers subscribes to them, he should say so. Or perhaps the quota-mongers believe that male graduate students are so sexist that without seeing female scientists with their own eyes, they will doubt the possibility of their existence. No one has provided any evidence of such entrenched bias, however, and in any case, manipulating hiring policies in science departments is an extremely inefficient way to gender-train wayward males.

Hiring quotas (Harvard will call them “goals”) might also plausibly have a justification if widespread discrimination prevented qualified women from getting hired, just as construction unions kept out blacks in the 1960s. By imposing such “goals” on itself (enforced by the Senior VP for D’s “metrics”), Harvard is implicitly labeling itself a discriminator of this magnitude. And indeed, in a February 17, 2005, letter to the faculty, Summers took the sexist guilt of his university (and the world) onto his shoulders. “My January remarks,” he wrote, “substantially understated . . . discrimination [against women], including . . . patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject.” The paradox of an institution simultaneously dedicating $50 million to bringing in more women faculty while declaring itself resistant to women seems entirely lost on the task force. It would be interesting to know which science departments in particular Summers thinks suffer from unconscious bias—presumably, any department without parity of male to female professors.

And that leads to the final inconvenient question: Just how much are you willing to lower your standards to achieve “diversity”? If more women and minority faculty could be had who met Harvard’s standards for Caucasian and Asian males, the university would have hired them years ago. The only way it will achieve increased female and race “diversity” in the foreseeable future is to set a lower standard for female and minority hires. And this President Summers seems prepared to do.

In one of his many groveling apologies for the “wounds” he had inflicted on delicate faculty sensibilities, he parrots the most left-wing, radical tenet of feminist constructivist ideology: that traditional standards of merit are merely white male ploys to silence female and minority “voices.” The “underlying . . . fact” of universities, he told the faculty at a February 15 meeting, is that they were “originally designed by men and for men.” In Summers’s view, the male origin of universities undermines any claim they might make to using objective tests of merit. “That reality [of a male founding],” he said, “shapes everything from . . . assumptions about effectiveness in teaching and mentoring, to concepts of excellence.” In other words, there is a male “concept of excellence” in genome research, say, that may not be the same as a female or black “concept of excellence” in genome research.

The deconstruction of objective standards into race and gender politics is common throughout the humanities. If Summers acts on his embrace of deconstructive relativism—he called on February 15 for “rethinking our assumptions in [such] areas [as ‘excellence’]”—standards in science will be the next to go. Any department that claims that it cannot find qualified candidates to meet the Senior VP for D’s “metrics” could face the charge that it is using white male “concepts of excellence.” Thank you very much, but I think I’ll stick with those “concepts” in the interest of ensuring that my medicine works and the airplane I’m using stays in the air.

Henceforth, Harvard history will divide into the pre-task-force and post-task-force era. In the post-TFE, Summers’s feeble efforts to enforce academic standards against the diversity machine will seem quaint. The Cornel West flap, for example, will appear both predictive and unrepeatable. In October 2001, Summers had a private chat with Afro-American studies professor West, a vain intellectual name-dropper who purports to unite Marxism and American pragmatism in a profound explication of race relations. The result is instead a turgid stew of nearly meaningless postmodern riffing. West’s historical wisdom emerges nicely in his observation that “Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before.”

Such fashionable ignorance Lawrence Summers was ready to tolerate, but what reportedly caught his attention in 2001 (the exact content of his conversation with West remains confidential) were West’s predilection for handing out grades of A, his lack of scholarly output and release of a rap album instead, and his absences from campus on such missions as advising Al Sharpton on a presidential run. Summers’s reputed admonitions to West (who bears Harvard’s most august title of University Professor) were entirely consistent with his then-campaign to promote “excellence in serious scholarship and in commitment to teaching” (Summers had not yet “problematized” the concept of excellence, as the deconstructionists would say). West predictably turned Summers’s requests into a case of racial “disrespect.”

In January 2002, amid a firestorm of criticism, Summers issued an apology and reaffirmed his commitment to “diversity.” (No one realized at the time how prophetic Summers’s collapse would be.) Summers’s retraction of his alleged request that West produce something more serious than a rap album was entirely in keeping with the diversity critique of white male “concepts of excellence.” Race advocates have long argued that the demand for published books and articles discriminates against minority tenure candidates. But Summers’s apology came too late. West huffily decamped to Princeton, calling Summers “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education” and “a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation.”

West has of course seized the opportunity to dig in the boot a little deeper, following Summers’s current self-abasement. “I was praying for the brother, hoping he would change,” West oozed. “It’s clear he hasn’t changed.” Unfortunately, he probably has. Now, instead of making even a temporary stand for excellence and then retreating ignominiously, Summers will not bother to take a stand at all. Message to diversocrats across the country: Your power is indomitable; use it.

The aristocratic ease with which Harvard has just dumped $50 million down a bureaucratic sinkhole tells you all you need to know about why attending Harvard for eight months costs more than most families earn in a year. Eventually, students and parents may start asking why anyone would want to.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next