Bias, Disparate impact, Diversity, Diversity Administrators, Emory University, Impartiality, Inclusion, Jerry Coyne, John Cochrane, Mark Bauerlein, Overt Discrimination, Political Test, Superficiality, University of California, University of Montana, Walter Williams, Wokeademia
Diversity is a fine thing, but who can define it precisely, and along what dimensions? It is essentially an amorphous concept, defined in ways that vary with context and often by political fiat. In my view, the best diversity outcome is always that which results from impartial decisions. That goes for hiring, firing, admission, and the like; in distributing rewards; in making loans; and in price or non-price rationing decisions. And by “impartiality” I mean those decisions should be made without respect to superficial qualities such as skin color, country of origin, sexual preference, religious faith, and political philosophy.
“Superficiality”, however, depends on the context of the decision at hand, or it might describe an outcome that is superficial to the decision criteria: an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require great physical strength is likely to be skewed toward males. Likewise, an impartial selection of candidates for jobs that require strong English language skills is likely to favor those whose first language is English. And an impartial selection of a new physics professor should be the candidate having the strongest expertise in physics. The point is that impartiality can seldom guarantee outcomes that are consistent with the demands of diversity activists. In fact, to the extent that diversity objectives may emphasize qualities that are superficial to the decision at hand, they undermine impartiality.
Should research physicists devote their energies to dreaming up ways to promote diversity within their field? Electrical engineers? Will that help them advance the state of knowledge in their disciplines? As a member of an alumni board, I have personally witnessed the department of economics at a state university grapple with diversity reviews and/or mandates in hiring, class enrollment, and curriculum. Economics is actually a field that has strong things to say about the negative consequences of bias and discrimination, and the department should not have to jump through hoops proving it to “diversity administrators” who may well lack the qualifications necessary to assess that part of the curriculum. There is no question that devoting energy and resources to these bureaucratic pursuits is wasteful of faculty time as well as resources furnished by taxpayers. But that isn’t even the worst of it.
The amorphous nature of diversity confers power on its enforcers in business, government, and academia. We know that rank-ordering alternatives in pursuit of an objective may conflict with the selection that best satisfies the diversity fashion du jour. But today our society has devolved to the point at which corporate HR departments insist that individuals be browbeaten into “recognizing their bias” and evaluated on “promoting diversity”. Hiring and promotions at universities in fields as “diverse” as physics and language arts are dependent on a candidate’s ability to convince diversity administrators of their sincere and inventive strategies to promote diversity.
In a post titled “Wokeademia“, John Cochrane comments on these “diversity political tests”:
“It’s not about whether you are ‘diverse,’ meaning belonging to a racial, gender, or sexual-preference group the University wishes to hire. It is a statement, as it says, of your active participation in a political movement.”
He quotes Jerry Coyne on the “diversity equity and inclusion statement” required by the University of California:
“Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life…. Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test…The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine….”
Cochrane sheds additional light on this phenomenon in a follow-up post:
“I started this series impressed by the obvious political and free speech ramifications. There is a much simpler economic explanation however. As the quotes from the UC system make clear, the central requirement of the diversity statements is to document past active participation in, and require future approval and participation in all the programs produced by the diversity staff.
Jerry Coyne may have nailed it: ‘By hiring large numbers of deans and administrators whose job is to promote initiatives like the above, colleges like Berkeley have guaranteed that this kind of process will only get more onerous and more invidious. After all, those people have to keep ratcheting up the process to keep their jobs going.'”
Here is one more follow-up from Cochrane on the spread of Wokeadamia in which he offers a sampling of academic job descriptions from schools around the country. The heavy emphasis on one’s track record in promoting diversity, and on one’s future plans to do so, may well eclipse a candidate’s actual qualifications for the job!
It’s fair to say the misplaced emphasis on diversity has reached crazy proportions. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, reports on a recent episode at the University of Montana in which the school held an essay contest for Martin Luther King Day as part of its effort to respond to complaints of a lack of racial diversity on campus. The population of the state of Montana is just 0.4% African American, so it should come as no surprise that there are relatively few blacks on the campus of the state university. The nine-member prize selection committee had a non-white majority, but only six students entered the contest, all of whom were white. All four winners were white females. Not only were the selections condemned by activists, but the winners were threatened and the university effectively negated the whole contest.
Until such time as thought, feelings, personal preferences, and technical expertise are officially outlawed, people will make decisions that seem arbitrary to others. That’s often because others don’t understand the decision parameters and are in no position to judge its impartiality. But sometimes personal preferences will reflect bias against superficial characteristics. Economists have noted that such bias nearly always comes at a cost to the decision maker. For example, if the best job candidate is black, then the decision to hire a white is economically inferior and will harm the firm’s competitiveness. And of course there are laws prohibiting overt discrimination in many aspects of economic life. Beyond that, we can condemn such bias as might exist, but it is often impossible to discern except as an often errant appeal to statistical genera or “disparate impact”, and it cannot be prevented while maintaining a free society. Political tests, in particular, are not consistent with a free society and should themselves be prohibited.