Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of ‘Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews’.
When he wryly observed that “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act,” Orwell may well have had academia in mind, where challenging prevailing ideology can have a calamitous effect on one’s reputation and career—something especially true of faculty.
In 1978, the significant Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case brought the term “diversity” into the lexicon of higher education Although the Court found that the medical school at the University of California at Davis had used an unconstitutional quota system in denying Alan Bakke admission, Justice Lewis Powell made his now-famous observation that, notwithstanding the inherent defect of such a quota system, universities could likely enhance the quality of their enrollments by striving to create a “diverse student body” engaging in “a robust exchange of ideas,” and that there was “a compelling state interest” in trying to achieve such a goal and in promoting the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups on campus.
Rather than helping students adapt to the real diversity of society outside the campus walls, however, the campaign to increase diversity has served to create balkanized campuses where victims of the moment segregate themselves into distinct and inward-looking racial and cultural groups—exactly the opposite intention of the university diversocrats and their bloated fiefdoms with which they promote this theology of victimization, racial justice, and inclusion.
Coupled with the exclusion of all but liberal thought is the darker side of diversity: as victim groups become aware of their supposed classification as ‘authentic’ victims, they are prone to contradict the stated goal of diversity by limiting real dialogue and interchange between opposing points of view. Thus, while diversity proponents adamantly defend free speech in order to promulgate their own world views, they frequently move to stifle the alternate opinions of those with different opinions—through calls for censorship, threats of censure, and arcane speech codes—and exempt themselves from having to live by the suppressive rules they create for others.
And since the death of George Floyd and other highly publicized incidents involving black victims of police actions, another layer has been added to the diversity and race conversation on campus. Not content with simply acknowledging disparities between races, the orthodoxy on campuses now forces everyone to confront racism—including their own—with talk of implicit bias, invisible racism, white privilege, and microaggressions, together with a consequential battery of programs and initiatives to face these malignancies head-on: mandatory sensitivity training for all faculty and students, publicly announced solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, campus-wide initiatives to increase the recruitment of minority students and faculty, and the development of required ethnic studies and race-focused courses, among others.
While virtue-signaling university officials, and many faculty and students, too, have been quick to embrace and promote these race-based initiatives as part of the aggrievement culture currently permeating academia, some brave (and rare) faculty have resisted joining the race orgy that has engulfed many campuses since Floyd’s death; they have even criticized the ideology and behavior of Black Lives Matter activists, questioned the current narrative in which white police officers are condemned as being uniformly and systemically racist, and pointed to the seeming hypocrisy of universities that continually trumpet their diversity and inclusion while actually avoiding an authentic diversity of ideas.
The latest example of a professor who subjected himself to opprobrium after questioning the prevailing notions about race is to be found at the University of Chicago, where Dorian Abbot, a tenured professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences, posted a series of YouTube videos which questioned the credibility and value of the University’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Noting in a memo he wrote to defend his actions that DEI efforts had been “discussed and implemented over the past 3-4 years, especially during 2020,” Abbot suggested that “many of us are concerned about the way that anyone who tries to dissent on certain issues is immediately assumed to have racist or otherwise bigoted motives, which prevents the intellectual exploration of that issue, particularly the implications and consequences of proposed policies.”
He was particularly concerned about the process of hiring new faculty, where the rational and, one would think, obvious way of doing that would be to recruit professors of the highest merit; but that process, Abbot believes, has been compromised by a conscious effort of his university to hire faculty based, not only on their academic excellence and potential as scholars and researchers, but— because of prevailing desire to make new hires inclusive and diverse—also dependent on what the gender or race is of the candidate. In fact, that is the University of Chicago’s explicit intention, which, as their website proclaims, is to “Increase the diversity of our faculty, other academic appointees, postdoctoral researchers, student body, professional staff, and senior leadership.”
The result of that type of racially rigged criteria for hiring faculty, Abbot suggested, has the unintended consequence of eliminating qualified but racially inappropriate candidates. “We need to think through the consequences of DEI efforts to make sure they aren’t hurting promising scientists of all demographics,” Abbot wrote. He acknowledged that “There are major societal problems that we should try to fix as a society as well as by giving our own time and money off campus,” meaning that the effort to seek racial equity is a good one, “but adjusting departmental ratios at elite universities does not really address them . . . .” And, as if anticipating the intense blowback that even questioning efforts to achieve diversity and inclusion in the composition of faculty or student bodies, Abbot observed, correctly, that “the current academic climate is making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions.”
One thing that Abbot quickly discovered is that he made two grave errors in publishing his videos and accompanying memo of defense: first, it is ideologically treasonous to even question whether the goal of seeking and attaining diversity is positive, moral, legal, or even sound policy in the first place. Second, as many people with conservative views on campus have also discovered, to give voice to these doubts, to question the orthodoxy of race-based recruitment and hiring, and to engage in debate with those who are in charge of promulgating these policies invariably results in attempts to make the dissenter a victim in the campus cancel culture, precisely what happened with Professor Abbot.
No sooner had graduate students been made aware of his transgressive opinions, “members of the Department of Geophysical Sciences Community at the University of Chicago” wrote a letter to department faculty complaining that even though Abbot had taken down the offending videos, “their impact on the Department of Geophysical Sciences community cannot be ignored.” In fact, the signatories warned, echoing the ridiculous notion that speech is actually tantamount to violence, the “videos threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the department and serve to undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives . . . . “ Further, they suggest, the videos are based only on “anecdotal evidence and poor statistics not supported by peer-reviewed literature about diversity . . . and represent an aggressive act towards the research and teaching communities of which Professor Abbot is a member [emphasis added].”
And how should this intolerable thought crime be addressed? The letter authors thoughtfully provide eleven steps they wish to have immediately implemented, including taking “steps to protect students and postdocs currently working with Professor Abbot.” To do so, they called on the department to publicly condemn Abbot’s statements and views, strip him from teaching duties, appointments, and related departmental titles and activities, and generally shame him in the university community by “Explicitly, whether publicly or internally, mak[ing] clear that the contents and implications of these videos are unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate.”
And, as is common when a dissenter is attacked for having non-traditional views about race, gender, sexuality, or other sensitive topics, the letter writers want to make an example of Abbot for having the temerity to even question prevailing views about diversity. They want him censured in a way that makes clear to any other potential dissenters that there is a high professional cost to pay for errant behavior and intolerable speech. So, going forward, these thought police demand that the University “Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour [sic] in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour [sic] should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.”
Universities have for decades now accepted as a given that diversity is a positive thing, that the pursuit of campuses that are inclusive and diverse is noble and beneficial—not only to those underrepresented individuals who benefit from affirmative action in recruitment, but also, it is alleged, to everyone else in the campus community.
That belief, of course, is what animates and drives the current compulsion of universities to create diverse and inclusive campuses, created by skewing admissions requirements for minority students in ways that let applicants with lower test scores and high schools be admitted at the expense of white and Asian applicants with higher grade point averages and SAT scores. While diverse and inclusive campuses have made universities like University of Chicago feel good about themselves for having formerly marginalized individuals being able to matriculate on their campuses, critics like professor Abbot have been alarmed that, in attempting to achieve diversity goals, universities have lowered the criteria for selecting faculty and students in order to insure that minority candidates can compete against their white and Asian counterparts.
Moreover, there are some unintended negative impacts on policies of diversity and inclusion on the very individuals those policies were designed to benefit. One of the unspoken realities of race preferences as a way of increasing minority enrollment is that when a student is accepted to a university absent the normal academic achievement expected of his white and Asian peers, he is often set up for failure. The naïve expectation is that students who are accepted to elite institutions without the requisite academic skills of the particular university will close the achieve gap between them and their fellow students once they have matriculated, and will eventually perform like their peers. But that expectation has frequently not been realized, so that black students who had originally decided to major in engineering or other STEM disciplines, for instance, find those areas too demanding in schools that are too challenging for them and end up changing majors to easier disciplines. This means fewer black students graduate in STEM areas and fewer still complete graduate work and become professors themselves in departments like professor Abbot’s. So in their zeal to find diverse candidates in a tiny pool of potential candidates, universities invariably have to choose minority candidates who, if academic merit and scholarly excellence alone were the criteria, would not have been viable choices in the first place.
What Professor Abbot was questioning is whether universities should even be in the business of reimagining society, or righting racial wrongs from within at the expense of academic excellence and to the detriment of more qualified white and Asian students and faculty. That is something that is certainly open for discussion and should not be forbidden speech, a thought crime, or something said by tendentious graduate students to be “threatening the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups” just by being articulated.
“What I am against is setting up systems,” Abbot wrote, “where group membership is a primary aspect of a candidate’s evaluation,” questioning both the motives and tactics of the diversity movement. It may be time to recognize it for the fraudulent solution it is and begin to let students and faculty be judged, to paraphrase Dr. King, by their character and intellectual makeup and not by the color of their skin.
John W. McWhorter, a black Columbia University linguist professor and author of Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, thinks this would be a move in the right direction, that “a university culture truly committed to erasing the sins of the past would champion diversity in its true sense, infusing its discourse on race with a range of views wider than variations on victimhood. Since 1978, diversity has served as a flimsy and evasive perversion of justice. It has helped no one, least of all black students. It’s high time we swept it into the dustbin of history.”