A Dispatch from the Academic Wilds

We are plagued by dishonesty emanating from the President of the United States, from Russian bots, and from countless other sources. Should we fault the diversity Zeitgeist, which helped to fuel Donald Trump’s rebellion against political correctness? We should certainly fault the distortions that regularly mar the theory and practice of “diversity.” The Diversity Delusion by Heather Mac Donald attempts to provide the definitive deconstruction of this highly contested concept.

Although the book is marred by hyperbole (a flaw it shares with many of the claims it attacks), I hope it circulates widely, especially on college campuses. It recounts a long parade of shameful deeds, preposterous statements, and garbled proclamations. Even “progressive” readers, furthermore, can relish the author’s iconoclasm along with her lively imagination and her lapidary prose.

The book has four parts: Race, Gender, the Bureaucracy, and the Purpose of the University. Because the first three are the most informative, my discussion will focus upon them.

Chaos at Two California Campuses

The Race section begins with a disturbing account of Mac Donald’s visits to two California schools: Claremont-McKenna College and the University of California, Los Angeles. She was invited to discuss controversies surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter in connection with her 2016 book, The War on Cops. CMC students attempted to inspire resistance by denouncing her as a “notorious white supremacist fascist” and an “Anti-Black Fascist.” Although Mac Donald would probably join me in saying that students should not be disciplined for exercising their freedom of speech so recklessly, I would certainly join her in condemning the physical disruptions that ensued. She ended up having to live stream her talk from an empty lecture hall while protestors were banging on the windows. One day earlier, when she was speaking to an audience at UCLA, pandemonium erupted once the question and answer period commenced.

Three years ago, on this website, I criticized several campus protests inspired by Black Lives Matter, and I am appalled that any students are eager to silence someone who has done so much to explore important controversies. Mac Donald has shown courage in some very tense situations; when addressing divisive topics, however, she is occasionally less meticulous than she should be. Although she is wise in emphasizing that people of color are much more imperiled by civilian violence than they are by police violence—and although she uses the word “abomination” to lament the rate at which blacks are murdered—she errs in claiming that Black Lives Matter protesters have ignored “all” of the civilian-caused mayhem.[1] Her main point would resonate even if she substituted “much” for the “all.” Here, as elsewhere, she echoes the crusading zeal of the movements she impugns.

After launching her “Hysterical Campus” chapter by discussing the mistreatment she experienced in California, she proceeds to offer vivid and efficient accounts of several well-known escapades on other campuses: for example, the riots that greeted Milo Yiannopoulus at the University of California, Berkeley and the shameless mistreatment that Nicholas and Erika Christakis endured at Yale. A later chapter focuses on the abuses that Amy Wax has endured from students, faculty, and administrators at the University of Pennsylvania law school.

The next two chapters in the Race section criticize affirmative action. Mac Donald wisely reminds us of the dramatic racial/ethnic discrepancies in SAT scores, and she preempts attempts to blame this on cultural bias in the tests: black and Hispanic students tend to perform less well in college than their SAT scores would predict.[2] She adds references to reliable studies about grade distributions and graduation rates at institutions such as UC Berkeley and Duke.

To her credit, the author acknowledges that scholars have attacked the “mismatch” theory proffered by UCLA law professor Richard Sander. Although I too am persuaded by Sander’s argument that many preference-beneficiaries would perform better at law schools in which their LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs approximated those of their white classmates, I must protest Mac Donald’s conclusion: “Sander’s research empirically exploded the argument that affirmative action benefits its recipients.”

First, there are benefits that Sander does not attempt to address: for example, the stimulation, inspiration, and preparation that a diamond in the rough such as Barack Obama or Clarence Thomas can absorb at a top-tier law school.[3] Mac Donald goes much farther astray by linking Sander’s critique to “affirmative action” generally rather than to its specific effects in U.S. law schools, with their narrow curricula and competitive grading. Sander’s pathbreaking 2004 article, furthermore, did not examine the non-black racial/ethnic groups that affirmative action targets.[4]

Mac Donald’s first Race chapter focuses on how the University of California system responded to Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative whereby California voters prohibited state institutions from granting preferences based on race or ethnicity. The author here illuminates new terrain regarding performance issues, and adds sharp criticisms of how the UC administration has used “comprehensive review”  to evade the initiative’s mandate for color-blindness. Here are some telling statistics: UC Berkeley in 2002 admitted 374 applicants, almost all of them black or Latino, whose combined SAT scores were less than 1000, while rejecting 3,218 white applicants with scores of 1400 or higher.

A later chapter cites a 2004 Social Science Quarterly study of three top-tier American universities where the admitted black applicants in effect received a 230-point boost in their SAT scores. This fact is worth knowing. But the author exaggerates with her takeaway: “Such massive preferences are found at every selective college and graduate school.” The hyper-selective California Institute of Technology grants no racial or ethnic preferences, and there are probably hundreds of “selective” schools where the average SAT scores are modest and the racial/ethnic discrepancies are smaller.

The Race section ends with a pair of chapters that challenge trendy approaches to diagnosing and combating racism. The chapter on microaggressions poignantly relays the indignities inflicted upon two UCLA professors, Val Rust and the aforementioned Richard Sander. What were their transgressions? Rust, in his graduate-level course on dissertation preparation, required that citations follow the Chicago Manual of Style rather than the American Psychological Association—and he corrected a student for capitalizing “indigenous.” The example regarding Sander is comparably disturbing: At a 2013 softball game that his property class played against other students, some of his students wore “#teamsander” T-shirts. Because of Sander’s publications about mismatch, it appears, students of color were apparently mortified that classmates would ever proclaim themselves members of a team named after him. 

Heather Mac Donald, Progressive

The chapter entitled, “Are We All Unconscious Racists?” provides another batch of invaluable assessments. Mac Donald is particularly persuasive regarding the limited utility of the Implicit Association Test. In addition to citing mathematically sophisticated critics such as Philip Tetlock, the chapter illuminates our country’s frantic pursuit of diversity in institutions of higher education and large businesses. We are somehow supposed to believe, she adds trenchantly, that “alleged millisecond associations between blacks and negative terms are a more powerful determinant of who gets admitted, hired, and promoted than these often-explicit and heavy-handed preferences.” To establish more credibility with mainstream scholars regarding such issues, however, she should acknowledge the “tester” studies that illustrate how racial discrimination affects employment, housing, and lending. On the most important point, in any case, our author stands with the progressives: “America has an appalling history of racism and brutal subjugation, and we should always be vigilant against any recurrence of that history.”

The book’s section on bureaucracy develops key themes from Part One, illustrating how institutions often compromise on quality when striving for diversity. One memorable example is an introductory chemistry class at UC Berkeley whose instructors, seeking to disrupt the “racialized and gendered constructs of scientific brilliance,” also proclaim that “all students are scientifically brilliant.” Comparably potent is her listing of the numerous diversity-related positions at the University of California, San Diego. The book’s final section notes that UC Berkeley’s Equity and Inclusion office has 150 full-time employees and an annual budget of $20 million.

Some of the reforms Mac Donald suggests are strikingly bold. She recommends that the University of California fire “every vice chancellor, assistant dean, and associate provost for equity, inclusion, and multicultural awareness,” while pulling the plug on sensitivity training, annual diversity reports, and faculty committees that attempt to fight “phantom racism, sexism, and homophobia.” To address America’s racial/ethnic cleavages, she recommends providing “more rigorous, structured classrooms” in pre-college education—and “a change in family culture to put a high premium on academic achievement.” In a similar spirit, her Race section highlighted the crime problems that she traces to “the breakdown of family and bourgeois norms in inner-city areas.” Among the millions of Americans who would welcome a revival of academic achievement, family stability, and bourgeois norms, of course, many favor affirmative action as a stopgap.

Perusing the book’s Gender section, the reader can appreciate how Mac Donald’s comedic and literary sensibilities complement her skills as a researcher. Relying partly on the work of Stuart Taylor, Jr., and KC Johnson, the author deconstructs several widely accepted estimates of campus rape, impugns the conduct of Emma Sulkowicz—who received course credit for her mattress-hauling at Columbia—and deftly sketches the railroading of accused men at Occidental College and Washington and Lee University. Mac Donald concedes that many male collegians “act thuggishly” and that “exploitative sexual demands in the workplace” are an urgent problem. She also recommends that the alcohol-infused “collegiate bacchanal” be eliminated: “Should college fornication become a rare event preceded by contract signing and notarization, maybe students would actually do some studying instead.”

To such points, the author adds larger reflections that can deepen our perspective on the rapid growth of attempts to codify sexual interactions. The new types of rules, she observes, presume that “an activity originating in inchoate desire, whose nuances have taxed the expressive powers of poets, artists, and philosophers for centuries, can be reduced to a species of commercial code.” In one of her sharpest jabs at feminist theorizing, she notes that the students who “push themselves on women at keggers are after one thing only, and it’s not a reinstatement of the patriarchy.” She later mocks feminist efforts to “reduce the male libido to a political power play that has more to do with keeping females out of the boardroom than getting them into the bedroom.” Despite the insight and wit the author displays in these chapters, I must again suggest that she would gain more credibility if she tempered some of her generalizations, for example, her claim that the hordes of females who rush to fraternity functions probably “know that whatever sex they encounter at those parties will be a far cry from rape.”

Reviving the True Purpose of the University 

The author’s erudition and eloquence are evident in the book’s final—and most temperate—section, “The Purpose of the University.” She warns academics about being obsessed with “assigning guilt and innocence within the ruthlessly competitive hierarchy of victimhood.” After sketching the UCLA English Department’s decision in 2011 to eliminate the four courses it required on canonical authors (Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Milton), she blames “the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics.” English majors at UCLA now have to take three courses from a collection that highlights cutting-edge types of “studies,” for example, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, imperial, transnational, and postcolonial. We should instead be striving to kindle in students the “all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past.”

The Diversity Delusion will succeed splendidly in entertaining and energizing the enemies of political correctness, but its excesses will limit its broader impact. Although Heather Mac Donald sometimes fails to acknowledge the “stunning complexity” of contemporary society, she brilliantly challenges the oppressive practices and the dogmatic thinking that “diversity and inclusion” are increasingly spawning.

[1] A later chapter highlights rigorous studies that challenge complaints about “bias-driven killings of black men” and provides useful statistics on disparities in crime rates. In 2016, for example, 98 percent of the known shooting suspects in New York City were black or Latino.

[2] Even The Shape of the River, the landmark defense of affirmative action by Derek Bok and William G. Bowen, acknowledges that the black undergraduates in their sample received lower grades than their SATs would predict. Derek Bok and William G. Bowen, The Shape of the River (Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 72-90.

[3] Mac Donald ends her Race section with a shaded box that recounts a Los Angeles Times article on a black student at UC-Berkeley who seemed absurdly unprepared for its curricular challenges. The story is captivating, but it discusses only one student; the author’s complaints might get a wider hearing if she acknowledged the existence of students who overcame pronounced weaknesses in their high school records.

[4] Richard H. Sander, “A Systemic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools,” Stanford Law Review 57 (2004): 369-70. Mac Donald does not discuss the broader analysis Sander provides with coauthor Stuart Taylor, Jr., in Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It (Basic Books, 2012). This book, however, never even suggests that affirmative action helps none of its recipients.

Reader Discussion

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on March 26, 2019 at 12:09:47 pm

The point of this piece eludes me. Mac Donald's book is not a student dissertation that must stroke the sensibilities of the insecure members of her dissertation committee. Mac Donald is criticized not for what she says but for what she doesn't say, which is, in most cases (like I said, I can't really penetrate the fog of this writer's intention), the fallback method of critique for someone whose politics or beliefs causes them to chafe at the work's conclusions but who can't refute them.

I don't imagine that any reader of Mac Donald's book (and let's face it, those readers likely won't be Oprah book club members--see, I used the probabilistic qualifier the writer demands Mac Donald to have used!) is going to understand her rhetorical choices as implying that there is not a single counter-example to any of her statements. But diluting the force of her arguments with qualifiers and other hedgers of the sort academics must employ if they are to get their works published in journals would simply give more discomfited readers an easy escape hatch from having to endure so much evidence that their cherished convictions were, as Nietzsche remarked, more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies. Which, I conclude, must be the point.

Mac Donald is wise not to purchase additional marginal credibility among today's academics by such means. One imagines she may be (see, I did it again!) intuitively following Koestler's advice: A writer's ambition should be to trade a hundred contemporary readers for ten readers in ten years' time and for one reader in a hundred years' time.

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on March 26, 2019 at 15:31:01 pm

It reminds me of the question, "What is the opposite of diversity?"


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on March 26, 2019 at 17:20:47 pm

Minowitz's post reveals its bias at the outset and continues downhill from there. Of what relevance is the opening "We are plagued by dishonesty emanating from the President of the United States, from Russian bots, and from countless other sources" other than to show with clarity the political bias of the author and perhaps his fear of reprisal from students and administrators on his campus, much like the reprehensible reprisals issued against Professor Abrams at Sarah Lawrence. The author dismisses MacDonald's work as plagued by hyperbole, but as I have not read MacDonald's book I cannot address this claim. I can only address the apparent readily apparent bias that meanders throughout the review which is betrayed by the opening sentence.

Contrary to Minowitz's claim, Richard Sander's work on diversity and affirmative action "empirically exploded the argument that affirmative action benefits its recipients." Sanders so completely destroys any claim that affirmative action is beneficial to the recipient that he was ostracized by his academic peers. His requests for access to raw statistical data necessary to further his theories was shut off, he was banned from panels discussing affirmative action, and his papers and articles were denied publication. This is the community of scholars of which the reviewer is a part and to the extent he discounts Sander's work, he is no better than the students who verbally and physically attacked MacDonald.

And the reviewer is wrong to lump Justice Clarence Thomas with Barack Obama as beneficiaries of affirmative action. One cannot be certain if Obama obtained his places at the various universities he attended because of affirmative action since he never released his transcripts although he is on record saying he and Michele benefited from certain advantages of race. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, proves Sanders' thesis that affirmative action negatively impacts its supposed beneficiaries in a variety of ways, one of which is to create a severe negative self image. Justice Thomas, who achieved admission to all of the academic institutions he attended on merit and without assistance from affirmative action, has on numerous occasions made it clear that he was always lumped in with the group of minorities on campus whom other students openly felt to be inferior and not deserving of the spots they occupied.

Having read the other published work of Heather MacDonald, I am much inclined to read this book as well, the erroneous frothing of Professor Minowitz notwithstanding.

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Sheldon Chernove
on March 27, 2019 at 07:36:09 am

Thank you for helping me to more clearly understand my own reaction to this piece. I found it disturbing and am reassured to learn that I am not alone.

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on March 27, 2019 at 14:28:00 pm

Very good.

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Image of EK
on March 28, 2019 at 14:19:12 pm

I didn't intend for my piece to have "a point." A review should provide an inviting introduction, highlighting the book's weaknesses as well as its strengths. My review devotes more space to the latter, no?

Although I criticize HMD for omissions, I also criticize her for exaggerations, and I passed over a bunch from each of these two categories.

As your final two grafs illuminate, rhetoric is urgent, unavoidable, and challenging. And although exaggeration is often necessary, it is sometimes pernicious. In this review and elsewhere, finally, I vigorously protest left-wing exaggerations (and omissions) regarding diversity.

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Peter Minowitz
on March 28, 2019 at 14:57:53 pm

I hardly "dismiss" HMD's book, and I was entirely sincere in saying that "I hope it circulates widely, especially on college campuses." And I wrote that the book is "marred"--not "plagued"--by hyperbole.

Regarding Sander, I wrote that I am "persuaded" by his main argument. Are you really wedded to the notion that someone who merely "discounts" Sander's work "is no better than the students who verbally and physically attacked Mac Donald"? And don't the activists who disrupt campus talks by HMD, Charles Murray, Ben Shapiro, etc., insist that such figures are "no better" than the neo-Nazis who invite racist violence?

For the record, I don't "discount" Sander's work, and I would be hard-pressed even to criticize it. I defend Sander in my review--and at greater length in a 2016 journal article, "Rescuing 'Diversity' from Affirmative Action and Campus Activists." I entirely endorse your complaints about the ways he has been denied "access to raw statistical data" and otherwise ostracized.

I've spent a lot of time reading--and reading about--Obama and Thomas, and I discussed Thomas at length in my 2009 book, Straussophobia. I believe that both men benefited from affirmative action, but I am not certain. If I'm wrong about either, I apologize. I would also appeal, however, to the complaints expressed above by QET about "diluting the force" of one's arguments via "qualifiers and other hedgers of the sort academics must employ."

For the record, I relish your "erroneous frothing" phrase even though you applied it to my review.

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Peter Minowitz
on March 28, 2019 at 17:13:59 pm

Mac Donald's statements are accurate, but you would have them be more precise. Too much fastidiousness over precision tends to undermine the force of accuracy. If Mac Donald were researching some natural phenomenon, a lack of sufficient precision in her presentation might lessen or negate the worth of her findings. But the matters Mac Donald treats of are urgently political here and now.

It is important that she be accurate, which I have always found her to be (and where she isn't, it should be pointed out), and she is also precise (she is no propagandist), though perhaps not to your satisfaction in some instances. Importantly, she is one of the few people willing to expose herself to the contempt and violence of our progressive thug culture by constantly opposing her accuracy, precise to a few decimal places anyway, to their sheer mendacity. If our current politics and policy conflicts were matters merely of relative precision in measurements, then citing Mac Donald's imprecision would be more meaningful.

And were she to take your advice and revise her sentences, who, exactly, would she win over by such an exercise that could be won? More likely, it would be viewed (rightly) as in the nature of an apology, a kissing of the ring, a walk to Canossa, of the type we see every day when celebrities and politicians and corporate CEOs abase themselves in repentance over the slightest of perceived slights their accurate tellings of the truth engender. She wouldn't be Heather Mac Donald if she behaved in that abject fashion.

I acknowledge that you acknowledge her strengths and that your piece is not in any way a hit piece. But what you take for weaknesses are, in fact, strengths, as I see it.

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on March 28, 2019 at 23:44:06 pm

Thank you for this exquisite elaboration, QET. The subtleties required to distinguish accuracy from precision exceed the capacity of blog debate, so I shall simply share an Aristotle quotation you probably admire: "one should not seek out precision in ALL things alike, just as one should not do so in the products of craftsmanship" (1094b13-15).

I also relish your pitch for HMD's courage and vitality. I too am inspired by her unwillingness to kiss the ring, and I think her book is invaluable for showing that the Emperors of Diversity, though not naked, are often attired quite skimpily.

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Peter Minowitz
on March 29, 2019 at 23:02:00 pm

I imagine many Asian students might agree with Macdonald that a lot of built in favoritism and political chaos originating from a neomoral PC-based paradigm exists
I would love to see a comparison/contrast between Obama and Thomas as far as SAT scores and grades.
The election of Obama demonstrated clearly that racism is passe among the majority of white voters. Obama's administration demonstrated rampant official misconduct where the scales of justice were rigged with bias and the law was not set in stone, but an amorphous mass of relativism tinged with additional bias.
As far as crime, I watched David Horowitz recently on Book TV where he wryly noted that the high crime, poverty, and poor education results are occurring in districts that have been run for over 50 years by Progressive Democrats. I am sure that Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams would gladly back up Horowitz on his observations.
Obama was a paste facsimile of a diamond in the rough. In the old days, we would have labeled him plastic.

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on May 23, 2019 at 06:02:06 am

[…] and xenophobic (among numerous other perceived failings). Heather Mac Donald’s bracing book The Diversity Delusion (2018) exposed the agenda of leftist academic bureaucrats who in recent decades have—with great […]

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Redlining in Reverse
on November 12, 2019 at 10:57:24 am

Alright I know this is an old article, but Clarence Thomas has repeatedly made it clear he dislikes AA. From wikipedia, a website widely known and instantly available. Please, Mr. Minowitz, this article really needs a correction!

In Adarand Constructors v. Peña, for example, he wrote "there is a 'moral [and] constitutional equivalence' between laws designed to subjugate a race and those that distribute benefits on the basis of race in order to foster some current notion of equality. Government cannot make us equal; it can only recognize, respect, and protect us as equal before the law. That [affirmative action] programs may have been motivated, in part, by good intentions cannot provide refuge from the principle that under our Constitution, the government may not make distinctions on the basis of race."[172]

In Gratz v. Bollinger, Thomas said that, in his view, "a State's use of racial discrimination in higher education admissions is categorically prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause."[173] In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Thomas joined the opinion of Chief Justice Roberts, who concluded that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."[174] Concurring, Thomas wrote that "if our history has taught us anything, it has taught us to beware of elites bearing racial theories," and charged that the dissent carried "similarities" to the arguments of the segregationist litigants in Brown v. Board of Education.[174]

In Grutter v. Bollinger, he approvingly quoted Justice Harlan's Plessy v. Ferguson dissent: "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."[175] In a concurrence in Missouri v. Jenkins (1995), he wrote that the Missouri District Court "has read our cases to support the theory that black students suffer an unspecified psychological harm from segregation that retards their mental and educational development. This approach not only relies upon questionable social science research rather than constitutional principle, but it also rests on an assumption of black inferiority."[176]

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on November 12, 2019 at 22:44:25 pm

Thank you very much for sharing the quotes from Justice Thomas. You appear, however, to have misread what I wrote about him: I suggested that he (like Obama) had been "a diamond in the rough" who benefited from the challenges of attending a "top-tier law school." Above, Sheldon Chernove challenges me about whether Thomas's race helped him get admitted to Yale Law School, but I never suggested that Thomas supports racial preferences. In fact, I have elsewhere highlighted Thomas's opposition. In the following article, e.g., I criticized a New York Times article for implying that defenders of color-blindness are “opponents of college diversity” whose efforts display America’s “impatience with racial inclusion": https://www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/diversity-and-demonization/

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Peter Minowitz
on August 28, 2020 at 05:44:38 am

[…] disrupting campus speakers such as Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald; […]

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