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.