How Preferences Expand at the Expense of Academic Truth Seeking

Some legal academics now propose boycotting panels and conferences if they lack sufficient numbers of “diverse” speakers. The call was initiated by some feminist law professors who were concerned by the absence or paucity of women at some academic events, but it has morphed into a more general demand for more “diversity” where diversity is mostly, if not entirely, defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and even sexual orientation.

As someone who has organized a half dozen conferences and many more academic panels, I think this movement is deeply misguided. Setting aside the general morality of selecting people by considering race and gender, the hard fact is that the more specialized the topic the less likely the ideal participants are going to reflect “diversity.” There is no reason to believe that the pool for a panel on banking or antitrust law, subjects I teach, will contain the right proportions of academics as measured by “diversity” categories. And conferences are frequently focused on even more narrowly gauged topics, such as limited liability corporations or bank risk regulation, with relatively few experts in the entire nation. And a conference organizer is not going to get acceptances from everyone invited. As a result, it becomes even more difficult to be sure that a panel on a specific subject on a given date will be both excellent and “diverse.”

Of course, it is always possible to assure greater diversity by inviting a professor who is vaguely connected to the subject matter, like inviting a constitutional generalist to a conference on originalism. But not only does that kind of choice reduce quality, it is deeply unfair to academics who have been tilling the field for years to deprive them of the opportunity to present the fruits of their labor in favor of rounding out the conference by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

It might be thought this latest academic kerfuffle is a fad of little interest outside the ivory tower. But sadly it reflects the iron law of preferences: They forever expand in scope. Here they are expanding from demands for diversity on a whole faculty to diversity on much smaller groupings, where the loss from the failure to choose solely on merits of previous scholarship is even clearer. Given that being invited to a conference is also an honor, a recognition of quality often of decades-long work, it shows how the diversity demands go from demanding a seat at the table to demanding an honored place there.

We see similar trends in society at large, in the call that nominations for awards in any given year reflect diversity, even when the number of nominations is very limited. #Oscarsowhite is an example of a successful campaign to inject racial consciousness in entertainment awards. There are even complaints now that the Nobel prizes are flawed because winners are overwhelmingly white and male. The politics of identity in this latter sphere compromises truth seeking, because it suggests that truth is not universally available to all without regard to markers of identity.  Academics should bind people together in their pursuit of truth, but today they are just as likely to contribute to social fragmentation by making truth identity dependent.