The Mystery Of The “Diversity Commitment”

An epithet scrawled on a door, a brawl outside a football game, an ill-chosen costume for a Halloween party – over the course of the academic year, college campuses are bound to have incidents of racial friction. Some of them are indeed displays of outright bigotry. And when they occur, the diversity brigade is ready and waiting with its all-purpose solution: the idea that the cure for bigotry is a still warmer embrace of racial (and other identity group) preferences.
It has happened again, this time at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.

In mid-July, Ralph Papitto, the chairman of its board, who had served for 39 years, was forced to resign after making a crude and racist remark. It is not clear exactly what he said, but all parties agree it included the N-word. The shake-up at the board sounds like it was overdue, and Papitto’s slur was only a nasty flourish at the end. Papitto’s racist tantrum came in response to a formal “notice of concern” issued on March 23, by the University’s main accreditor, faulting Roger Williams for its poor governance.

According to the accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) , the University board had stumbled in lots of ways – by failing to have a conflict of interest policy, by indulging numerous (apparent) conflicts of interest, by ignoring its own by-laws, by not having a separate audit committee, and on and on. But NEASC’s letter to RWU President Roy Nirschel also singled out diversity: “In addition, we understand that little progress has been made on the Board’s goal, established in 2003, to increase the size and diversity of its membership.”

Though President Nirschel declined to talk to me about it, the University’s Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, Judy Johnson, told me that RWU is wholly committed to diversity, which it promotes under the catchphrase “inclusive excellence.” And in keeping with RWU’s diversity commitment, the board is now expanding its membership and appointing more women and members of minority groups.

Catnip for Accreditors

Because accreditors have a history of sneaking “diversity” into their proceedings despite have no standing to do so, I checked with NEASC to see where it found its mandate to pursue the issue. Barbara Brittingham, director of NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, held her ground. “The Commission mentioned diversity only in the context of the University’s own stated goals.” The “stated goals” she referred to are those in a 2003 board planning document.

So how did it happen that the chairman of RWU’s board was caught unaware of his board’s own written goals? Here the trail grows cold. Ms. Johnson, the University’s spokesman, explained that the 2003 document was an internal board matter and would not be made public. She would not say who drafted it or why. She would not explain what it actually says. And she offered no help in reaching board members who might know.

Could the University administration have sandbagged its own board by drafting the “diversity commitment?” Any college administrator would know that such a statement would be catnip for accreditors. But then, again, maybe the board itself adopted the language without realizing the consequences.

RWU’s Extra-legal Remedies

Embracing diversity may have served the RWU administration in several ways. First, of course, it is an easy form of academic pandering. Members of various interest groups will applaud and it is a lot simpler to heap laurels at a shrine to oneself by proclaiming diversity than by say, raising academic standards. Add to this the need to recover from Pipitto’s transgression and to get right with NEASC, and RWU was ripe for a diversity campaign.

But universities as institutions must also abide by the law and live up to public interests. In its pursuit of diversity, higher education has often been a scoff-law, and more than willing to elevate its own conception of “social justice” above common considerations of fairness. In this light, RWU’s embrace of diversity looks more doubtful.

The three U.S. Supreme Court diversity decisions – Justice Powell’s 1978 Bakke opinion, Justice O’Connor’s 2003 Grutter opinion, and Justice Roberts’ 2007 Seattle opinion – all treat diversity as a special kind of social good, something that fosters intellectual growth, at least when experienced in the special conditions of the college classroom. The law of the land, as laid down in Grutter and left intact by Seattle, is that, while racial preferences are forbidden in most contexts of public life in the United States, they may be permitted in colleges and universities under certain seemingly stringent conditions. According to the Grutter doctrine, the college must be seeking the educational benefits of classroom diversity; it must have exhausted all of the reasonable, less intrusive alternatives to racial preferences; and it must not allow race to be the only or the most important factor, but instead engage in a “holistic” assessment of candidates.

The Grutter diversity doctrine does not license colleges and university to engage in racial discrimination for anything other than the alleged educational benefits of classroom diversity. So Grutter is not permission to engage in racial discrimination in hiring or promoting faculty members; and it surely is not permission to engage in racial discrimination in appointing members to a board of trustees. Perhaps the Supreme Court would allow racial preference in board appointments on some other grounds, but the nation’s official “diversity” doctrine doesn’t license this kind of discrimination.

We don’t know what the RWU Board intended in its not-available-to-the-public 2003 statement, but the current board is treating the policy as a mandate for appointing members of minority groups and women. The Providence Journal sized up the former board as “16 members, 14 of them white men.” Dr. Barbara Roberts, the former board member who was forced out after complaining about Papitto racial slur, was described by that newspaper as “advocating that women and minorities be added to the board, not two more white businessmen.” And she made a proposal to this effect at board meeting on May 9. President Nirschel told Inside Higher Education that a majority of the new board members are women and “minority and international trustees.”

The previous board appears to have been something close to personal fiefdom for Papitto, and it is easy to imagine that the University passed over numerous highly qualified individuals who happened to be women, black, or members of other ethnic minorities. But the sensible solution would be for the University to start appointing people to its board on the basis of their individual merits, not on the basis of which boxes they check on their census forms. As Chief Justice Roberts recently reminded us, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

Mission Ignorable

RWU’s immediate problems stem from an accreditor’s warning letter. The letter is a rarity in one respect: most accreditors do not speak on the record about diversity. That’s because they do not have accreditation standards for “diversity.” The regional accrediting agencies flirted with diversity standards in the early 1990s, but backed away when one of them, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, was burned. Middle States attempted to impose its diversity standard on two institutions, Baruch College and Westminster Seminary, that were unwilling to comply. The National Association of Scholars got involved and pursued a complaint. This culminated in a letter of April 11, 1991, in which Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander told Middle States that unless it withdrew its diversity standard it could lose its authorization from the Department of Higher Education to serve as an accreditor. Middle States wisely stood down, and since then the regional accreditors have been much more circumspect in their attempts to shoehorn racial preferences into faculty hiring, student recruitment, and other aspects of college life.

There is, however, a loophole. All of these accrediting associations operate on the principle that they are holding colleges and universities accountable for meeting their own announced “missions,” presented in institutional mission statements. If a college or university says the pursuit of diversity is part of its mission – or its goals, plans, targets, etc.- “diversity” is fair game for the accreditor. By declaring its intent to diversify its board, Roger Williams University issued a gilt-edged invitation to NEASC to pursue the issue.

In the aftermath of this affair, Roger Williams University and NEASC can perhaps be left to celebrate diversity together – except for one more wrinkle. Because accreditors put institutional mission statements at the center of their proceedings, these documents take on significance they might not otherwise have. In the case of RWU, its mission statement – posted on its website – says nothing whatever about the University’s commitment to diversity. After listening to Ms. Johnson’s florid declaration of how the pursuit of diversity is more or less the be-all and end-all of RWU, I asked her why the University’s actual mission- its pursuit of diversity – was absent from its mission statement? She took that, appropriately, as a hostile question.

The University’s official mission statement presents RWU to the public as a place where “liberal and professional education are enhanced by their integration” and where the core values include “love of learning as an intrinsic value” and “promotion of civil discourse.” But if Ms. Johnson accurately conveyed RWU’s commitment to diversity, these statements cannot be true. Diversity is essentially an anti-liberal doctrine that demotes the importance of ideas in favor of group identity. “Diversity” treats learning not as an “intrinsic value” but as an instrumental good to be apportioned among people according to a hierarchy of compensatory claims. And far from promoting “civil discourse,” the ideology diversity warrants and feeds a sense of permanent, unappeasable grievance, and frequently is used to authorize restrictions on speech.

In short, RWU appears to have an accreditation problem that NEASC has failed to notice or address. Its mission statement is flat-out deceptive, and this is a violation of NEASC’s Standard One. We may have a rather long wait before NEASC takes action, but it should. If it fails to hold RWU accountable for its misleading mission statement, NEASC vitiates its principle of treating colleges and university mission statements as serious public pronouncements that accurately delineate the character of institutions.

The Tentacles of Diversity

As every schoolboy used to know, the Reverend Roger Williams was run out of Massachusetts in 1636. He was, oddly enough, charged with spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions” – something that could well vault him to tenure in an ethnic studies department today. In any case, undaunted by the charges against him in Massachusetts, he moved to the head of Narragansett Bay where he helped to found both Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America.

His name still evokes a stubborn commitment to principle and to moral clarity. It is hard to see that the University that now bears that name does so in good faith. Mr. Papitto’s ignorant slurs, the skullduggery surrounding the mysterious 2003 board documents, the sleazy backroom promotion of race and gender preferences, the grandstanding in favor of diversity in contradiction of the institution’s official mission statement, and the winking relationship with the accreditor, suggest the University ought to think about a new name.

I suggest it take a page from another great Ocean State figure, H. P. Lovecraft, who was rather good at capturing a milieu of deception, betrayal, and seedy second-rateness. Lovecraft’s own fictional university, Miskatonic, has already been claimed, but how about “Cthulhu University?” It might help attract a genuinely diverse group of students.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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