Reshape Universities Because of “Stereotype Threat”?

An Inside Higher Ed article yesterday by English professor Satya P. Mohanty of Cornell on “Diversity’s Next Challenges” constructs an elaborate house of cards but then inadvertently knocks the whole thing down. The piece features, in particular, an argument suggesting that “stereotype threat”—the claim that fear of being judged by a stereotype can cause minorities to do much less well on a test than they should—requires that universities and all of society must be restructured before minorities can be expected to succeed.
Stereotype-threat research regarding test performance has been widely used and abused. But, whatever its merits, Professor Mohanty has extrapolated its claimed findings to a broader one, that the “culture of our campuses,” indeed the entire “culture of learning,” needs to be restructured with the aim of fostering racial trust. Merely admitting a diverse student body is not enough: We must “think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.” Campuses must be perceived as “trustworthy” by these students. And this means that campus culture must be “more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experience of different social groups.” Again, there must be a focus not only on admitting a diverse student body, but on “the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.”
Professor Mohanty then plugs the forthcoming book he has co-edited , The Future of Diversity (some of the arguments that follow here are fleshed out by the book’s various authors, and the op-ed apparently endorses them). That future is important not only for the success of the university per se, but because “university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society.”

Needless to say, it would be a mistake to think that the problem of stereotype threat should be solved by encouraging students to think of themselves as individuals. To the contrary, we must recognize “the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups.” Group identities are a good thing; indeed, even the resulting conflicts are just fine and should be “normalize[ed],” since such conflict is “a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference …”
The counterintuitive claims do not end there. The reader will be surprised to learn that “American higher education is no longer available to the population at large.” This is “because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups,” which result in too much being left to the states to do, and a neglect of, in particular, “non-elite and regional institutions.”
Professor Mohanty’s piece appeared a day after Inside Higher Ed’s rival The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by the Century Foundation’s Richard D. Kahlenberg, arguing, as he long has, for the replacement of race-based affirmative action with wealth-based preferences. But the book Mohanty is editing will recommend both kinds of affirmative action: that “at least” the top universities give low-income status “at least” as much weight as race in admissions. “Social justice” requires that race and class be weighed. Having done this, we must “question our deeper assumptions about what success is” and “rethink some of our most basic theoretical assumptions.”
One of those is “the nature and value of what is called ‘objectivity.'” In particular, “genuine objectivity” need not embrace “neutrality”—colorblindness—where “unfairness is built into the environment”: “What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.”
So, really, you have a remarkable amount of the usual nonsense compressed into one piece here: Our whole educational system—indeed, our whole society—is rife with discriminatory assumptions and attitudes that explain why some groups don’t do as well as others, that the solution is to change the way universities (and, ultimately, all society, which of course must be led by our universities) operate so that all students succeed, that identity politics and even conflict is good, that more federal spending on and control of education is essential, and that objectivity is a fraud, or at least it is if you define it as neutral rather than as, well, subjective.
But here’s the irony: Professor Mohanty unwittingly does a fine job of refuting most of the rest of his piece in this one sentence that begins his penultimate paragraph:

One of the most revealing experiments … showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair—that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged.

Precisely. And it is impossible to send this message in a system where students are treated differently—some better and others worse—on account of skin color and what country their ancestors came from, whether the discrimination is politically correct or incorrect. The test can be “tough”—don’t dumb it down to ensure that everyone succeeds—so long as the students know that “social identities” aren’t weighed, one way or the other. Universities cannot keep it a secret when they have different admission standards, and they will not fool the students when post-admission policies are jerry-rigged with an eye on politically correct equal outcomes either.
This is not a new point. The stigma that inevitably results from race-based policies (what, in a marvel of euphemistic obliqueness, Mohanty may be alluding to in his phrase “sentimental partiality”) has been recognized by others on the left, right, and center. See, e.g., Russell K. Nieli’s paper, “Selling Merit Down the River” (2009) (discussing the pro-preference books The Shape of the River, The Source of the River, and Taming the River) and Paul Sniderman’s books The Scar of Race (1993, with Thomas Piazza) and Reaching Beyond Race (1997, with Edward G. Carmines).
And how could it be otherwise? If a university has one set of admission standards for one group, but it lowers them for another group, it will inevitably feed stereotype threat rather than thwart it. The same is true if begins changing post-admission standards.
Rather than obsessively defining and redefining diversity, and trying to calibrate what effect this or that kind of diversity has on this or that vague aspect of “the learning environment,” universities would be better advised to focus on hiring smart professors who are best qualified to find the truth in particular disciplines and impart it to students who are, in turn, chosen as the most qualified to do work at the intellectual level demanded by that university.
This is challenge enough without being distracted by grand political and societal considerations and parsing the various aspects of individuals’ “social identity.” And race and ethnicity, in particular, ought to be ignored in making these hiring and admission decisions.
The fact of the matter is that “the future of diversity” means “the future of racial and ethnic preferences.” And focusing on superficial characteristics like skin color and what country someone’s ancestors came from is, besides being divisive and unfair and legally dubious, simply not a good way to select the most talented and valuable individuals. (See, for example, my earlier MTC essay here). No doubt it is desirable to have a variety of perspectives, for example, but why use race as a proxy rather than selecting directly for the perspective? If you need someone with a different perspective or set of experiences when it comes to chemical engineering, or political science, or modern dance—fine, but don’t assume that someone’s race or ethnicity will provide that. And be wary of trading the hard value of talent for the soft fashionableness of diversity, of any sort.
Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.


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