From Diversity to Sustainability

In the October 3rd issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is a broad comparison of diversity and sustainability “ideologies.” In it, Peter Wood offers several general remarks about the terms (or notions, attitudes, commitments . . . what is the right word for these hazy but potent “-ities” that bear so many psycho-political undertones and moral imperatives?). I’m not concerned about colleges trying to push recycling and reduce energy usage—on this score, conservatives have made a tactical mistake in letting the Left seize the environmentalist mantle—but I am concerned about the way in which such measures have acquired a coercive pull and might displace attention from core educational aims.
First of all, Wood notes, one has displaced the other. Diversity is no longer the cutting-edge term it once was. As he says, “Freshmen now arrive on campus already having sucked on multicultural milkshakes from kindergarten to senior prom. Diversity for them is just the same ol’ same ol’.” Whether you revere diversity or not, the point is correct. Diversity is standard fare, and for universities to push it as if it were a higher breakthrough only strikes the students as puffery.
Second, he casts diversity and sustainability as “second-wave movements.” Diversity came out of affirmative action, sustainability out of environmentalism. Wood rightly identifies one reason why diversity prospered, that is, that it revised the negatives of reverse discrimination into the positives of better educational outcomes. Likewise, sustainability turned from the pollutions of the past to the cleanliness and efficiencies of the future.

Both of them, he continues, “impose a general order” that extends across the campus to society at large. This is another basis for their appeal. Large-scale revisions to the university have always represented themselves as small reflections of desired revisions to society as a whole. If it just affects the campus, it won’t attract devoted followers.
Ultimately, Wood judges, sustainability will outlast diversity. “In the end,” he concludes, “I suspect that a quarter-century or so of hugging identity politics close and trying to feel perpetual shame about the nation’s racial past just proved too dreary. Sustainability may be based on a grimmer view of life in general, but it offers relief from that ever-expanding story of group oppression that had eventually become all that diversity had to offer. In an odd way, sustainability is liberating.”
Perhaps, however, skeptical observers should take a lesson from the unsuccessful challenges to diversity in the last two decades. From what I can see, the sustained criticism of diversity practices and positions by libertarians and conservatives didn’t put much of a dent in their progress. The attempt to co-opt it with “intellectual diversity,” while garnering much public support, failed time and again on campuses.
This time, with sustainability, critics should think of another way. The lesson of diversity-skirmishes is that unless critics have a place within the institution, the attacks go nowhere. Campus walls are high and thick, and admission to the centers of decision-making usually requires many years of accreditation (and concomitant acculturation). Off-campus voices can shout all they want while the ocean liner of higher education proceeds steadily, the people on board knowing that the occasional scandal (Ward Churchill etc.) and embarrassment (The Sokal Hoax etc.) pass across the public’s attention with no staying power.
This calls for a different approach to sustainability. In general, critics should find areas of agreement with elements of sustainability and uncover allies within the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which now boards 800 member colleges and universities. Are there things about sustainability that tally with conservative ideas of core knowledge, Western Civ, and so on? Are there approaches to sustainability that tally with libertarian values of the free market? If so, one might find many sustainability officers on college campuses ready to listen, especially if they see funding headed their way.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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One thought on “From Diversity to Sustainability”

  1. Does this make sense? White people are being assaulted and murdered daily and the media ignores it. Then, one white girl makes a video and the media goes crazy.

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