The Resentment of the Diversity Officer

This week’s “Diversity in Academe” issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains an interview with the “first-person ever appointed to the position of vice president for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia,” a man named William B. Harvey.  He has moved on to North Carolina A & T, where he serves as dean of the School of Education. 

From the very first question and response, the interview casts an illuminating light on the mentality of diversity officials, an outlook that does not promise objective and fair interpretations of campus policies and practices.  We might first note the disheartening statement about the college curriculum near the end of the interview: “A Western European framework obviously completely ignores the contributions of people of color.”  That statement is so easily refutable by a million examples that one hardly knows what to do with it.  Let’s remember, too, that one of the characteristics of the European outlook from the beginning is to explore other cultures, to learn about them, to record them, to incorporate them.  To say “completely ignores the contributions of people of color” is to allow resentment to interfere with historical fact.

That resentful attitude commences with the first question, which goes, “How do people look at diversity efforts in higher education differently now than they did in the past?”  Instead of citing the massive effort of higher education to hire more diversity officials and implant diversity projects on campus, Harvey has a blunt and negative concern: “There are more undercurrents of resistance—and some of that has to do with the general political climate.”  He implies that while open resistance has diminished—an undeniable fact—the acceptance of diversity initiatives hasn’t really increased.  People have simply shifted their resistance from the overt to the latent, to “undercurrents.” 

Harvey proceeds to note, “The remedies that we thought were going to bring about greater access and greater diversity—those have now become quietly contentious.”  There is an assumption here, one that we must interpret as either naïve or arrogant.  It is that nobody of honest and decent character could find those “remedies” destructive or unprincipled, and thereby resist them on moral or philosophical grounds.  Instead, they just suffer “resistance.”  All those remedies do is “bring about greater access and greater diversity,” he asserts, and who could argue with that?  Harvey seems dismayed that the remedies have “become quietly contentious,” but to expect them not to be controversial is, as noted above, either blind or smug.

The next question poses, “It seems as if more and more colleges are hiring chief diversity officers.  Is that a good thing?”  One look at the job list at the Chronicle shows that there is no “seems” about it.  Diversity is a growth field in the administration building.  Even here, though, Harvey can’t be entirely optimistic.  He replies:

I think it can be a good thing.  But it can also be a bad thing, because it provides an opportunity for institutions who want to be disingenuous to say, "We've hired someone and this person will fix everything.  Despite our history, this person will make everything right."  And then if they don't, the institution can put the blame on them.

Note the emphasis, and what it assumes about the job of diversity.  Even positive efforts are to be understood as (possibly) mere tactics, not as sincere efforts to ensure diversity measures.  It puts even the advocates of diversity jobs on the defensive.  The Chronicle interviewers seem to respond accordingly, for their questions are entirely in sync with Harvey’s position (for instance, they ask, “What major issue stands in the way of higher education making more progress on the diversity front?”).  They do not even intimate anything that might be problematic about diversity initiatives and values—no questions such as, “Do you find anything in the arguments against affirmative action that is reasonable?”  

That is unfortunate, because as long as diversity passes as a self-evident good, as long as it stands without question, indeed, as long as the cynicism and suspicion of the diversity officer goes unchecked, then on this issue the campus will be a closed society, a limited marketplace of ideas.

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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