UW Diversity Report– Is It Really Amazing?

Articles by Professor W. Lee Hansen at the Pope Center site and by John Leo here at Minding the Campus attracted wide attention last week by deploring a suggestion in a diversity report at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that called for, among other things, the “proportional participation” of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups “in the distribution of grades.” Here two UW professors, Donald A. Downs, a frequent contributor to Minding the Campus, and David Canon, disagree with the Hansen-Leo assessment, and Professor Hansen replies.

Donald Downs and David Canon: 

On July 17, John Leo published an essay in Minding the Campus about the new diversity plan at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leo drew on claims made by W. Lee Hansen, an emeritus professor of economics at the Madison campus, in an article Hansen published at the Pope Center in North Carolina.

Leo quoted Hansen: “Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, ‘underrepresented racial/ethnic’ students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.” According to Hansen, the faculty senate at Madison actually signed off on this requirement when it accepted a campus report on diversity at its May meeting.

Public reaction to this reporting has been strong. Each of us has received correspondence expressing disbelief and/or hostility.

We write this response not to endorse the Madison campus’s diversity programs per se. Indeed, below we discuss why the bureaucratic rhetoric and ambitions of diversity reports and programs often open the door to criticisms that they did not anticipate, some of it merited, some not.

One of us, Canon, stands moderately to the left of center regarding diversity and generally supports the Framework for Diversity, and has always been a strong defender of academic standards and neutral grading. Meanwhile, Downs is libertarian, to the right of center, and a frequent public critic of the way diversity programs have been used to stifle free and open discourse on campus relating to matters as race, gender, sexual orientation, and related categories. (See Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, 2006.)

Also, each of us has consistently harbored and expressed genuine respect for Professor Hansen’s typically courageous and empirically based critiques of diversity programs at Madison and elsewhere, which he has presented over the years. If ever the designation of necessary dissent applies, it applies to Hansen.

But the accusation that the faculties at Madison and the UW Regents have signed off on affirmative action grading is not a fair critique for a simple reason: they have not done so. Nor did the faculty senate endorse such an action. Let us explain.

Professor Hansen writes that “Unbeknownst to faculty senators, these goals and recommendations are based on the ‘Inclusive Excellence’ framework adopted in March of 2009 by the Board of Regents. (Agenda Item II.6 for the March 5, 2009, meeting of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.)

But when one looks at the entire agenda for that 2009 meeting, rather than simply at the pages from the appendix that Hansen excerpted (pp. 155-59), one sees that “Inclusive Excellence” was not adopted by the Regents.  On pages 30-35, Agenda Item II.6  (p.31) you find: “REQUESTED ACTION. No action requested; for information only.” (Ironically, Professor Patrick Sims, Chief Diversity Officer and interim vice provost for Diversity and Climate, makes this same mistake in his post on the UW web site’s front page on July 22, saying that the Board of Regents adopted the ”inclusive excellence” framework).

Accordingly, no action was taken by the UW BOR on Agenda Item II.6; it was not “adopted.” It was intended for information only. It did not establish a policy for the university.

The inclusive excellence agenda presentation agenda in 2009 did mention grades in its appendix, cited by Professor Hansen (pp. 155-159). This could pose a problem. (Footnotes have set precedents in Supreme Court history, for example.) However, it is quite likely that none of the Regents actually saw this. Furthermore, if you go to the news summary of this report there is no mention of diversity-based grades. A quick Google search of news stories we conducted about diversity-based grades after the meeting revealed no discussion of grading. Would such a policy not have been the lead story if the Regents had actually approved this policy?

As professors at UW-Madison, we can vouch for the fact that there has been no effort to impose diversity-based grading in the past five years. Had such effort emerged, there would have been an immediate strong response. Certainly no one in our department has encountered such pressure. Five years is a long time.  If marching orders had been issued, those of us on the front lines would have heard about it by now.

Our interpretation is that the part of the “inclusive excellence” framework that referred to diversity grading is just another one of hundreds of documents/memos/plans that routinely get ignored in a big organization like ours. It was never an actual University policy that was approved by the Regents and it certainly was never imposed on the faculty.

But herein lies one of the problems that lurk inside the Pandora’s Box of many diversity plans. The people who write such plans are often true believers whose words exceed their grasp. And such words are often draped in bureaucratic language that can be subject to multiple explanations. Furthermore, such programs can foster institutional pressures to conform—never a good idea at a university. The drive for diversity must never trump or compromise the traditional commitment to academic freedom and standards.

And Hansen is right when he points out that the “Inclusive Excellence” framework presented to the Regents in 2009 and the UW System’s web site on the topic does indeed contain the language on proportional representation in grading. And, Hansen is also right that the faculty have not been conscientious enough in scrutinizing, overseeing, and critiquing questionable programs and features of programs. In this respect, he has performed his traditional service to the University. And we hope that his claim will put us on guard not to let diversity grading take place down the line.

But his conclusion that the University of Wisconsin has now mandated diversity or affirmative action grading is off base and unfair.  Indeed the words “grades” or “grading” do not appear in the 53-page report.  There is much room for honest debate about diversity and affirmative action on college campuses.  But diversity-based grading, in our view, is not one of them.

W. Lee Hansen:

There is some ambiguity about whether the Board of Regent “endorsement” of Inclusive Excellence meant it had been adopted as the Regents official diversity plan or policy for the UW System. It is true that the Agenda Materials for the March 2009 afternoon session of the Regent meeting indicated the reports to be presented were for information only, and that no action was required.

But that is not the full story. Two top UW System officials, introduced by UW System President Reilly, made their presentations, the first a lengthy Final Report on Plan 2008, the UW System’s recently completed diversity plan, and the second a description of the new diversity plan, Inclusive Excellence. No time was allowed for questions following each presentation. Instead, the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Martin offered three much broader questions in an effort to engage the Regents. For whatever reasons, the Regents failed to take up these questions. Instead, they asked a few questions of their own. As a member of the audience, I was quite surprised that none of the Regents asked about the meaning and scope of Inclusive Excellence or the “Working Definitions,” the latter included in the first of the four document provided in the Agenda Materials and listed as “An Introduction to Inclusive Excellence.”

To my further surprise, the President of the Board of Regents then asked for a vote. The Board Minutes describe what happened: “At the conclusion of the discussion that followed, the Board expressed its unanimous endorsement of the direction that had been set forth in the day’s presentations and discussion.” The term “endorsement” can be interpreted in several ways. One as an acknowledgment that those present heard the reports and had no objections to them. Another is that the Board accepted the report on Plan 2008, and the Board gave a “go ahead” to implementation of Inclusive Excellence.

The latter interpretation gains support from the UW System’s Academic and Student Affairs website and its three sections on Inclusive Excellence—the first offering a general description of “Inclusive Excellence,” the second listing the “Working Definitions,” and the third on “Strategic Planning.” (all copyrighted 2013). Just to remind readers, the full  list of “working definitions” includes the following: “diversity,” “compositional diversity,” “critical mass,” “inclusion,” “equity mindedness,” ” deficit mindedness,” “representational equity,” and finally “excellence,” which as a circular definition is meaningless.”  All of these “working definitions” are essential features of the Inclusive Excellence plan.

Nowhere is Inclusive Excellence referred to as a Board of Regents policy or a UW System policy. On the other hand, “UW System” is mentioned frequently: “UW System colleges and universities need to intentionally integrate their diversity efforts into the core aspects of their institutions . . .”. “Moving forward, we as a system . . .” “UW System Administration and UW institutions will likely engage . . .”. Plus, the section “What Does Success Look Like?” that lays out the System’s comprehensive list of indicators of success.

Another related website “Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Student Success,” refers to the UW System office with the same name, whose role is to provide “guidance to the Senior Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, the President of the UW System, and the Board of Regents, and UW System universities and colleges in the development of policies and procedures . . .”

These materials make it quite clear that Inclusive Excellence is the UW System’s approach to diversity. I should note that for several years a number of UW System campuses have been implementing their own Inclusive Excellence plans.

Reviewing these materials suggests that even if the Board of Regents did not adopt Inclusive Excellence, the UW System did and presumably without objection by the Regents. The most convincing bit of evidence comes from the February 2008 Regent Meeting when in the morning session UW System President Reilly informed the Regents that its new “Growth Agenda” included as one of its goals, Inclusive Excellence. As far as I can tell, that was the first mention of Inclusive Excellence. So, it would appear that UW System President Reilly well before the March 2009 Regent meeting had already adopted Inclusive Excellence as UW System policy with establishment of the “Growth Agenda.”

That afternoon the Board’s Education Committee reviewed the Inclusive Excellence Agenda Materials; it learned that the Inclusive Excellence Framework had been borrowed from its originator, the Association of American Colleges and Universities; and it received a promise from the Senior Vice President that the Regents would received another “iteration” of the plan at a meeting later in the year. It appears there was no further iteration. As far as I can determine, the Agenda Materials for the March 2009 meeting were quite similar to those for the February 2008 meeting.

It can be argued that Inclusive Excellence was not officially approved by the Board of Regents and hence is not an official regent policy. The evidence I have been able to assemble makes it appear that the new diversity plan called Inclusive Excellence was adopted by top UW System officials with little or no input from anybody outside of Van Hise Hall, among them, UW faculty, academic staff, students, community members, and the general public.

By the same token, it seems unlikely UW System officials would move ahead with such a dramatically different diversity plan without Regent knowledge or at least tacit approval. And yet the website material mentioned above makes it appear that Inclusive Excellence is an official UW System policy whether or not the Regents approved it. If that is the case, it represents a marked departure from the process employed in instituting the UW System’s two earlier diversity plans, Design for Diversity plan (1988-98) and its Plan 2008 (1998-2008).

Maybe I am missing something. Why weren’t the Regents asked to adopt Inclusive Excellence as a policy document? Did the Regents refuse to do so? Did UW System officials have some concern about how the Regents might react if Inclusive Excellence was proposed as official Regent policy? Did UW System officials want to take control from the Board of Regents of a new diversity policy with no fixed termination date and consequently much less accountability? Who knows?

Finally, if Inclusive Excellence is a plan, why is it composed of four quite disparate documents as indicated in the Agenda Materials? Most Regent policy documents are organized, coherent, polished statements. Perhaps the difficulty encountered by UW System officials in producing a suitable policy document accounts for the fact there is no real UW System plan.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to the comments by Downs and Canon. For more on my concerns about UW-Madison’s new diversity initiative, readers can go to my communications to campus officials in the months leading up to last May’s Faculty Senate meeting. 

2 thoughts on “UW Diversity Report– Is It Really Amazing?

  1. Professors Downs, Canon, and Hansen deserve credit for the thoughtful and measured way they assess this disturbing issue (the specter of assigning grades based on diversity criteria). From what they’ve written, it appears, however, that key UW individuals and bureaucracies nonetheless have put forward a specific policy without it having been formally adopted by the UW Regents.

    These mistakes [quoted below from the Downs-Canon and then Hansen statements] may be inadvertent, but this would not be the first time in academia that a set of policies running counter to the best traditions and purposes of the university nonetheless manage to embed themselves in the institution.

    Alumni, faculty, and all those who care about UW are unlikely to be reassured unless these provisions/expressions are withdrawn and both faculty and Regents clarify that these do not constitute UW policy.

    FROM Donald Downs and David Canon:
    “(Ironically, Professor Patrick Sims, Chief Diversity Officer and interim vice provost for Diversity and Climate, makes this same mistake in his post on the UW web site’s front page on July 22, saying that the Board of Regents adopted the ”inclusive excellence” framework).

    FROM: W. Lee Hansen: “Another related website “Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity, and Student Success,” refers to the UW System office with the same name, whose role is to provide “guidance to the Senior Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, the President of the UW System, and the Board of Regents, and UW System universities and colleges in the development of policies and procedures . . .”
    “These materials make it quite clear that Inclusive Excellence is the UW System’s approach to diversity. I should note that for several years a number of UW System campuses have been implementing their own Inclusive Excellence plans.
    “Reviewing these materials suggests that even if the Board of Regents did not adopt Inclusive Excellence, the UW System did and presumably without objection by the Regents.

    Robert J. Lieber (UW, Political Science, 1963)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.