Social Equity and the Re-Segregation of Higher Education

A Dubious Expediency: How Race Preferences Damage Higher Education (Encounter, May 2021) is a remarkable collection of seven essays about the pernicious spread of “social equity,” “diversity” and critical race theory in academia. This book is a must-read for those who would never read it: woke academicians, journalists, and policymakers who have no idea how close America is to losing its competitive edge in education, technology, and business.

To replace excellence with skin color or gender fluidity as the decisive factors in higher ed admissions, hiring, and promotion is to erode and discard merit-based standards. K-12 schools cancel advanced electives and proudly admit their goal is to stop the smarter, harder-working, and most focused students from getting ahead of those lacking similar capabilities. Colleges and graduate programs de-emphasize the tools and pedagogy that have made America the world’s leader in most of the sciences. Even the notion that there are correct answers to mathematical equations is shamed as “white supremist thought.”

Against six essays that delivered chilling, well-supported, and witty discussions of the rapid spread of diversity and social equity and the heavy casualties this invasion is taking, I found one essay particularly poignant and sad.

In Segregation Now, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow describes the re-segregation of higher education, as black students in major and elite universities choose to live, learn, and socialize in dormitories that bar white residents, destroying any hope for understanding.

Mr. Kirsanow’s essay resonated with me because of my experience growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s, and then attending Columbia University. I grew up in a middle-class white neighborhood. My public elementary school had about 1,000 students, about equally Jewish, Italian, and Irish. I don’t recall any Asians or Hispanics. Occasionally there were a few black students whose fathers were based at nearby Floyd Bennet Air Force Base.

My junior high school was much more integrated, and James Madison High School fully reflected Brooklyn’s ethnic diversity. I was succeeded as Madison’s student union president by its first black president. Unrelated, we had race riots in my senior year that made the cover The New York Times Magazine. The most interesting thing about our riots was that both sides took care not to smash our trophy cases.

I got my first taste of opposing race-based preferences at Madison. I had won a National Merit Scholarship and then applied for the additional financial award available only to black students. Though having the requisite test scores, I was rejected for not being black. Even in the heady post-Bakke period of 1973-1974, I could not find an attorney to accept my case.

Upon graduation, I decided to remain in New York and matriculated at Columbia. Proud of its liberalism, with professors such as Herbert Marcuse, Lionel Trilling, and Edward Said, Columbia also boasted what was probably the most active affirmative action program in the Ivy League.

My first year, I shared a dorm room with a Madison classmate. For my sophomore year, I selected Plimpton Hall. By random draw, my suitemates were four black students. All but one was considerably more affluent than me. We had very different backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.

To make things even more interesting, the previous year, I brought down an avalanche of vitriol when The Columbia Daily Spectator published my opinion article in opposition to affirmative action and made certain to identify me as a Columbia College white male. The later appellation was redundant inasmuch as Columbia College at that time admitted only men.

To its credit, The Spectator thereafter published “feedback” I wrote opposing the “vitriolic attacks of The Columbia Affirmative Action Coalition Against Racism and Sexism” against University Professor Walter Gellhorn and Columbia Law Professor Maurice Rosenburg. It seems, ahead of its time, the Coalition wanted to gag two of Columbia’s most renown professors for speaking their minds.

To make matters worse, after moving to Plimpton Hall, I continued in my wayward ways, not only writing more conservative opinion articles for Columbia Spectator, but then co-founding The Columbia Sundial. I used my pulpit to again oppose affirmative action and advocate for other conservative values. Suffice it to say I was controversial.

Meanwhile, back at Plimpton Hall, after some tentative beginnings, my suitemates and I began reaching out to learn about each other. They did not change my views and I did not change theirs. Yet, hundreds of hours of civil discourse created immense understanding of how and why we each thought as we did.

When a group of black students accosted me because of my views on affirmative action, my suitemates got together with their friends from the football team to make clear the error of their ways. Why did they protect me, when they completely disagreed with me?

The answer is important.

Though I have written in opposition to, and otherwise opposed, race-based affirmative action and its progeny since high school, and I find repulsive the accelerating descent into critical race theory and “woke-ism,” I do so as someone who believes in, and daily lives my belief in, a pluralistic society. I endorse programs to assist truly disadvantaged people. I do so to advance a merit-based multicultural society in which improper barriers to achieving our full potential are removed—but, never at the expense of those who excel, or for the goal of benefitting any race or ethnicity. I cherish the cultural differences that enrich us. Without those differences, what a boring monochromatic world this would be.

Because we lived together in the same suite, we got to know each other and our friends. We learned about each other and changed for the better. My suitemates and their friends defended me because they recognized that my views on race come from a strong objection to racial discrimination, not from animus.

The following year, we chose to remain together. Because I graduated from Columbia in three years, our two years together completed my college tenure.

Since then, I have interacted with people around the world. My friends and business colleagues are of all races, many religions, and no religion. My wife is Vietnamese (by today’s standard a “person of color,” though we both believe that recent appellation to have more to do with marginalizing whites than with empowering Asians). My closest friends include blacks, Latinos, Asians, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, and Jews. My business partners are white, black, Indian, Chinese, and Arab.

It might surprise the woke crowd that many of my Asian and black friends strongly oppose race-based preferences, social equity, and diversity. They are embarrassed and offended by the notion that they need preferences to succeed. I also have friends who don’t grasp how racism has become government policy, or how social equity harms those who it is supposed to help.

Diversity offers important benefits. But those benefits do not outweigh the ethical, constitutional, and practical harm of using skin color as a determinant of admissions, hiring, promotion, or funding. Coming back to Mr. Kirsanow’s essay, it is profoundly disturbing that race-based admissions programs that once found their justification in diversity now instead find their justification in “equity” and re-segregation. In other words, all of the harm with none of the mitigating benefits.

As difficult as it may be for me to get a hearing from my woke friends, it will be impossible to get a hearing or understanding if the races go to their separate corners. Segregated housing and separate lives cannot advance understanding, cultural pluralism, or meritocracy.

When I grew up, the goal was desegregation, and merit-based, color-blind admissions, hiring, and promotion. We sought to celebrate and learn from our differences, while optimizing our meritocracy and human rights. What is being advocated today by our Administration and too many in the media, academia, and business is inconsistent with everything America has strived to be, and if allowed to fester, will destroy both American exceptionalism and pluralism.


Image: Unseen Histories, Public Domain

Kenin M. Spivak

Kenin M. Spivak, a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank. Spivak was chairman of two publishers and of the Editorial Board of the Knowledge Exchange Business Encyclopedia. He received an A.B., M.B.A., and J.D. from Columbia University.

2 thoughts on “Social Equity and the Re-Segregation of Higher Education

  1. If we consider things from the perspective of the competitiveness of nations, none of this bodes well for the United States.

    China’s hegemonic intentions are well noted in political science circles. They don’t bother themselves with these kinds of social justice topics in their education system. Since 2017 China has outpace the US in scientific publications. I have no doubt our increasingly technological globe will be led by the countries with the strongest scientists.

    China also has far more women in STEM as a percentage of their population. This is mainly attributable to the economic freedom US women have to chose less remunerative careers. It’s not a matter of talent. Plenty of women can be strong scientists. It’s just that fewer of them choose STEM relative to men. Lowering the bar for STEM students of the preferred gender persuasion to increase diversity doesn’t improve the talent pool.

    Of course the US competitive decline will be slow, so like the proverbial frog in the pot, we won’t know it until it’s too late.

  2. Affirmative action admissions are pervasive, which explains why over the past few years the quality of students has steadily decreased. You can only accept mediocrity for so long before the population of students capable of doing serious academic work is no longer viable. I believe this is one reason for the growth in absurd courses (e.g., The Sociology of Miley Cyrus at Skidmore College) or the explosion of grievance studies “majors”. These pseudo-academic offerings cater to students unprepared to study classic literature, the sciences, logic, or foreign languages. After all, the transcript has to show credits in something for all of that tuition money being paid.

    Fortunately affirmative action admits have not seriously invaded the engineering fields. Pseudo-academic course credits can’t apply towards a degree in those fields. Moreover, shortly after admission you have to demonstrate a mastery of calculus and basic physics or you quickly run out of any courses to take. That said, there are troubling clouds on the horizon. The push to get more girls into engineering majors—and keep them there once admitted—is reaching a fever pitch. Hopefully these initiatives will fail because the only way they can be successful is by lowering standards.

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