Shaun Harper Has a Plan to Save DEI. It Includes Eradicating Dissenters.

Shaun Harper, a Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and Provost Professor of Education and Business, was recently featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Can Shaun Harper Save DEI?” As a recent USC retiree, I read the article and reviewed materials from the USC Race and Equity Center, which Harper directs. The materials included a recording of a forum last summer where he discussed institutional responses to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in favor of the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Given my support for the Court’s decision, I was particularly interested in Harper’s response, in which he suggested 13 action points to attract underrepresented groups to universities.

About half of Harper’s suggestions are sensible and noncontroversial, effectively boilerplate, despite my frequent disagreements with his assumptions and rationales. We can reach the same conclusions for different reasons. However, the other half of his suggestions need more sensibility. I will skip Harper’s 14th (bonus) point; his invitation to donate to his organization at the end of the video (57:21)—he goes off track there. However, I share his concern about legislatures intruding on public university curricula, which sets a terrible precedent.

Here are the points Prof. Harper offers on which he and I agree. USC and any institution should take all these steps if we intend to attract and hold the attention of prospective students and faculty from under-represented groups.  These are listed in the order in which Prof. Harper addresses them in his video:

  1.   “Consistently communicate and demonstrate commitment.” (24:10)
  1.   “Develop an institutional strategy.” (27:50)
  1.    “Pursue solutions internally and in collaboration with peer institutions.” (30:10)
  1.   “Read full [the Court’s] opinion, resist overreach and misinterpretation.” (33:01)
  1.   “Avoid raceless marketing techniques.” (51:05)
  1.   “Drop out the U.S. News & World Report rankings.” (40:57)
  1.   “Publicly and continuously communicate the impact.” (of the SCOTUS ruling). (54:16)

I strongly agree with item 6. There are many reasons for universities to skip what has become a pathetic annual ritual for schools. These rankings have become a circus, and the results are not trustworthy. The data steps for generating these rankings are also a corrupting influence. Some USC schools have even manipulated the data they submit to U.S. News & World Report surveys, including, at one point, my own (Engineering) and Prof. Harper’s (Education).

While I always look for common ground first, I have reservations about several of the remaining responses Prof. Harper calls out. First, his call to “Triangulate legal counsel.” (34:10)

Prof. Harper doesn’t like receiving legal advice he doesn’t like. He is inclined to shop for external attorneys whose advice he does like, even if the advice he does not like has come from within his institution, e.g., the USC Office of the University Counsel.

USC has a rather excellent University Counsel, which I have not said for years. I am pleased to say it now. None of us, including Prof. Harper, should be anxious to subvert the office.

Prof. Harper is likely taking a cue from USC President Carol Folt, who requires USC to continue contracting for some services from a business litigation attorney who served as the University of North Carolina’s General Counsel when Folt served as President of UNC.  I offer her the same advice.  At this point, USC’s General Counsel has the better track record.

Second, his call to “Discontinue use of standardized entrance exams.” (37:56)

Professor Harper seems to believe that standardized tests are useless for admissions decisions. However, despite their imperfections, these tests provide valuable information. During the pandemic, USC’s central administration wanted to eliminate standardized tests permanently. They would have done so if they thought it possible. This should not happen, and the faculty at USC, who have the most critical voice in this matter, should oppose it.

In his presentation (40:50), Prof. Harper suggests imagining admissions without standardized test scores. This perspective is valid only if test scores measure nothing or very little, or if test scores are reliable enough to constrain admissions decisions based on identity.

While test scores only measure specific aspects of an applicant, they are valid and reliable enough to aid in rational admissions decisions. I have considered Prof. Harper’s thought experiment and concluded that eliminating standardized tests would obscure essential truths. We should not abandon them.

Third, his call to “Invest more resources and strategy into college preparatory partnerships.” (42:55)

Colleges and universities cannot repair the broken pipeline to the degree that Prof. Harper implies is feasible, but this should not preclude these sorts of programs.  Helping underserved populations of college-bound students is a form of virtue signaling that I can get behind, even if the problem is too significant to be solved by individual institutions or even consortia. We want USC’s many clients to see it as a virtuous place.

Unfortunately, this brings us to another inconvenient truth.  Public schools are failing for many reasons.  Teachers’ unions make the public school model unsalvageable.  If we are serious and compassionate about helping those who need it the most, public authorities should fund households instead of schools and let schools compete for students.  School choice and school vouchers are the only remedies with any promise.  The enormous political implications hold us back because the clout of teachers’ unions has become so outsized.

Fourth, his suggestion to “Do what big-time football and men’s basketball coaches do [concerning recruiting].” (44:55)

Such a strategy might be feasible, but decision-makers must examine costs and benefits beforehand.  Outreach can be effective, but there is always the matter of how much to spend and clearly understanding why you are spending it. Given USC’s recent coaching hires, the institution might need to weigh the costs and benefits of athletics better.  Cost-effective choices are no simpler in the academic sphere.

Fifth, his call for “Race-conscious professional learning experiences for admission officers.” (48:30)

The question that gives pause is, “Who trains the trainers?” Most trainers in this area have a disciplinary background in education, and I am suspect of what Schools of Education have become and how much they can contribute to the intellectual life of universities.

And lastly, there is Prof. Harper’s closing point, “Address mindsets that undermine student and faculty diversity.” (55:47)

This advice was fascinating and quite a punchline for his presentation, with Prof. Harper reporting (55:53) that it is essential to address the “mindsets that undermine student and faculty diversity,” such as the mindset of a hypothetical (56:15) “faculty member who don’t want no black people on the faculty in the department, or who doesn’t want black students or Indigenous students or who believes that all of those students are unqualified or, you know, otherwise deficit.” Prof. Harper hopes to “create through a professional learning curriculum experiences that will help reveal those mindsets, trouble those mindsets, and ultimately correct them and eradicate them.”

Unfortunately, he relies on a straw man to illuminate the case for his work. I have never knowingly met anyone who is a member of the set of faculty or students Prof. Harper refers to. 

In 36 years as a faculty member at Northwestern and mostly USC, I encountered only a single, overtly sexist faculty colleague who thought women had no business in his discipline (engineering). Still, in due course, he figured out how the world is organized and adjusted his thinking and actions. I have never had any other colleague express that they wanted to exclude anyone from joining USC based on group identity. Anything anyone has said about the relevance of race or gender in hiring or admissions decisions always supports the prospect of connecting our fields to members of underrepresented groups whenever feasible.

For some years following 9/11, USC became the most international institution in the U.S. because New York University lost ground. USC faculty members sometimes complained about our expanded international student population’s English as a Second Language (ESL) skills. Still, even this level of ethnocentrism is essentially a thing of the past. Perhaps the students got better, or we did. 

Faculty members want to stand at the podium in front of the best students we can get. Phenotypes and gender are not a concern for any teacher who values the quality of their classroom experience. Faculty members must make quality comparisons and judgments all of the time. It is part of the work, but quality comparisons can be, are, and, in my experience, should be identity group neutral.

It is unclear to me whose mindsets Prof. Harper wants to “trouble, and ultimately correct, and eradicate.” However, I cannot help but suspect that he means anyone who disagrees with his position concerning the importance of race. 

Image by Mishimoto88 — Wikimedia Commons 


  • James E. Moore, II

    James E. Moore, II is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California, where he was appointed in the Price School of Public Policy, the Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and the Epstein Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering. He served as founding director of the Transportation Engineering program, director of the Systems Architecting & Engineering program, department chair, vice dean for Academic Programs, and chair of the Engineering Faculty Council for four terms.

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2 thoughts on “Shaun Harper Has a Plan to Save DEI. It Includes Eradicating Dissenters.

  1. Thank you for this. In 20 years of teaching in the most diverse, woke part of the nation at a college that is 95% leftwing and refuses to hear alternative views, I have never met any teacher who had such putative dinosaur attitudes to race or gender. Harper billed my institution incredibly high fees for terrible data and is a huckster, charmer and I hate to admit it, a danger. Hist USC institute is a payback institution, funneling money to poc with no interest in students of color.

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