The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Updating Our Diversity Paradigm

lady justice weighing different values

Over the past few decades, academic institutions have strived to create more diverse student bodies. While certainly a commendable aim, many of these efforts have not been motivated not by genuine concern for social progress, but rather by the need to improve optics in our increasingly dogmatic political climate. To achieve diversity and the social prestige that comes along with it, institutions of higher education have devalued the principles of merit, racial equality, and freedom of expression. In its ideal form, diversity enriches life experiences and can drive the advancement of technology. But current initiatives to increase diversity are unsustainable and dangerous when they cast aside common sets of principles that are essential for creating healthy multicultural communities. 

Is pursuing diversity a bad thing? Of course not. The melting pot of America has led to innovation, collaboration, and a rich cultural tapestry, and this diversity is what makes our nation so exceptional. During the civil rights movement, community desegregation was a key step to achieving a more equitable society, and diversifying our elite universities is seen as a natural extension to our journey toward social justice. But, while there are real parallels between progressive initiatives today and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, their ideological connection often gives people a level of naivety—or oftentimes, dishonesty—about the reality of creating successful multicultural communities.  

Studying the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE,  reveals the upsides and downsides to diversity. Its position in the Mediterranean Basin facilitated the interaction of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and later the Romans, Persians, and Arabs. This collaboration between cultures drove intellectual achievement and innovation via the exchange of ideas and traditions that culminated in the Library of Alexandria, where scholars could furiously debate and pursue new knowledge. Sadly, the cohabitation of these peoples eventually led to growing religious and cultural tensions that manifested as social distrust and ultimately caused societal decline. 

In America today, research has also confirmed that diversity comes with challenges. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam studied diverse communities in a 2007 paper and documented that more diverse communities have higher levels of crime and poverty, lower levels of education and home ownership, and elevated levels of both inter and intra-racial distrust. When diverse groups don’t feel unified, differences come with distrust, and distrust brings discord and a breakdown of social cohesion.

According to Putnum, the key to fostering unity in diversity is by “creating a new, capacious sense of ‘we.’” In heterogeneous communities, we need to cultivate a new, shared identity on top of our diverse backgrounds. But, that doesn’t magically happen; a shared identity is built on a common set of values and principles—the same values and principles that, ironically, universities often throw out in their attempts to become more inclusive. 

The widespread implementation of affirmative action, for example, has degraded merit and injected racial discrimination into the admissions process. In the petition just reviewed by the Supreme Court, Harvard admission rates revealed discrimination aimed against Asian and white applicants.

These disparities are far from statistically insignificant.  It’s honorable that academic institutions are trying to recruit those whom they have historically ignored, but we cannot try to remedy past discrimination with current discrimination, as critical race theorists like Ibram X. Kendi insist. This practice is divisive, hurts the future of those that it discriminates against, and is in fact in direct violation of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states:

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

There’s also significant evidence that such policies actually hurt, rather than help, minority students who are supposed to benefit. In 2012, Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA, and Stuart Taylor Jr., a legal journalist, wrote a book exploring the “Mismatch Theory.” They argue that: “Large preferences often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively—even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools.” Moreover, affirmative action policies “often stigmatize minorities, reinforce pernicious stereotypes, and undermine the self-confidence of beneficiaries.”

To an elite institution that wants to improve its public image, it can seem like a good idea to compromise merit in order to artificially balance out their demographics. But doing so will decrease the academic quality of their student bodies while simultaneously ignoring the root causes of racial disparities in academic performance. As affirmative action gets overturned, it’s crucial that colleges should look toward  ways to pursue diversity beyond lowering academic standards and considering race—such as putting more money toward financial aid or exploring wealth-based preferences—which don’t compromise our core values. 

Academic freedom has also drastically deteriorated in an attempt to become more inclusive. This past March, a lecture hosted by the Federalist Society featuring judge Kyle Duncan was shut down by disrupting students; their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dean interrupted the speech to offer her support to those offended by Duncan’s supposedly harmful actions. Distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Wax, is currently at risk of receiving sanctions or being removed from her post altogether for criticizing Affirmative Action. FIRE, “a student network dedicated to promoting free speech”, has found that 660 of 1118 recorded sanction attempts since 2000 pertained to race, gender, sexuality, and immigration. 

Free thought and expression was once a core value and principle which different backgrounds can unite over; now, under the current paradigm, it’s seen as mutually exclusive from being a diverse community. Free thought and expression is, however, a prerequisite to living in a diverse community, and we are abandoning it at our own peril.

Since childhood, I’ve attended over 20 conferences related to the Baha’i Faith. The Faith is practiced by people from across 200 countries, and these conferences bring together individuals of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds to study together harmoniously. Our shared principles— like the belief in a single human family and emphasis on the independent investigation of truth—  allow us to have rich dialogue about the word of God without cultural division. 

I don’t expect students to undergo a  mass conversion to my religion, but college campuses should seek to create a culture that unifies diverse individuals along shared values and principles. These shared ideals should include the equal moral value of all individuals, an emphasis on merit, and a commitment to the free exchange of ideas for professors and students. If everyone subscribed to these values during controversial discussions or lectures, the disunity arising from these discussions would melt away. Discord could instead be replaced with the more genuine truth revealed when ideas are interrogated rigorously. Giving intellectual charity to those we disagree with is not a kowtow to bigotry but instead an exercise of the golden rule. 

Continuing to pursue inclusivity while sacrificing our other values will continue to pervert and corrupt higher education. However, if universities reemphasize meritocratic standards and shared values among their students, their student bodies can continue expanding the knowledge frontier as a united whole in spite of individual and group differences.

Caleb Nunes is a student a Northwestern University. You can read more of his work at the The Daily Northwestern.

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