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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

An inconvenient truth: Diversity Hurts Higher Education

One of the stories that flew past the radar this month was the Boston Globe article entitled the "Downside of Diversity" by Michael Jonas. The stunning finding that it reported has had a few weeks to rattle around the blogosphere. It was a shocker:

A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth? -- IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The related issue about the value of diversity in higher education was raised today by Prof. KC Johnson's profile of Duke Group of 88 member, Prof. William Chafe. Prof. Johnson's post made these observations regarding academic diversity:
William Chafe is Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, where his scholarship, as his website states, “reflects his long-term interest in issue of race and gender equality.” He specializes in U.S. history after World War II, with a particular focus on African-Americans, women, or radical whites [...]

In a 2002 address, he explained his strategy to faculty personnel matters: “There has remained a tendency to think of Duke as a place of wealth, whiteness and privilege. We aim to change that.” The Chronicle added that “Chafe said faculty diversity is still lacking, and that the University must continue to seek new ways to attract women and minorities.” [...]

Chafe’s policies drew strong praise from the expected quarters. His associate dean, future Group stalwart Karla Holloway, gushed later that Chafe “managed, urged and encouraged institutional change around the issues of diversity.” (The diversity of which Holloway spoke, of course, did not include intellectual or pedagogical diversity, in which neither she nor Chafe have shown any interest.) [...]

Elite schools normally have placed academic excellence, not “diversity,” as their primary goal in hiring, as Economics professor Roy Weintraub pointed out at the time[...] Duke makes choices at the margin in every resource allocation decision and every programmatic expenditure. Have we chosen to settle for using our resources to achieve a more diverse faculty instead of a more intellectually distinguished one? The record of the past decade seems to indicate that the answer is ‘yes.’”

Chafe dismissed the concern, glibly suggesting that “diversity enhances our quality rather than diminishes it.” But Chafe—like extreme “diversity” advocates more generally—eluded Weintraub’s point [...]

Critics from outside the academy often suggest that “diversity” leads to the hiring and retention of under-qualified minority candidates. There are, of course, a few examples of the pattern among the Group of 88—take, for instance, Wahneema Lubiano (Ph.D. 1987, no scholarly monographs published) or Thavolia Glymph (Ph.D. 1994, no scholarly monographs published). [...]

Duke also has a highly unusual policy requiring the provost, “in the event the AP&T Committee’s recommendation is negative . . . to determine whether all factors relating to the merit and value of the candidate, including ethnic, racial, and gender diversity, have been fully and adequately considered.” [emphasis added]

That said, it’s illegal to openly restrict the applicant pool by advertising that no white males (or, in some cases, white females as well) need apply[...]

if a “diversity” dean wants more African-American female professors, he more likely can achieve his goal through green-lighting new positions in African-American cultural studies than by granting the Economics Department a new line to hire a specialist in high finance—again because the applicant pool for the former slot will likely contain a disproportionate share of African-American females [...]
The part about a "diversity" dean would have been considered funny once upon a time. But, after watching the diversity enabled Duke Group of 88, attack, vilify, and academically injure their own students, the word diversity now makes us flinch as if a dark dangerous shadow swept over us.

If diversity hurts civic life, then it seems logical that it could also hurt academic life, especially in the extreme. It's been said, "job security tends to corrupt, and tenure corrupts absolutely." Tenured diversity looks like the extreme that fostered Duke's tenured and corrupt G88 vigilantes.

The Duke lacrosse scandal and the diversity fueled and fed Group of 88 and its rabid supporters is solid proof of the inconvenient truth that too much academic diversity hurts the academy. Duke is a much poorer institution for diversifying to a point where a Group of 88 could stage a putsch and drag the whole university down the toilet.

Assorted reactions to "The Downside of Diversity"/Putnam study:

Rick Garnett / PrawfsBlaw -- I came away from the article wondering if Putnam's study provides some support for my intuition that some non-"diverse" institutions (e.g., some religious universities) are important in pluralist societies precisely because of their non-"diversity." What can we learn from this study, or what should this study make us want to know, about what Paul Horwitz calls "First Amendment institutions" (like universities, etc.).

Prof. C.N. Le / Asian-Nation.org -- as an academic myself and given the descriptions of his credentials, I will presume for now that Prof. Putnam’s study is indeed methodologically sound and that its results are scientifically valid. The question then becomes, what do they mean?

After reading the Boston Globe article and after getting over the initial shock of it, I sat back and reflected on what it means for American society in general and me in particular as one of many who has sincerely believed all along that cultural diversity does indeed produce more benefits than costs for American society.

In trying to understand and explain these findings, one quote kept coming to mind and struck me as a profound rebuttal to the study’s results -- Audre Lourde’s famous quote “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

In other words, as applied to this particular study, I think part of the answer to the question of how would diversity harm American society is to say that the respondents in this study may not have been reacting to high levels of racial/ethnic diversity per se, but rather, to the political and social climate that have and continue to frame such demographic changes.

OrthodoxyToday.org Blog -- The study is part of a fascinating new portrait of diversity emerging from recent scholarship. Diversity, it shows, makes us uncomfortable — but discomfort, it turns out, isn’t always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches. At the same time, though, Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.

Charles P. Nelson / Explorations in Learning blog -- These are serious findings. Diversity is important for creativitiy and learning. At the same time, it creates friction and distrust. As noted in the post Multiculturalism and Prejudice, promoting multiculturalism has a side effect of increasing prejudice for some people. Somehow, while maintaining respect for all cultures, we, our schools, and our communities need to emphasize and teach what we have in common instead of our differences.

Stephen Downes / Stephen's Web blog -- The proposal that diversity results in less civic engagement - reported here, from a (very biased) Boston.com story (on a site that blocks access after four pages) - sounds dire, but should be discounted. The conclusion is obtained, not by actually measuring civic engagements in diverse cities (such as, say, Toronto) but rather by surveying people. So now we know that Americans think that diversity in their community would reduce civic engagement. But we knew that already. Here's a more interesting proposal: diversity in a community results in less of an emphasis on collaboration (a group phenomenon) and more of an emphasis on cooperation (a network phenomenon). So you might get, say, less voting and charity work, but more political activism and community networking.

Whitney Tilson's School Reform Blog
-- These are some very interesting (and troubling) findings. I wonder what the same analysis would show about the impact of diversity in school settings? If all other variables were held constant (a rarity, to be sure), might schools with little or no diversity yield better educational outcomes? It seems heretical to even ask the question, but it's important to think about because many of our schools are de facto segregated and some (like Jonathan Kozol) feel a huge effort should be made to desegrate them (somehow), while others (like me) view the segregation as unfortunate but largely inevitable and that efforts would be better made to improve the schools as they are. I've visited roughly two dozen KIPPs nationwide and recall only two that had even a single white student, yet that isn't preventing the minority children from achieving at extraordinarily high levels.